Surprising Causes of Dry Skin

Curated by Claudia Shannon / Research Scientist / Honayst

But sometimes the dryness will be severe and may indicate an underlying skin issue or health condition (more on that below). If the dryness is so severe that it interferes with your ability to work or sleep, if the skin becomes cracked or bleeds, or if it doesn’t seem to be responding to prescription treatment, be sure to visit your primary care doctor or a board-certified dermatologist, suggests Harvard Health. If you're looking for remedies for dry skin, check this list first to find out whether one of these offenders may be to blame, and find out how experts suggest you combat these dehydrators. You should see improvements within a week or two of caring for your skin properly, according to Harvard Health.

1. Fragrance Has the Potential to Cause Skin Irritation

"Fragrance has a tendency to irritate dry skin or make it worse, so avoid deodorants and skin-care products that are filled with fragrance," says Amy Forman Taub, MD, a clinical assistant professor of dermatology at Northwestern Medicine in Lincolnshire, Illinois. That’s because fragrance is a common source of allergic contact dermatitis. It could take several exposures for the skin to react, or you might see a reaction the very first time, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

Check the ingredients list for the word "fragrance," and remember "fragrance- free" is your friend. Body lotions and creams may do more harm than good when packed with perfumes. Read labels carefully. Lavender oil and other botanical oils have natural preservative properties and are used in cosmetics that may still be labeled “fragrance free.”

2. Soap May Sap Moisture From the Skin and Scalp

“Many soaps, detergents, and shampoos subtract moisture from your skin and scalp, as they are formulated to remove oil,” says Gretchen Frieling, MD, a board-certified dermatopathologist in Newton, Massachusetts. It’s important to carefully choose face washes, body washes, and laundry detergents. Using only moisturizing body wash is better than a harsh bar soap, says Jeffrey Benabio, MD, a dermatologist at Kaiser Permanente in San Diego. Joel Schlessinger, MD, a dermatologist in Omaha, Nebraska, warns against harsh detergents — and even fabric softeners — if you have dry skin. Instead, look for gentle laundry soaps like Seventh Generation Free and Clear.

3. Genetics Can Affect Your Risk for Dry Skin

Chalk it up to another thing you can blame on your mom and dad: Researchers say that dry skin can be inherited. According to a study, mutations in genes that control the production of the protein filaggrin, which plays a role in forming and hydrating the skin barrier, can cause several skin conditions. People with these mutations, estimated to be about 10 percent of the population, suffer drier skin and have a greater chance of developing eczema. Atopic dermatitis is a common type of eczema.

If you've always had dry skin or if it runs in your family, it's essential that you're diligent with daily moisturization. "Look for ceramides and lipids in moisturizers, which help build and reinforce the skin barrier," says Joshua Zeichner, MD, the director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.

4. Hard Water Can Prevent Moisturizers From Absorbing

When tap water contains a high concentration of minerals like magnesium and calcium, it's known as hard water, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Those minerals can leave a film on skin that causes dryness. "Heavy metals turn the oils on skin into a thick substance that plugs glands, aggravates conditions like acne and rosacea, and prevents moisturizers from being absorbed into the skin," says Dennis Gross, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and dermatologic surgeon in New York City. Investing in a home filtration system, whether a whole-house treatment or one that attaches to the faucet, can help, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Dr. Gross also recommends adding skin-care products that contain vitamins A and C to your routine because they counteract the coating deposited by hard water.

5. Acne Medications and Retinol Speed Skin Cell Turnover, Causing Dryness

The best frequency will depend on your specific skin type, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. Take burning, peeling, and flaking as signs you need to stop using the product, Dr. Frieling says. “This is not something to play guessing games with and use trial and error,” she notes. Schedule an appointment with your dermatologist and bring the product with you so the doctor can evaluate it and make sure it’s right for your skin.

6. Dry Air, Indoors or Out, Can Increase Symptoms of Dry Skin

Sometimes the air inside can be as punishing on your skin as the air outside. Forced air, especially heat, can draw humidity levels down, making skin feel dry and itchy, Frieling says. Luckily, you don’t need to suffer with dry, itchy skin all winter: A humidifier can help restore moisture to the air in your house. It’s best to set yours between 30 and 50 percent humidity, according to the Cleveland Clinic. "Additionally, it's a good idea to keep a mild — 1 percent — hydrocortisone cream on hand. Use it early if you see signs of chapped or dry skin," Dr. Schlessinger says. Hydrocortisone, which sometimes requires a prescription, reduces swelling, redness, and itching and helps heal and soothe dry, chapped skin and speed its healing, according to MedlinePlus.

7. Zealous Handwashing Can Lead to Redness and Irritation

"Some people with dry skin just wash their hands constantly," Forman Taub says. That won’t help the dryness because too much washing can lead to dry, cracked skin, according to Piedmont Healthcare. This can be a big issue for people who work in industries that require frequent handwashing, such as health care. To mitigate the drying effects of your sanitary habit, use lukewarm water (hot water strips your skin’s moisture), avoid alcohol-based soaps, and blot your hands dry instead of rubbing them with a paper towel, according to EveryNurse. Ointments tend to be thicker than moisturizers, so keep an ointment (such as Aquaphor) on hand and apply after each wash.

10. Certain Medical Conditions Can Cause Dry Skin

Skin issues such as psoriasis and eczema can make your skin more prone to dryness, Frieling says. But dry skin could also indicate something seemingly unrelated, such as diabetes, hypothyroidism, malnutrition, kidney failure, or Sjögren's syndrome, according to Harvard Health and Penn Medicine. So how might you know if the dryness is the result of something run-of-the-mill like the weather or something more serious? Frieling says to be on the lookout for inflamed areas, crusting, intense itchiness, hyperpigmentation, and rough, flaky, or scaly patches on the skin and take those as a hint it’s time to visit a doctor. Once you’ve nailed down the root cause for the dryness, your doctor can help you determine the proper treatment.