This article was medically reviewed by Heather Woolery-Lloyd, M. D. , a board- certified dermatologist and member of the Honayst Medical Review Board. Whether it’s summer, winter, or any season in between, there are days when harsh weather just sucks the moisture straight out of your pores, leaving you with dry, flaky skin. If you’ve ever dealt with flaky skin on your face, then you know all too well that it can make you look more wrinkly than usual, your makeup can become cakier, and products that didn’t burn before suddenly irritate your complexion to no end. No matter how much moisturizer you slather on, you still manage to feel like an alligator by the end of the day—so what gives?
But you could also have other skin disorders and medical conditions that can cause red, scaly areas. And believe it or not, the products you think are helping could actually be making things worse. Not sure what to do about it? We asked dermatologists to break down what could be causing the irritation—and exactly what you can do to heal your dry, flaky skin ASAP.
There’s a reason winter wreaks havoc on your complexion. “When the air is dry and cold, more water evaporates on the surface of your skin. This leads to flaking because the top layer of the skin gets dried out, ” says Angela Lamb, M. D. , director of the Westside Mount Sinai Dermatology Faculty Practice, especially if your skin tends to be on the dry side already.
Though winter tends to dry more people out, summer can also cause flaky skin, thanks to sunburn, salt water, and air conditioning stripping your pores of moisture. “Skin cells are made up of proteins that get dried out when they are not hydrated. Think about a dried flower or a dried piece of fruit, ” she adds.
Eczema, a. k. a atopic dermatitis
Eczema refers to a cluster of skin diseases that result in dry, flaky patches that can also feel itchy, turn red, and swell up. Medically known as atopic dermatitis, it’s incredibly common: More than 31 million people deal with some form of eczema in the United States, according to the National Eczema Association. Eczema can impact various parts of the body, but it tends to flare up around the eyes and nose on the face.
Researchers aren’t entirely sure what causes eczema but they suspect a variety of factors—like genetics, temperature changes, stress, bacteria and yeast, and hormonal changes—can all play a role. Using gentle, moisturizing products can help treat eczema on the face, but talking to your dermatologist can ensure you follow a treatment plan that doesn’t exacerbate your symptoms.
“I frequently see allergic reactions to skin care or hair care products, and these can result in scaly, red, itchy patches, ” Dr. Katta says. This reaction is a form of eczema known as allergic contact dermatitis. These flare-ups happen when the skin become sensitive to a certain substance and is exposed to it more than once. It usually takes two to three days before the allergic rash begins to form.
Irritant dermatitis is another form of contact dermatitis that is becoming more common, says Dr. Katta. This skin disorder results in a more immediate reaction (think: that stiff, tight feeling after you wash your face) and is caused by products such as scrubs, exfoliating cleansers, masks, and acne medications that contain ingredients that may be too strong for your skin type.
A common trigger for both? Fragrance—including natural (essential oils, for example) and synthetic (good ol’ perfume) varieties. Cosmetics, sunscreens, medications, and even your soap or detergent can be culprits.
Seborrheic dermatitis is another form of eczema characterized by red, itchy, flaking skin in or between your eyebrows, in the folds next to your nose, or on your scalp (hello, dandruff!). Experts believe it is linked to an irritating yeast found in the oils of skin, which causes an immune system reaction
“Although your skin might appear to be dry, the flaking is actually due to inflammation, and it’s often seen in people with oily skin, ” says Dr. Katta. Flare-ups become more common during cold, dry months.
Psoriasis and eczema often look similar, but they aren’t the same thing. Psoriasis is an autoimmune disease, meaning it’s not caused by irritants. What’s more, it often results in patches of skin that look scaly and raised. It does not tend to be as weather dependent, but if you have chronically dry, flaky, rashy skin, see your doc for a proper diagnosis, says Dr. Lamb.
Bacterial or fungal infections
Beneficial fungi and bacteria live naturally on the skin and inside the body, but sometimes harmful germs can invade and cause an infection. These skin infections—say, like a staph infection—can look a lot like eczema, according to the American Academy of Dermatology, resulting in dry, red, and flaky patches on the skin that can sometimes itch. If your typical dryness is also accompanied by painful sores, pus-filled blisters, redness that seems to spread, or crusty spots, see your doctor. A fever and flu-like symptoms may also develop.
How to get rid of dry, flaky skin on your face
To get rid of dry, flaky skin, you have to nail down the source. If your flakes are mild and seem to stem from weather changes or inherent dryness, try the following dermatologist-approved tips to smooth, hydrate, and heal your complexion. ❗If your skin doesn’t improve with any of these measures, see your dermatologist to ensure a proper diagnosis. From there, they can help determine the best treatment options, which may include prescription medications.
1. Opt for a gentle cleanser.
“If your skin is very dry, I recommend using a gentle, hydrating cleanser, ” says Dr. Katta. “There are also soap-free cleansers available that cleanse without drying out the skin. ”
Look for fragrance-free, creamy formulas that tend to feel more like a silky moisturizer when you’re washing your face. Ingredients like hyaluronic acid, glycerin, and ceramides will offer an extra dose of hydration as you cleanse.
2. Use a moisturizing cream.
Finding a heavy-duty moisturizer for dry skin can help repair your skin barrier and lock in much-needed moisture. Dr. Katta recommends applying a thicker cream (ideally while your skin is slightly damp after cleansing) rather than a lotion if you have dry, flaky skin. Lotions have a higher water content and will not seal in hydration as well, he says.
Avoid products that contain alcohol (which will only dry your skin further) and look for moisturizing and soothing ingredients like hyaluronic acid, ceramides, aloe vera, shea butter, urea, oatmeal, and squalene. Try these expert-approved face moisturizers if you’re dealing with dry patches:
3. Exfoliate—but gently.
If you’re simply experiencing red and scaly flakes due to dry, sensitive skin, less is more! Exfoliating can be an effective way of sloughing off dead skin cells that lead to flaking—but you want to be careful. The key is to be gentle with your skin, says Dr. Lamb, otherwise you may cause further dryness and irritation.
Instead of using harsh scrubs, opt for a microfiber towel (gently buff in circular motions) to exfoliate after cleansing. Stick to exfoliating no more than once per week (especially if you are sensitive), and always follow with moisturizer. In general, Dr. Katta recommends avoiding the following products until your symptoms improve:
- Chemical exfoliants, such as salicylic, glycolic, or other alpha hydroxy acids will dry out the skin in most cases.
- Face scrubs that contain charcoal, sugar, beads, or any other rough ingredients, which can further disrupt the skin barrier if it is already dry and flaky.
- Harsh cleansers that are typically marketed for oily skin are more likely to contain drying ingredients.
4. Incorporate salicylic acid, but only if necessary.
If you are dealing with seborrheic dermatitis, blackheads, or acne, Dr. Katta actually recommends using a stronger cleanser that contains salicylic acid, which gently works to break up skin cells and unclog pores. Go for a 1 or 2 percent formula, like this one from Neutrogena, and follow with a basic, fragrance-free moisturizer.
5. Don’t overdo it with acne medications.
Classic acne-fighters like benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid, and retinoid products (like adapalene) can be super-effective in treating stubborn pimples, but they can also strip the skin of oil and cause dryness or peeling. Everyone’s skin is different, so you may have to experiment until you find an effective routine that doesn’t cause irritation. In general, aim to use your acne treatment products every other day—but if you notice dry skin on your face, cut back to once every three days, and make sure you use one of these hydrating moisturizers for acne-prone skin after application.
6. Crank up the humidifier.
Blasting the heat during winter really dries out the air—and your skin. Turning on a humidifier, especially when you sleep, will help bring moisture back into the air, and thus, your complexion.
“This is my number one recommendation when it comes to dry, flaky skin. I prefer a cool mist humidifier, and one that has a large enough chamber to last throughout the night, ” says Dr. Lamb.
7. Mind your shower times and temps.
Long, hot showers won’t do your dry skin any favors. They may feel good, but super-hot water can damage the skin barrier, leading to dry skin and flaking. “For patients with dry skin, I recommend lukewarm temperatures and limiting showers to no more than 10 to 15 minutes, ” says Dr. Katta.