Skin aids the body’s defenses against infection and disease. In order to keep out any bacteria or viruses, the skin must stay intact and remain flexible enough to not become torn or scratched during normal, everyday activities. Skin maintains its strength and flexibility from its water content and protective layer of oil. Anything that strips away water or oil can dry out the skin. While most dry skin is simply annoying, it can sometimes become so dry that the skin cracks or bleeds, putting the person at risk for infection.
- Facial products: Products for the face often dry the skin. The astringents and alcohol found in clarifying lotions, aftershaves, and fragrances act as drying agents. Scrubbing can also dry and irritate the face.
- Soaps: Some soaps, especially pure (soap without additives or moisturizers) or grainy soaps, strip oil away from the skin.
- Weather: Cold, wind, sun, and dry air all dry out the skin. Although many people only complain of dryness in the winter, others experience dry skin in the summer. Many skin care routines vary with the climate.
- Bathing and swimming: Hot water, along with long baths or swimming in pools or salty water, can cause dry skin. Staying in the sun while wet can cause the sun to dry the water away, removing water in the skin, too.
Baths and showers
- Bathe or shower in warm (not hot) water.
- Limit time in the water to five minutes or less.
- Wash with a moisturizing soap or body wash or choose one designed for sensitive skin.
- Try adding bath oil to the water, but only after soaking for one to two minutes. The skin will have absorbed some water already and oil will seal it in.
- Gently pat skin dry with a towel immediately after bathing. Do not rub.
- Always apply moisturizers immediately after bathing, to seal in the water.
- Decide whether a lotion, cream, or ointment is most helpful. Many people prefer to use lotions and creams during the day because they are less greasy. Ointments provide more moisture but since they can feel greasy, some prefer to use them at night.
- Choose a non-comedogenic (won’t cause blackheads) moisturizer for the face, back, chest, and any other acne-prone areas.
- Minimize hand washing and avoid irritating the thin skin on the back of hands by washing only the fingers.
- Do not use soap on red, cracked, or irritated skin. Non-soap cleansers may be applied on dry hands (Aveeno, Aquanil, Cetaphil, Neutrogena, or Oil of Olay) and wiped off with a paper towel or soft cloth.
- Moisturize hands with a thick cream or occlusive (doesn’t let air or water in) ointment, such as Vaseline, immediately after cleansing.
- Consider wearing rubber gloves when washing dishes and always use dish soaps made for sensitive skin.
Increasing the humidity of the air can also help. In winter, use a humidifier to add water to the air. A shallow pan of water near a heating source is a cheaper alternative, as is leaving the bathroom door open while showering.
Heating can also dry out the air. Lower the thermostat in the winter to avoid excessive dry air circulation. Temperatures above 70°F in the winter will add to dry skin problems.
An unflavored and unscented wax balm is preferable to creams or lotions for the lips. Wax prevents evaporation and also protects the lips from saliva and food, which can irritate the skin.
Lips that are already dry or cracked can be very difficult to treat because of infection from bacteria and constant irritation from saliva. When lips are chapped, apply a warm water compress for approximately 15 minutes then apply a wax lip balm, plain petrolatum, or Aquaphor healing ointment. If improvement does not occur within a few days, see a clinician.
When to consult a clinician
Consult a clinician if any of the following occur
- itching enough to waken one at night
- rash associated with the dryness
- dryness that persists despite follow the self-care measures listed above
- dryness so severe that the skin is cracked or bleeding