Updated 11 August 2014

Dry skin

The skin's oil glands produce natural oil, which protects the skin against water loss. Dry skin (xerosis) can be the result when the oil is depleted.



The skin's oil glands produce natural oil, which protects the skin against water loss. Dry skin (xerosis) can be the result when the oil is depleted.

Most people struggle with dry skin at some point in their lives, especially when they are past middle age. The lower legs, sides of the abdomen, arms and thighs are most commonly affected.

Dry skin can result in scaling, flaking or itching and the appearance of fine wrinkles. It is rarely a serious condition. However, some people suffer from a severe form of dry skin called ichthyosis vulgaris. This condition develops when the skin cells fail to shed and form thick, dry scales instead, hence the alternative name: fish scale disease. It can be inherited, or may be due to other medical conditions, such as Aids or hypothyroidism, and can be disfiguring.


Dry skin is most frequently caused by the following:

  • Weather: It is more common during the winter months, because of the lower humidity. Wind and extreme heat can also dehydrate the skin.
  • Frequent bathing or showering washes away the skin's natural barrier.
  • Harsh soaps, perfumed moisturisers and detergents can dry out the skin.
  • Air conditioners and heaters.
  • Metabolic changes that occur with normal ageing or as a result of certain medical conditions.


Signs and symptoms depend on a person's age, health status, exposure to environmental factors and the cause of the problem. It includes:

  • Discomfort or tightness
  • Skin appears rough, shrunken or dehydrated
  • Itching
  • Fine lines or cracks
  • Severe redness
  • Deep fissures

Prevention and treatment

Dry skin usually responds well to home treatment. Take the following steps:

  • Don't bath or shower more than once a day. Cleanse your face only once a day.
  • Don't use harsh soaps. Mild moisture bars are best. Avoid highly alkaline products, or products that contain alcohol.
  • Use warm (not hot) water.
  • Pat-dry your skin instead of rubbing it.
  • Apply a bath oil or moisturiser on damp skin. Thick, greasy moisturisers are most effective.
  • Use a humidifier if the air is dry.
  • Drink plenty of water throughout the day.
  • Use a sunscreen with a minimum SPF of 15 to retain moisture.

When to see a doctor

Consult a doctor if the condition doesn't respond to home treatment; if it keeps you awake at night; if you have a rash, or open cuts or sores from scratching.



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Skin expert

Dr Suretha Kannenberg holds a degree in Medicine and a Masters in Dermatology from the University of Stellenbosch. She is employed as a consultant dermatologist by Stellenbosch University and Tygerberg Academic Hospital, where she is involved in clinical duties and the training of medical students and dermatology residents. Her areas of interest and research include vitiligo, eczema and acne. She also performs limited private practice work in the Northern suburbs of Cape Town in general and cosmetic dermatology.

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