Your Health A-Z


This is a common and generally normal condition, of having excessively dry skin.

Alternative names

Dry skin, xerosis

What is this?

A common condition in which one’s skin becomes excessively dry.

What causes this?

It is caused by the skin becoming excessively dry. It most commonly arises during the winter, when the air is more dry. Sitting near fires or heaters may contribute to the drying effect, both directly and by increasing the degree of dryness of the ambient air. Excessive use of air conditioners may also contribute to the drying out of the air and skin. This may be exaggerated or worsened if someone baths or showers too often, especially if they use harsh soaps, including many deodorant or ‘antibacterial’ soaps. Excessive swimming, especially in chlorinated pools, can also be problematic. It can also be seen when there is a deficiency of vitamin A; as part of sunburn ; and dryness and itching may be a side-effect of some medications, including aspirin, antihistamines, and codeine. The skin also tends to get drier as one gets older, as a normal part of ageing. After menopause women’s skins also get drier.

What are its symptoms?

The skin feels and appears dry, often with scaling (a visible mild and flaky peeling of the outer layer of the skin), roughness, itchiness, a feeling of tightness, and perhaps some shallow cracks in the skin. It is most often seen on the thighs and lower legs, upper arms, and the sides of the abdomen.

How is it diagnosed?

It is one of the conditions usually easily diagnosed and treated at home.

How is it treated?

By using skin creams, sometimes called emollients or moisturisers. There is little good, scientific evidence that elaborate and expensive moisturisers provide any more relief than the simplest and cheapest available; fancy added ingredients are not necessary or helpful, and it’s best to avoid those with scents added, as some people are sensitive to such perfumes. Thicker products are useful, as is applying baby oil after a bath, and its benefits tend to last longer than those of moisturisers. After a bath, pat yourself dry, rather than towelling vigorously.

What is the prognosis?

It is usually not a dangerous condition, merely uncomfortable and perhaps unsightly, and is easily treated and relieved. Untreated, it is not merely uncomfortable, but can leave the skin more vulnerable to infection.

When to call your doctor

If routine methods of treatment seem not to be providing any relief, or if the extent of the peeling and itching begins to interfere with your ability to enjoy normal activities and sleep. If the predominant feature is itching of skin that doesn’t show any specific rash, it is worth checking with the doctor, as this can also be caused by other conditions, such as liver or kidney disease, hypothyroidism (an under-active thyroid gland), or lymphoma, such as Hodgkin’s Disease. It would also need to be distinguished from more serious conditions such as ichthyosis, an inherited condition including excessively dry and itchy skin.

How can it be prevented?

By taking care that one uses mild and soothing soaps, doesn’t wash too often (or too seldom!), and uses skin moisturisers, though not too lavishly. Use humidifiers if your home atmosphere is excessively dry.

The information provided in this article was correct at the time of publishing. At Mediclinic we endeavour to provide our patients and readers with accurate and reliable information, which is why we continually review and update our content. However, due to the dynamic nature of clinical information and medicine, some information may from time to time become outdated prior to revision.

In the interest of our patients, in accordance with SA law and our commitment to expertise, Mediclinic cannot subscribe to the practice of online diagnosis. Please consult a medical professional for specific medical advice. If you have any major concerns, please see your doctor for an assessment. If you have any cause for concern, your GP will be able to direct you to the appropriate specialists.