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Xeroderma (dry skin)

Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 3 minutes read
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Under its fancy Greek title of xeros (dry) and derma (skin), dry skin can be intensely itchy. It feels rough and flakes easily. Cracks and redness can form in more severe cases.

It affects both sexes and is more common in Caucasian skin than in those with higher oil content, such as Afro-Caribbean or Mediterranean skin types.

Children can be particularly at risk, which may take the form of eczema - where inflammation of the uppermost layer of skin causes dryness, which is most likely to appear on the insides of elbows or the backs of knees. Eczema may run in families or go alongside asthma or hay fever.

Dry skin is a variant of normal skin and is not contagious.

Doctor’s advice

How common is it?

Dry skin is very common in the elderly, owing to loss of elasticity, collagen, and fat (asteatosis) - this commonly occurs on the lower legs. A lack of estrogen can cause the same effect in menopausal women. The key to treating this is to moisturize, moisturize, moisturize, particularly in winter, if you live in a hard water area, if you are addicted to long hot bubble baths, and if you are elderly or post-menopausal.

Healthwords pharmacists' top tips

A plethora of emollients can be used to treat dry skin conditions and help retain moisture in the skin. It is often a case of trying and finding the right one (or a combination) that works best for your skin type or condition.

Emollients can come in a variety of formulations, such as creams, ointments, and oils, as well as soap substitutes and bath additives. They all serve the same purpose of aiming to moisturize the skin.

Creams generally absorb quite well into the skin, provide a good moisture barrier, and hydrate the top layers of the skin, known as the epidermis. This can help treat dry and dehydrated skin cells and help to maintain elasticity, and prevent cracks in the top skin layer.

Ointments generally do not absorb as well into the skin as creams and are often greasier in consistency. They tend to sit on top of the skin and provide an additional barrier over the skin. This is particularly useful for very dry skin or in harsh weather conditions.

Ointments can be used alone or in combination with creams; however, creams should be used first and be allowed to absorb into the skin, ideally for around 30 minutes, before an ointment is used to provide an additional greasy barrier over the skin.

Lotions and oils can be used instead of creams and ointments where the area of skin to be moisturized is over a large area or over a particularly hairy area since these are finer in consistency and are easier to apply.

For particularly sensitive skin, it is ideal to use very mild skin products that are either hypoallergenic, fragrance free, or dye free where possible, especially for children’s skin. Many emollients are designed to moisturize the skin and can also be used as soap substitutes or bath additives.

Am I fit for work?

Yes, you are fit for work if you have dry skin.

When should I see my doctor?

If your itch is not responding to over-the-counter remedies, it's widespread, or you develop a rash, you should book an urgent appointment with your doctor, who will discuss your symptoms and examine you. They may decide to send you for further tests and refer you, if necessary, to a specialist.

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Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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