Dry skin - the medical term is xerosis - can be unattractive, uncomfortable, and embarrassing, but is rarely serious. There is a group of inherited diseases called icthyosis, which is characterized by dry skin, and can be disfiguring. Most dry skin conditions, however, can be alleviated by managing environmental factors such as cold weather, low humidity, and hot baths. It can be temporary, but often problematic only in winter. It can also be a life-long condition. The arms and lower legs are where dry skin tends to be the most severe.
Chronic or severe dry skin may need evaluation and monitoring by a physician, but the most common and significant factors in the care of dry skin are those which can be self-managed at home. Skin is a highly effective barrier, preventing infection. Severe dry skin may crack and form fissures, breaking the protective barrier. Germs can enter, causing mild to severe, red, weeping infection.
Signs And Symptoms
Signs and symptoms of dry skin can vary with age, general health, living environment, time outdoors and the cause of the xerosis. Dry skin causes one or more of these:
Skin feels tight after bathing and showering or swimming
Skin looks and feels rough
Itching (the medical term is pruritis) can be mild to severe
Flaking and peeling slight to severe
Cracks or fine lines
Gray, ashy skin, in people with dark skin
Deep cracks that may bleed
Chapped or cracked lips
Anyone can develop dry skin with excessive loss of water or oil. Some factors which increase risk for developing the condition include:
Age: Skin becomes drier and thinner with age. By age 40, many people need to use moisturizing products.
Climate: Low humidity climates worsen dry skin.
Heat: Central heating, space heaters, fireplaces and wood-burning stoves are all drying.
Hot baths and showers: These are very drying.
Swimming: Frequent swimming is drying, especially in highly chlorinated pools.
Harsh soaps and detergents: Harsh cleansers pull moisture out of the skin. The most damaging are deodorant and antibacterial soaps. Some shampoos may dry the scalp.
Sun exposure: Sun doesn't just dry the skin; its ultraviolet (UV) light rays penetrate the skin to the deepest layer, where the rays do the most damage. It leads to deep wrinkles and sagging skin.
Other skin conditions: People with skin conditions, such as eczema (atopic dermatitis), or those which can cause a rapid buildup of skin cells, are at greater risk for dry skin. Psoriasis forms thick scales, and is usually associated with greater risk for dry skin.
Job: Nurses, hair stylists, and other people who immerse their skin in water, or wash their hands constantly, can develop severe xerosis with raw, cracked hands.
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