Dry skin is a common problem during the winter months, when the skin is exposed to colder temperatures and lower levels of moisture in the air. In these cases, using moisturizer is often enough to soothe and eliminate dry skin patches.
However, some people experience chronic, or long-lasting, dry skin. This can indicate an underlying medical condition that would benefit from treatment.
In this article, we describe some common medical conditions and other factors that can cause dry skin and how to deal with them.
Causes of dry skin patches
The skin can become dry, scaly, or flaky for many everyday reasons, such as being exposed to chemicals in soaps or harsh, windy weather.
Other causes of dry skin include:
In many cases, a person can alleviate the symptom by applying the right lotion to the affected area regularly and avoiding cleaning and personal care products that contain harsh chemicals.
In some cases, however, dry skin patches require specific treatment.
Skin conditions can become worse in cold weather, including dermatitis, which broadly refers to any condition that causes skin inflammation. There are many types of dermatitis.
The following skin conditions can cause patches of dry skin:
Image credit: Digitalgadget, 2007.
This type of dermatitis usually results from contact with an allergen, such as poison ivy or animal dander. Also, some laundry detergents can trigger an allergic reaction.
Contact dermatitis usually clears up on its own.
People can prevent further reactions by identifying what had triggered the dermatitis and by avoiding it in the future.
Contact dermatitis occurs on the area of skin that came into contact with the allergen. This means that it can affect any part of the body. It is common in exposed areas, such as the hands and face.
Symptoms of contact dermatitis include:
- dry, red, or scaly patches of skin
- an itching or burning sensation on the affected areas
- open or leaking blisters
Image credit: G.steph.rocket, 2015.
Atopic dermatitis, or eczema, is a chronic skin disease that mainly affects children. The exact cause remains unclear, but genetic and environmental factors play significant roles.
The symptoms of atopic dermatitis usually appear on the cheeks, arms, and legs.
Some symptoms include:
- dry, irritated skin
- scaly skin
- a rash
- cracked skin behind the ears
Image credit: Amras666, 2008.
Seborrheic dermatitis is a skin condition that occurs when the sebaceous glands produce too much oil. It typically causes patches of white, crusty flakes on the scalp, face, chest, and back.
When the condition affects infants, it is called cradle cap.
Other symptoms of seborrheic dermatitis include:
- thin, white or yellow scales
- oily or greasy patches of skin
- red patches of skin
Image credit: Skoch3, 2012.
Ichthyosis a term that refers to a group of genetic skin disorders that cause dry, scaly skin.
Most forms are extremely rare, and 95 percent of the people affected develop the mildest form: ichthyosis vulgaris.
People usually develop it as children, but some adults get acquired ichthyosis vulgaris.
The condition usually appears on the legs, but can also affect the hands, arms, and the trunk of the body.
Symptoms of ichthyosis vulgaris include:
- dry, itchy, and flaky skin
- scaling skin
- mild thickening of the skin
Image credit: Psoriasis-Netz, 2016.
Psoriasis is a common autoimmune disorder that affects the skin. According to the National Psoriasis Foundation, 125 million people worldwide have the condition.
Doctors are unsure of the exact cause, but it relates to genetics and the immune system.
Psoriasis can affect the entire body, but some common sites of psoriatic activity include the:
- palms of the hands
- soles of the feet
- lower back
Symptoms of psoriasis include:
- dry, red, or scaly patches of skin
- itchy or painful patches of skin
- peeling skin
- discoloration of fingernails and toenails
A doctor can often diagnose the cause of dry skin patches by examining them, taking a person's medical history, and asking about risk factors and any skin conditions that run in the family.
If a physician suspects that the issue results from an underlying medical condition, they will likely refer the individual to a dermatologist, a doctor who specializes in skin disorders.
A dermatologist will review the person's medical history and symptoms and order laboratory tests, such as skin biopsies, to help with a diagnosis.
Using gentle exfoliators may help treat dry patches of skin.
There are many ways to treat dry skin. This section will cover home remedies and medications.
Home remedies for dry skin include:
- exfoliating with a loofah, pumice stone, or scrub to remove dead skin cells, if a doctor recommends it
- applying ointment or cream regularly, ideally using products that contain humectants, ceramides, or emollients
- using a humidifier to add moisture to the air
- applying a cold compress to the affected area
- adding baby oil to warm bath water or applying it when the skin is damp after a shower
- using warm instead of hot water when showering or bathing
- gently patting the skin dry with a towel
Prescription medicines for treating severe dry skin include:
- topical medications, including creams, that contain alpha hydroxy acids or retinoids
- steroids, including hydrocortisone
- topical antiseptics
Dry skin is usually not a serious health issue. However, chronic or persistent dry skin can indicate an underlying health condition, such as dermatitis, psoriasis, or allergies.
Speak to a doctor determine the cause of dry skin patches. They will be able to recommend the best treatment for each individual.