Eczema and dry skin may look similar on the surface, but the conditions have several key differences. Eczema likely has a genetic or immune component, while dry skin is more likely related to a person’s environment.

Both conditions are relatively common, and many people with mild eczema may assume they have dry skin.

People can typically manage eczema and dry skin at home. However, while home remedies and creams can usually resolve dry skin, eczema may require medical intervention.

Read on to learn about the differences between eczema and dry skin, their causes, how to treat them, and when to contact a doctor.

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Eczema is an inflammatory skin condition that causes itchiness, dryness, rashes, scaly patches, blisters, and potentially, infection. Atopic dermatitis is the most common type of eczema, and people often use the names interchangeably.

Other types of eczema include contact dermatitis, dyshidrotic eczema, nummular eczema, seborrheic dermatitis, and stasis dermatitis.

In people with eczema, their skin does not effectively retain water, leading to skin dryness. The condition is more common in children but can also affect adults.

Eczema and dry skin may both cause itchiness and flakiness, making it difficult for a person to tell which condition they have. However, there are some key differences between the two skin conditions.

One of the main differences is that dry skin usually has an environmental cause. Some common causes of dry skin include:

  • harsh soaps
  • itchy clothing
  • long and hot showers or baths
  • exposure to hot or cold weather and low humidity
  • exposure to air conditioning
  • diuretics
  • topical and systemic retinoids
  • metabolic changes due to aging
  • hormone imbalances due to menopause or an underactive or overactive thyroid

If a person experiences extreme itching and their skin is dry for an uncommon or unknown reason, they are more likely to have eczema.

While dry skin does not cause eczema, eczema can cause dry skin.

Symptoms differ between eczema and dry skin and between individuals.

However, eczema typically causes:

  • itchiness
  • dry, sensitive skin
  • inflamed, discolored skin
  • rough, leathery, or scaly skin that appears in patches
  • oozing or crusting
  • swollen areas

Not every person with eczema may experience all of the above symptoms. Eczema can be mild, moderate, or severe. In some people, it can cause people to scratch their skin until it bleeds. This turns the problem into a vicious cycle, known as the “itch-scratch cycle.”

Dry skin is different and can cause a person’s skin to:

  • be dehydrated
  • flake or become rough
  • crack
  • itch
  • sting or burn
  • wrinkle and become loose
  • peel
  • become raw or irritated

Dry skin can also leave a person vulnerable to infections as it weakens their skin’s outer barrier.

Atopic dermatitis is the most common form of eczema.

According to the American Academy of Dermatology Association (AAD), there is no single cause of atopic dermatitis. Rather, it is a complex skin disease without a cure.

How a person’s genes interact with their environment may be one influencing factor. Allergens or irritants from a person’s environment can trigger their immune system, resulting in an eczema flare-up.

Additionally, people with eczema may have a genetic variation related to a protein called filaggrin. This protein helps the skin hold moisture, so if a person lacks adequate levels of filaggrin, they may have a genetic predisposition to drier, itchier skin.

Other common eczema triggers include:

  • exposure to dry air or extreme heat or cold
  • some personal care products, such as body washes and facial cleansers
  • laundry detergents and fabric softeners with chemical additives
  • some fabrics, such as wool or polyester
  • surface cleaners and disinfectants
  • natural liquids, such as juice from fruits, vegetables, and meats
  • candle fragrances
  • metals — especially nickel — in jewelry or utensils
  • formaldehyde, found in household disinfectants, some vaccines, and glues
  • isothiazolinone, an antibacterial substance used in products, such as baby wipes
  • cocamidopropyl betaine, used to thicken shampoos and lotions
  • paraphenylene-diamine, used in leather dyes and temporary tattoos
  • stress

Each person with eczema experiences the condition uniquely, so their treatment should reflect their individual symptoms. Available treatment options will depend on a person’s age and the severity of their condition.

A doctor may prescribe the following treatments to help manage a person’s eczema:

  • Medical grade moisturizing cream: This can be more effective than store-bought creams.
  • Prescription topical medications: For example, a doctor may prescribe topical steroids.
  • Phototherapy: Also known as light therapy, it may help relieve a person’s symptoms.
  • Immunosuppressants: These can calm the immune system’s overreaction, which doctors link to eczema.
  • Injectable biologics: These can treat the condition at the immune system’s level, using human DNA.

While scientific evidence is lacking, some people also report success in treating their eczema using alternative remedies. These may include:

  • Bleach baths: These may kill bacteria on the skin. A bleach bath is typically a 6% solution of bleach and water.
  • Cryotherapy: This treatment involves using extreme cold. However, extreme cold can trigger eczema in some people, so a person should talk with a doctor before trying this.
  • Medical-grade honey: This may protect the skin from the environment by initiating the inflammatory response.
  • Meditation: This can help reduce the body’s stress response.
  • Acupuncture: For some people, this can reduce their itchiness and stress.

Learn more about natural remedies for eczema.

Dry skin does not necessarily cause eczema. However, if a person’s skin gets very dry, it may become brittle, scaly, rough, or tight. This could result in an eczema flare-up.

Doctors and people with eczema might also know the condition as the “itch that rashes.” This is because a rash can result from a person scratching or rubbing their dry skin.

When a person is unable to manage their symptoms using products and home remedies, it is time to contact a doctor.

Eczema that does not respond to self-care can impact a person’s quality of life, and the itchiness can become unbearable. It can also cause their skin to crack, leaving a person susceptible to infections.

Besides the physical discomfort, eczema can have a negative impact on a person’s mental health if their skin condition is visible to others. This can affect their confidence and social life.

It is important to remember that while skin conditions may not be life threatening, they can severely impact a person’s quality of life.

Eczema is an inflammatory skin condition that results in itchiness, dryness, rashes, scaly patches, and blisters, which may become infected. Dry skin is one of the possible symptoms of eczema.

While eczema likely involves an interaction between genetic, immune, and environmental factors, dry skin is most likely due to environmental factors.

Many people with eczema and dry skin can manage their condition with over-the-counter (OTC) creams and home remedies. However, if a person cannot manage their condition at home, they should contact a doctor.