Dry skin is the primary cause of many types of skin conditions including dermatitis, eczema, psoriasis and rosacea to name but a few. Most if not all of us have experienced dry skin at some point in our lives and whilst it may seem innocuous it can be distressing to others. Constant itching, soreness and flaking skin has a dramatic impact on your physical and psychological health and well being.
Protective layer against dry skin
The outer layer of your skin or epidermis contains 5 sub-layers, one of these being the stratum corneum. This acts as a protective barrier for the skin, keeping harmful substances out and essential oils and water in. These oils and water keep your skin soft and smooth.
But this layer becomes thinner over time which stops it from working as effectively. It fails to contain as much water in the skin as before which reduces its moistness and elasticity. This leads to dry skin.
Causes of dry skin
A thinning stratum corneum caused by the ageing process is one factor. But there are others which include:
- Exposure to direct sunlight
- Water, e.g. taking a long hot shower
- The weather, e.g. hot and cold temperatures
- Soaps and other cleansers
- Certain medications
- Medical conditions
- Itchy clothing
We have already mentioned about ageing. Unfortunately, ageing results in a thinner and less elastic skin soon shows the sings of wear and tear. Lines, wrinkles and furrows are common as is dry skin.
Exposure to direct sunlight
The sun may be good for us but too much of a good thing is detrimental for your skin. Heat from the sun dries out the skin, removing essential oils and water. This causes it to dry out and peel or flaky as a result.
This is a paradox: your skin needs water to remain smooth and supple and yet water removes natural oils from the skin as it dissolves. The more times this happens the greater the volume of oils removed which dries out the skin, leaving it tight and uncomfortable.
Extremes of weather such as hot, humid days or cold winds plays havoc with your skin, causing it to become dry and flaky. This also occurs as a result of spending a long time indoors in a centrally heated house.
Soaps and other cleaners
These are effective at removing dirt and other substances but they can be harsh on your skin, causing it to become dry and inflamed. Some cleansing products are harsher on your skin than others. Generally a bar of soap is harsher than a hand pump soap cleanser so choose the latter instead.
Some medications have an adverse effect on the skin, removing essential oils which lead to dryness and flakiness. They reduce the effectiveness of the stratum corneum, which allows water to leak out from the skin. This is often the case with statins and diuretics.
There are certain medical conditions which cause dry skin amongst other symptoms. Kidney disease, diabetes and malnutrition have this effect as do other skin conditions such as psoriasis and atopic dermatitis.
Rough clothing or clothes made from fabrics which are itchy are another trigger for dry skin especially if you have sensitive skin. If, for example, you have a jumper which is itchy as soon as you put it on then this will never be any different. So choose clothes made from kinder materials such as cotton.
Characteristics of dry skin
Dry skin feels hot, tight and uncomfortable. It may flake or peel when rubbed and has a shiny appearance. Plus dry skin is more prone to the visible signs of ageing such as lines, wrinkles and crows feet. Dry skin develops on the hands, face, chest, stomach and legs.
Treatment for dry skin
The aim of any treatment is to replace moisture lost by the skin and keep it soft and smooth. Use cream cleansers and moisturisers to your skin and avoid an astringent which will only dry out your skin even more. Use soft cloths and flannels rather than brushes and sponges.
If your dry skin is severe and/or causing you a great deal of distress then see your GP. He or she will be able to prescribe a topical cream which contains steroids and is applied to the skin. Antihistamines can also help by preventing itching.
If your GP feels that your dry skin is a sign of an underlying medical condition then he/she will refer you for tests.