Our skin is made up of 3 layers: the epidermis (the outer layer), the dermis (the middle layer) and the hypodermis (the deepest layer).
The epidermis is made up of proteins and lipids (fats and oils). Lipids help the epidermis retain moisture, preventing cellular dehydration.
When the skin does not have enough lipids, it loses its moisture more easily and may result in dry skin (also called xerosis). If left untreated, dry skin can become overly sensitive and may even develop redness or rashes (known as xerodermatitis).
While men and women are equally affected by dry skin, the elderly are more prone. As we age, our skin becomes more prone to dryness due to the decreased amount of lipids in the skin as a result of the aging process.
What are the Symptoms?
The common symptoms of dry skin are skin tightness and itching, and appear most commonly on the lower legs, arms, torso and hands. Sometimes dry skin will appear as reddened patches on the skin, or as fine skin bumps.
‘Scratching the itch’ may provide temporary relief, but it can exacerbate the problem and cause skin breakdown as well as the tormenting ‘itch/scratch’ cycle (when scratching the itch makes the area even itchier, requiring more frequent scratching).
What Causes Dry Skin?
Dry skin is brought on by external causes or internal causes, or a combination of both:
The humidity of the air: Dryness of the skin is affected by the amount of water vapor in the surrounding air, the humidity.
The weather: cold air or winter weather can aggravate dry skin as a result of the lower moisture content in cold air. Also, in cold weather, the use of central heating can cause dry skin since this air is usually drier than usual.
Frequent hand washing and the use of hand sanitizers: If you work in an occupation that requires frequent hand washing or the use of hand sanitizers, you likely experience dry hands many times a day.
The temperature of your bath or shower water: if you bathe in water that is too hot, the hot water could excessively strip your skin of its natural oils.
Medications: some medications can cause dry skin, such as acne medications, blood pressure medications and antihistamines. Speak to your prescribing physician if you have concerns about your medications and their side effects. If the medication is of the over-the-counter variety, speak to your pharmacist.
Hydration level: if you are not taking in enough water, your skin may be showing it through symptoms of dry skin. Our skin cells need water, from the inside, to support lipid production (see “What is dry skin”, above).
Your skin needs approximately thirty days of consistent and sufficient water intake before you will start to see improvements in its hydration. Bonus: properly hydrated skin may also give your skin a more glowing appearance, a smoother texture and increased plumpness.
Medical conditions: Hypothyroidism, liver disease, diabetes and malnutrition can cause symptoms of dry skin. Please consult with your physician, as these conditions and their side effects should be managed by a licensed medical practitioner.
If you believe the cause of your dry skin is due to external causes, you can likely find relief quickly:
- Lower your bathing water temperature and limit your showers or baths to 5-10 minutes in length.
- Immediately after (gently) patting dry your skin after washing, apply non-allergenic creams and lotions,
- If you have central heat, consider slightly lowering the thermostat temperature. Also, increase the humidity in your home by using a humidifier. Most humidifiers come with digital controls that allow you to set the recommended humidity level.
If your dry skin is a result of – either in part or in whole – by internal causes, relief is very possible but may take some time and will require patience.
Make sure you drinking enough water, and if the causes may be due to medications or medical conditions, work with your physician on finding a successful treatment for your dry skin.
Q: What is the best way to treat dry skin?
A: Be nice to your skin! Use lotions and creams, don’t wash with harsh soaps or detergents, make sure the water temperature is warm but not hot.
Q: What is a good substitute if I don’t have lotions or creams?
A: Look to your kitchen! Cooking oils make great moisturizers! If you have lighter oils such as grape seed oil, avocado oil or safflower oil, these are most suitable for quick absorption as they are small molecule fats.
Q: After cleansing, how should my skin feel?
A: Your skin should feel soft, healthy and refreshed after cleansing, not tight or itchy. You might want to use a gentle facial cleanser with added moisturizers, especially if you have dry skin on your face. You may want to change cleansers if your current brand is causing your skin to become dry.
Q: Should I use sponges, clothes or scrub products on my face? Will this help my dry skin?
A: No. Being too aggressive with your skin can cause excessive friction, which can irritate and even inflame your skin. Treat your skin nicely!
Q: What kind of moisturizer is best to treat dry skin?
A: Perfume-free and hypoallergenic (preferably). Make sure the moisturizer is thick enough to treat your dry skin: runny creams and lotions will not provide the level of moisture needed to treat dry skin effectively. Give it the ‘run’ test: if it drips down your hand after dispensing it from the container, it’s not thick enough!