Dry skin is an extremely common problem, one that almost everyone has experienced at some point. But what could be causing it?
As you might expect, dry skin (or, to give it its fancy name, xerosis cutis) is characterised by a feeling of dryness, and skin which can be itchy, flaky or crack easily. It’s generally a problem with the outer layer of the skin that causes the loss of moisture; the skin barrier isn’t functioning properly for some reason. This is often down to not having sufficient natural oils necessary to build a strong defensive barrier to the outside world, and keep in the moisture that is essential to healthy skin. Without that robust barrier, more moisture is lost to the air, the dryness increases, and external irritants are able to enter the body, causing inflammation and irritation.
We take a look at some of the common causes of dry skin so you can check if any apply to you. If you’re worried that your dry skin isn’t a result of any of these and might be symptomatic of something more serious, then contact your doctor.
Common causes of dry skin
Eczema, psoriasis or ichthyosis: dry skin is often the first sign of a chronic skin condition. If it gets drier still, crusts, itches or begins to look flaky or scaly, it may be that you have a chronic skin condition. First line of treatment is frequent moisturising with a rich, hydrating moisturiser, but get a diagnosis to be sure what you’re dealing with.
Stress: chronic stress or anxiety is a major contributor to dry skin. Read our article Stress and Your Skin for more information about how this works.
Irritants in your toiletries: there are so many ingredients in shampoos, face creams, shower gels, cleansers and cosmetics that can cause dry skin; read our article What's Causing Problems In Your Skincare Regime? for more detail about what toiletries might be making your skin dry.
High-alkaline soap: soap, despite its ubiquity, can damage the skin and cause it to dry out. The problem lies with the fact that soap is very highly alkaline, and can strip the skin of its natural and necessary oils as it washes grime off the skin. Swap to a ph neutral wash instead.
Central heating or air conditioning: having the heating or aircon on can be very dehydrating to the skin! You may need to open the windows to get fresh air circulating, or invest in a humidifier to counter the drying effects.
Perfume: aka fragrance, scent, or parfum, synthetic-based perfumes on their own or in cosmetics and toiletries are a major cause of skin irritation and dehydration, due to the volatile reaction which allows the scent to disperse in the air but can damage the barrier function on sensitive skin. Look for fragrance-free or unscented products instead.
Hard water: there’s a well-established link between dry/irritated skin and the hardness of the water in the area you live. The harder the water, the more likely your skin is to be damaged by the minerals in it. Damage leads to moisture-loss and moisture-loss leads, inevitably, to dryness.
The weather: cold, dry or windy weather can also mean more moisture is lost to the air. If you’re going out into these conditions, protect your skin from dehydration with scarves and thick emollients.
Long hot baths or showers: both heat and water increase trans-dermal moisture loss, so keep your bathing short and luke-warm, and seal your skin with oils or balms immediately after drying off!
Ageing: as we get older, skin loses some of its elasticity and oiliness, meaning that we have a tendency towards drier skin as we age. Change up your skincare to richer (unscented) balms and creams, and make sure you moisturise regularly.
Hormonal changes: hormonal shifts (such as during pregnancy or perimenopause) can affect the skin’s ability to make oils and retain moisture. Check with your doctor if you’re concerned.
Smoking: chemicals in cigarettes affect skin health in various ways, but they can lead to moisture loss and dehydration.
Medical conditions such as diabetes or hypothyroidism: several medical conditions can cause the skin to dry out, as the body’s mechanisms for building a resilient skin barrier are impaired. For more about how diabetes can affect skin see our blog Why Does Diabetes Cause Dry Skin?
Poor nutrition: not getting enough protein, fat, vitamins and minerals in your diet can cause your skin to be dry and sensitive. True malnutrition is very rare in developed nations, but if you want to boost your skin health, it’s important to make sure you're getting your full complement of essential fatty acids, proteins and nutrients.
What can you do about dry skin?
- Moisturise with unscented emollients throughout the day
- Take short, warm baths or showers, rather than long, hot ones
- Keep yourself hydrated and well fed!
- Ditch the irritants! Switch out perfumed toiletries, soap, detergents, cosmetics for gentler alternatives
Balmonds All-Natural Starter Set, £39
Balmonds Skin Salvation balm with hemp and beeswax (from £7.99 for 30ml)
Balmonds Natural Shampoo & Body Wash with calendula & nettle (£19 for 200ml)
Balmonds Daily Moisturising Cream with chamomile and shea butter (from £13.99 for 100ml)
If you require medical advice we recommend you always contact your healthcare professional.
If you or someone you are caring for seems very unwell, is getting worse or you think there's something seriously wrong, call for emergency services straight away. For general medical advice, please contact your healthcare professional, this article does not contain or replace medical advice.
Do not delay getting help if you're worried. Trust your instincts.