Dry or itchy skin

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What is dry or itchy skin?

Dry or itchy skin is a common problem which can often be found on any part of the body. When your skin is dry or itchy it’s much harder for it to function as a natural barrier to the world around you.

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What causes it?

In most cases, there isn’t one single root cause. Your skin is influenced by the genes you inherit, so you might naturally be more prone to dry or itchy skin. The environment can also cause skin that’s already prone to dryness or itchiness to lose more moisture. Humidity, cold winter air and wind or using harsh soap products can make your skin feel worse. Also, your skin can become more dry and itchy as you age.

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How is it different to healthy skin?

Healthy skin is like a cobbled path – the stones (skin cells) are held together snugly, with natural oils (lipids) filling the gaps between the cells. This forms the skin’s natural protection barrier keeping moisture in and irritants out.

Dry skin is more like crazy-paving. Skin gets dry when it can’t attract and retain enough moisture. The lipids holding cells tightly together may be lost or damaged, this weakens the skin’s barrier so more moisture can get out, making it even drier.

When your skin’s protective barrier is weakened, it means more irritants can get in. These irritants can cause inflammation of your skin and make it itchy. But the more you scratch and irritate your skin, the more your skin will release chemicals that cause it to itch this is called the itch-scratch cycle. If you keep scratching it can cause further damage to the skin's barrier, making it even drier and itchier over time.

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What are the signs and symptoms?

In mild cases of dry or itchy skin, your skin might feel dry, rough and flaky. You might have itchy red patches or mildly scaly or flaky skin.

Henry's story

“You could play noughts and crosses on my arm – that’s how dry it gets!”

Henry (fitness instructor) moisturises regularly to help keep his skin hydrated

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How can you treat it?

Dry or itchy skin can be a chronic condition. By learning to manage your skin over time with regular use of the appropriate kind of emollient (a dermatological moisturiser) for you, your skin can improve and you can keep your symptoms under control. 

Actively moisturising your skin can help it retain more moisture and protect its natural barrier, by:

  1. Replenishing your skin’s natural oils (lipids) that can trap water in between your skin cells and prevent it from getting out
  2. Supporting the role of natural moisturising factor (NMF) by enhancing your skin’s ability to attract and hold onto water
  3. Maintaining your skin’s naturally acidic pH that can affect the function of its protective barrier 

When you’re treating dry or itchy skin, it’s important to use the appropriate emollient for you as part of a personalised skincare routine. Your routine needs to be something you can manage as easily as possible around other aspects of your life. The more it fits in with what you’re doing, the more you can keep it up and keep your skin healthy.

Many people control their dry or itchy skin by using emollients and soap substitutes – you can find out more about these here. And if your skin is itchy, you could use an emollient that is specially formulated to help relieve the itch.

In severe cases of dry or itchy skin, your skin might bleed or it might feel quite painful. Sometimes, dry skin can be a symptom of other conditions, like eczema, dermatitis, psoriasis or ichthyosis – if you’re worried about this, you should talk to your doctor or pharmacist.

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