What causes dry skin and how to prevent it

Almost everyone has dealt with their skin feeling dry at some point in their life (or, say, every single winter).  It’s pretty easy to tell if it’s happening to you: think flaky, scaly skin, itchiness and redness, or even just that extra-tight, uncomfortable feeling.  Once the signs start appearing, it’s important to protect the skin from getting worse, as that can not only lead to discomfort, but painful cracking and bleeding as well. Keep reading to find out what causes dry skin and how you can prevent it!

What Causes Dry Skin?

If you’re wondering why your skin is feeling dry, it’s probably due to dry, cold or just extra-harsh weather. On a technical level, it’s the concept of transepidermal water loss (TEWL). Simply put, this is the concept of water passively evaporating from your skin to the outer environment because of a difference in the moisture gradient. In low humidity climates (such as deserts), we tend to lose more moisture from the skin than we do in more humid ones.

Of course, there are other potential causes of dry skin. Prolonged, chronic exposure to hot water actually strips the skin of it’s natural and protective oils (sorry — that means your piping hot showers aren’t doing you any favors). Harsh, drying soaps have a similar effect. There are medical conditions that also translate to dry skin, including eczema, psoriasis, and hypothyroidism for example. And lastly, as we age, our skin tends to naturally retain less moisture, leaving us with drier skin.


Getting Rid of Dry Skin

Improving your skin’s moisture levels is a balance of updating your skincare routine and your lifestyle habits. Let’s get into the details:

Way #1

First thing first: it’s about nurturing and maintaining your skin’s moisture barrier -  the all-important protective layer filled with ceramides, fatty acids, and lipids.

For your body: 

If you can, take one 5-10 minute shower and use lukewarm water. If you’re addicted to long, hot showers, start with small changes. Decrease your shower time by 2 minutes every 2-3 days. Tweak the hot nozzle downwards a smidge every few days. After a few weeks, you’ll be down to your goals and your skin will thank you!

Use gentle, hydrating, non-foaming cleansers. Pat your skin dry (don’t rub) and lock-in moisture with a heavier moisturizer. 

Overall, products can be ranked as ointment, cream, and then lotion in terms of decreasing hydration. Generally, the ones you need to scoop out of a tub (creams/ointments) will be more nourishing than the ones in a pump bottle (lotion). Cream or body butter has a better hydrating capability than lotion. 


For your face:

Avoid over-cleansing - wash your face with lukewarm water first thing in the morning and last thing at night.  Use water or mild, creamy, unfragranced cleansers. Avoid using abrasive washcloths, sponges or facial brushes and instead cleanse in gentle circular motions using your fingertips. There’s no need to scrub clean! Often, if you feel “squeaky clean” you’re on your way to drying out your skin, as the natural protective skin oils are being stripped away. That sensation is not the goal! You want to feel clean and refreshed but hydrated. And in the colder months, it’s best to decrease or avoid exfoliating altogether depending on how dry/sensitive your skin is.

Moisturizing:

At the end of your routine, it’s important to moisturize with a cream right to help seal-in moisture. Avoid ingredients like retinoids, alpha hydroxy acids, fragrance and alcohol which can all irritate and further dry out your skin.

Here is a list of ingredients to look for in your skincare to target hydration:

  • Sunflower seed oil
  • Coconut oil
  • Petroleum jelly
  • Oatmeal
  • Squalane
  • Hyaluronic acid

And ingredients to stay away from:

  • Olive oil
  • Retinoids
  • AHAs
  • Fragrance
  • Alcohols 
Way #2

Another way to improve your dry skin is switching up everyday habits. 

  • If possible, add humidifiers to your environment. Humidifiers increase the moisture levels in the air which will decrease transepidermal water loss from skin to environment. 
  • Avoid wearing abrasive fabrics like wool, and try to stick to cotton. 
  • Use fragrance-free products, even down to laundry detergent!
  • Wrap up when you’re outside in the cold, windy weather.
Way #3

To help with severely dry skin or medical conditions, there are different treatments available:

  • OTC (over-the-counter) creams with lactic acid and/or urea can be used to break down dead, flaky skin cells
  • OTC cortisone 
  • Ice packs help soothe itchy skin to avoid scratching!
  • Prescription strength medical moisturizers and anti-inflammatory topicals can also be used when necessary

It can feel overwhelming, but caring for dry skin is definitely doable. We always recommend starting small with a few skincare and lifestyle tweaks and reassessing from there.