A number of people have dry skin. It happens when the skin does not have all the water or naturally occurring oils it needs to maintain itself and remain soft and supple.

This article outlines some of the common causes of dry skin, including the environment and health conditions. It also looks at how people can prevent and treat dry skin.

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To stay healthy and do its job, the skin needs water and naturally occurring oils to keep it soft, supple, and stretchy. Without moisture and oils, skin can dry out.

The skin is the body’s first line of defense. It stops harmful microorganisms, such as viruses and bacteria, from getting into the body. It also protects people from the environment.

Symptoms range from mild to severe. They may include:

  • patches of itchy or scaly skin
  • flaky skin with a rough texture
  • cracks in the skin
  • skin that stings or burns
  • loose, wrinkled skin
  • peeling skin

Mild cases of dry skin are very common. Usually, they are not a cause for concern. Sometimes, more serious cases of dry skin might need medical treatment.

According to the American Academy of Dermatology Association (AAD), some people are more at risk of dry skin. They include:

  • people over 40 — as people get older, their skin makes less oil
  • people with brown, black, or fair skin
  • people with jobs that mean their hands are in water a lot, such as nurses and hairdressers
  • people who live in cold climates
  • people who smoke

Many different things can cause dry skin, including environmental causes and certain health conditions.

Environmental causes of dry skin include:

  • using harsh deodorants or cleaning products
  • taking long, hot showers or baths
  • living in cold, dry conditions
  • using heat sources, such as central heating or wood-burning stoves, that dry out the air

Sometimes, dry skin can be a result of underlying health conditions. Below are some of the common ones.


The body uses water to perform many of its essential processes and functions. If people use more water than they take in, they can become dehydrated. This affects the whole body and can cause dry skin.

A person can prevent becoming dehydrated by drinking enough water every day.


Eczema describes a group of skin conditions that cause itchy, inflamed, dry skin. These conditions include atopic dermatitis, contact dermatitis, dyshidrotic eczema, nummular eczema, seborrheic dermatitis, and stasis dermatitis.

More than 31 million people in the United States have a form of eczema.


When a person has diabetes, their body cannot properly regulate the amount of sugar in the blood. Their blood sugar levels might be too high or too low.

High blood sugar levels can cause dry, itchy skin.

Kidney disease

The kidneys perform many functions. One of them is to remove waste and excess fluid from the body.

When the kidneys do not work properly, the body may not be able to maintain the right balance of minerals, nutrients, and water in the blood. People with kidney disease tend to urinate more than usual.

All this reduces the amount of fluids inside the body and can lead to dry skin.


People living with the eating disorder anorexia restrict their food intake. This can lead to malnutrition, which in turn may cause dry skin.


People living with HIV are more likely to have dry skin than those who do not have the virus. Scientists have shown that this might be due to a number of reasons:

  • the way the virus affects the immune system
  • the person not eating enough
  • a medication side effect


Some medicines can affect the balance of fluids in the body and lead to dry skin. They include:

Dry skin does not usually signal an underlying medical condition. Most cases are treatable with either self-care or medical assistance.

If left untreated, dry skin may lead to the following complications:


When dry skin cracks, harmful microorganisms, such as bacteria and viruses, can get into the body. This may lead to infections.

Permanent changes to the skin

In the long run, lots of scratching can lead to permanent changes to the skin, such as:

  • thickened patches
  • permanent itching
  • discoloration

Many cases of dry skin resolve with drinking plenty of water and using moisturizer regularly.

The AAD recommend using a cream or ointment throughout the day to relieve dry skin. Cream and ointments tend to be more effective than lotions.

Ingredients to look for include:

  • jojoba oil
  • dimethicone
  • glycerin
  • hyaluronic acid
  • lactic acid
  • lanolin
  • mineral oil
  • petrolatum
  • shea butter

A doctor will usually prescribe treatments for people with skin conditions, such as eczema.

When an underlying health condition, such as diabetes or anorexia, causes dry skin, doctors will work with the person to get the condition under control.

When dry skin is a side effect of a medication, it will usually go away when the person stops taking the drug. However, people should not stop taking prescription medicines without consulting their doctor first.

There are numerous things people can do to avoid developing dry skin. These include:

  • washing in warm, not hot, water
  • staying in the bath or shower for no more than 10 minutes
  • using only gentle, fragrance-free cleaning products
  • patting, not rubbing, the skin dry after washing
  • applying plenty of moisturizer immediately after drying the skin
  • avoiding sitting or standing close to heat sources, such as fireplaces
  • drinking plenty of water

If the tips above do not help or the dry skin starts to interfere with daily life, the person should seek guidance from a doctor.

The doctor will be able to assess the skin and recommend the most suitable treatment.

Dry skin is a common health complaint. It happens when the skin does not get the moisture or oils it needs to maintain itself. Dry skin might be red, scaly, itchy, or even painful.

Environmental factors, such as cold weather or dry air, can cause dry skin. It may also be due to health conditions, including eczema, dehydration, and diabetes.

People can resolve most cases of dry skin by taking simple steps, such as using moisturizer. Sometimes, however, people might need prescription-strength medication.

People should contact a doctor if they find that their dry skin does not get better with home treatment or interferes with their everyday life.