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Dry skin Causes, Symptoms and Treatment

The skin dries when it lacks water , quite simply. It becomes rough and less flexible. To stay well hydrated, the skin needs a thin protective layer of fat on its surface, because the fat slows the evaporation of water.

Almost everyone has areas of dry skin , occasionally. With age, the skin tends to be drier because the sebaceous glands, which produce the fatty substance on the surface of the skin (sebum), are less active.

Dry skin makes wrinkles more noticeable but does not affect their formation. The appearance of wrinkles is mostly influenced by age and heredity. In this regard, see our Aging Skin report.

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Causes of Dry skin

In addition to age, dehydration of the skin depends on many factors.

  • Low humidity, due to cold weather and dry or heating residential. The cooler the air, the more moisture it absorbs through the skin. This is why the skin is often drier in winter;
  • The bathroom with hot water and the frequent use of soaps , which takes away some of the protective layer of fat to the surface of the skin;
  • Exposure to wind and sun.

For more information, see the Risk Factors section .

In addition, constantly dry or cracked skin , with redness and itching, may be a sign of a skin condition such as eczema or psoriasis. Untreated hypothyroidism can also make the skin dry.

A protective layer to preserve

If we looked at the surface of our skin under the microscope, we would see a thin protective filmof a mixture of fatty substances and water . Fats come mainly from sebum , produced by the sebaceous glands housed in the dermis (the inner layer of the skin, thicker than the epidermis ). The water is drawn from the sweat produced by the sweat glands (also housed in the dermis) and the water present in the atmosphere.

When this natural protective film is altered, the skin dries out because the water in the skin evaporates in an accelerated manner. The main role of creams and moisturizing lotions is precisely to recreate this protective barrier to allow the skin to maintain its hydration and not to provide a source of water.

Note that the protective layer does not make the skin impermeable. The skin easily compares to the high-tech porous fabrics used in outdoor activities: it let’s virtually nothing penetrate it, while allowing moisture to escape. It is desirable that some evaporation of the water contained in the skin occurs constantly to ensure in particular the maintenance of body temperature.

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When to consult?

  • If there is redness or rash;
  • If moisturizing creams and other skin protection measures do not solve the problem.

Dry skin: symptoms

  • A “tense” skin sensation, especially after a shower, bath or swimming session because dry skin loses its elasticity;
  • Skin rougher than silky;
  • Itches;
  • The peeling ;
  • Thin cracks;
  • Sometimes deeper cracks that can bleed.

Dry skin: people at risk

  • The skin can become dehydrated regardless of its original characteristics: thick or thin, sensitive or not, reactive or not. Even a person with oily skin may have dry skin at certain times or places in the body;
  • With age , the skin tends to be drier, especially in women. This tendency is often accentuated after menopause.

Dry skin: risk factors

These factors help to dry the skin:

  • Very cold temperatures because the humidity is then more rare. Often, skin problems become worse during the winter;
  • hot and dry climate . In desert areas where very high temperatures reduce humidity to less than 10%, the skin may dry out quickly;
  • The wind ;
  • The sun . Source of heat, the sun dries the skin. The more we expose ourselves, the more the skin dries up. The damage of the sun is not limited to a drying of the superficial layers of the skin. The sun’s rays (UVA and UVB) also contribute to premature aging of the skin by affecting its structure. They can also cause skin cancer;
  • The heating of houses in winter which reduces the ambient humidity;
  • The bathroom with hot water, especially if they are long and frequent. Hot water dissolves some of the fatty substances on the surface of the skin;
  • Frequent skin contact with soaps , household cleaners, make-up products, perfume;
  • Regular swimming sessions , especially in very chlorinated water;
  • An insufficient consumption of water or a significant loss of water which can occur for example as a consequence of a strong diarrhea or an intense and sustained physical exercise;
  • The alcohol , due to its diuretic effect (increasing the removal of water).

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Dry skin: prevention

Basic measures to prevent dry skin
  • Maintain a good level of humidity in the house: bring a humidifier if necessary. Health Canada recommends a moisture content of about 50% in summer and 30% during the winter. Humidity can be measured with a hygrometer;
  • Drink enough. It is usually recommended to drink about 8 glasses (2 liters) of water and various drinks (juice, broths, tea, coffee, etc.) each day. This recommendation is not based on precise scientific data but serves as a scale. Indeed, this quantity varies from one individual to another, depending on the activities and diet. For example, people who eat a lot of fruits and vegetables fill part of their water needs. According to most experts, this amount of fluid guarantees the body the hydration it needs for all its functions, including skin care;
  • Avoid drinking large amounts of beverages and foods containing caffeine . An excess of caffeine increases the elimination of liquid by the urine (diuretic effect). According to a synthesis of studies, one can still drink up to 4 cups of coffee a day without diuretic effect . On the other hand, beyond this quantity, the diuretic effect appears. Of course, other sources of caffeine consumed during the day should also be considered: chocolate, tea, soft drinks, energy drinks and coffee ice cream, which contain smaller amounts of caffeine;
  • Wear gloves outdoors in cold weather;
  • Protect yourself from the sun , for example, by covering your skin with light clothing or applying sunscreen.
  • For housework, use low-drying soaps (in cream or cleansing oils) or wear rubber gloves;
  • To keep your skin healthy, it is generally advisable to get enough sleep, not to smoke, and to manage stress well.

Moisturizers and fragrances

  • If necessary, apply regularly and generously a moisturizer all over the body (ideally, immediately after showering or bathing, to retain moisture). Apply a moisturizer on the hands several times a day; ideally, do it immediately after washing hands.

Baths and showers

  • In case of dry skin, avoid baths and showers with very hot water. Prefer warm water and even a little cool. In periods of extreme cold, space baths or showers. Limit the duration of baths to a maximum of fifteen minutes. Adding an oil to the bathwater helps less dry the skin;
  • Do not soap your legs and arms unnecessarily. After washing, wipe while patting rather than rubbing.


  • Many soaps destroy the natural film of fat and water that covers the skin. Most antibacterialsoaps and scented products also tend to dry out the skin because of the alcohol they contain. Favor those that contain moisturizing substances, such as glycerine or shea butter.

Dry skin: medical treatments

Usually, the regular use of good quality moisturizing creams or lotions as well as the implementation of the other measures described in the Prevention section help to counter the dryness of the skin. Here we have more details about cinnamon skin benefits.

If irritation occurs, an over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream may provide relief.

If the problem gets worse, is very bothersome or is accompanied by redness and itching, consultation with a doctor or dermatologist is recommended. He will look for the causes of these symptoms.


The application of moisturizing cream or lotion is an effective way to rehydrate the skin. It also restores the skin’s smoothness and smooth appearance. Some products are better than others or better for a particular type of skin.

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The composition of the creams is inspired by that of the film of water and fatty substances that cover the skin naturally. The creams therefore contain an aqueous portion and an oily portion. In addition to water and oil, an emulsifier – usually stearic or palmitic acid – is added to produce a uniform and stable cream. Some creams contain, in small quantities, vitamins or plant extracts with moisturizing properties. Preservatives are also found in most products.

The more consistent the cream, the higher it’s fat content and the less water it contains. Most creams on the market are light, so waterier than oily. Therefore, water is often the first ingredient on the list. The oil content usually varies between 15% and 30%.

Compared to creams, lotions apply more easily but persist for less time on the skin.

For the face , we favor even lighter products because most fats would clog the pores, causing blackheads or infections.

Let’s mention that the  pH of moisturizers and soaps is also important. Favor a pH neutral (pH = 7) or slightly acidic (pH <7), which are less irritating.

A trick to treat dry hands

Before going to bed :

  • Wash your hands with cold water;
  • Apply Vaseline to the still wet hands;
  • Wear cotton gloves all night long;
  • In the morning, the skin is rehydrated.

Note that it is wrong to believe that moisturizers “maintain” the problem of dry skin. On the contrary, poorly treated and dehydrated skin can degenerate into more serious problems (eg dermatitis ).

A little more about the ingredients of moisturizing products
The composition of moisturizing creams and lotions helps to maintain the hydration of the skin 2. Some ingredients are from traditional herbal medicine; their use may also be based on data from small-scale studies by manufacturers.

  • Mineral oil. Extracted from oil, the mineral oil allows a better conservation of the products, while offering a barrier against the evaporation of the water contained in the skin. Two forms are used in small quantities in the manufacture of moisturizers: liquid paraffin and petroleum jelly (Vaseline);
  • Glycerol or glycerine. It is the most commonly used hydrating agent. This chemical compound, an alcohol, is present in all fats. It is synthesized artificially to include it in hydrating products because this substance “holds” the water. In addition, it acts as lubricant and emollient ;
  • Lanolin. Grease extracted from the wool which impregnates the wool of the sheep and whose composition is very close to that of the human sebum;
  • Hyaluronic acid . This natural component of the connective tissue is synthesized and is now part of several products because it has the property of forming on the skin a hydrating aqueous film.
  • Alpha-hydroxy acids (or AHAs, for alpha-hydroxy acids). Lactic acid is an AHA commonly added to moisturizers. Some contain concentrations up to 12%. It helps flaking (eliminating dead cells) and restoring dry skin due to its ability to retain water 3 ;
  • Urea . Urea comes from the breakdown of proteins. In synthetic form, it softens the skin. Creams containing up to 10% urea help relieve dry skin associated with skin disorders (eczema, psoriasis, ichthyosis , etc.);
  • Jojoba (oil of). This odorless and colorless oil acts as an emulsifier (stabilizer of the water-oil mixture) because of the palmitic acid it contains. It penetrates the skin and is believed to help restore its natural properties;
  • Almond oil. It would be both moisturizing and emulsifying;
  • Aloe . Aloe vera gel has moisturizing and healing properties for the skin according to some studies. But beware, some people are allergic to it. Check out our Aloe profile;
  • Oats . This cereal has been used for over a hundred years as an ingredient in body care preparations. You can benefit from its properties by creams but also by baths (consult the sheet Oats (psn) for a precise instructions);
  • Shea butter. From a walnut, which grows wild in West Africa, shea butter has emollient and moisturizing properties;
  • Honey (extract of). Honey has antibacterial and antifungal properties. It may help restore dry skin;
  • Sunscreen . Very useful in a daily lotion, since even during the comings and goings, we expose ourselves a lot to the sun.
  • Vitamin A . This antioxidant may be in one of the following names: retinol, retinyl acetate, retinyl linoleate, or retinyl palmitate. According to several recent research, vitamin A is one of the few substances that can penetrate to the dermis and thus act in depth. However, even though over-the-counter products contain only a small portion of it, vitamin A increases the skin’s sensitivity to sunlight. This is why creams that contain it also have sunscreen;
  • Vitamin E . Vitamin E is found in many skin and lip products because it has antioxidant properties. It would offer some protection against UVB rays.
Note. Other active ingredients include binders, dyes, perfumes, stabilizers, preservatives, and so on. Any skin, even if it is not particularly sensitive, can make an allergic reaction (or contact dermatitis) with one of the moisturizing ingredients. Among the most used preservatives are phenoxyethanol and parabens (methyl, propyl, ethyl, etc.). In Canada, regulation entered into force November 16, 2006 requires manufacturers of cosmetics to see the full list of ingredients in their products. This allows consumers to make more informed choices and more easily identify the ingredients they would be sensitive to.

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