Dry skin is a common problem caused by a lack of moisture in the epidermis. It is usually caused by a defective barrier function in the epidermis. This often causes the skin to feel dry and rough, and in more severe cases, causes the skin to flake, crack and bleed.Exposure to extreme hot or cold weather with low humidity can rob the skin of moisture. Our skin contains natural oils, which help retain moisture. Excess bathing or using harsh soaps and detergents especially with high pH can strip the skin of these necessary oils. Other contributing factors include chronic sun exposure and smoking, both of which can speed up the skin’s aging process. Nearly everyone experiences dry skin at some point in their lives, and in most cases, it’s a temporary problem that can be easily remedied by staying hydrated and regularly moisturizing the skin.

Common symptoms of dryness include:

Roughness: The skin will feel rough in texture

Tightness: There will often be a feeling of tightness in skin, especially after showering

Irritation: Dry skin will often feel irritated and itchy at times

Flaking: Dry skin can result in flaking, which may be slight or severe

Cracking: In more severe cases, the skin may crack and bleed

The most common cause of dry skin is epidermal dehydration. This can often be the result of not adequately protecting your skin from environmental factors such as the sun and extreme weather conditions. Harsh winter conditions tend to interrupt your skin’s ability to retain adequate hydration levels.

Daily maintenance with moisturizers is essential during colder weather in order to avoid getting trapped in the dry skin cycle. Washing your skin with hot water can also lead to dryness. Although bathing temporarily hydrates your skin, it actually removes the oily lipid layer and very quickly causes more moisture loss than gain, especially if the skin is not moisturized. Using harsh soaps and detergents can also contribute to dry skin.

When the moisture barrier defence system of your skin is compromised, your body compensates by overproducing cells and slowing the natural rate of shedding. The process results in a thicker surface layer that’s comprised of oil and dead skin cells and gives rise to a rough, dull and dry texture. Other contributing factors include smoking and sun exposure, which can greatly accelerate the skin’s aging process, resulting in dryness.

There may also be a genetic component to dry skin. The surface of the skin (called the stratum corneum) is essentially a fat-protein sandwich. The dead cells (called keratinocytes) are the protein component while there is fat in between the cells. The fat component is extruded form cells as they die. The fat is a complex mixture of lipids called ceramides (many subtypes), cholesterol and free fatty acids. A defect in the genes, which controls a substance called filaggrin, has been demonstrated to reduce the barrier function of the skin. This same defect may be seen in individuals with atopic dermatitis and condition called ichthyosis.

If your skin is especially prone to dryness, use gentle cleansers that are free of fragrances and chemicals that may irritate the skin.

Avoid astringents that contain alcohol, which may further dry out skin. Surfactants used in cleansers can sometimes irritate the skin. For example, sodium laurel sulfate, which is commonly found in soap, can be an issue for some. It is important that these surfactants are balanced in order to minimize irritation.

Regular application of a good quality moisturizer will help your skin to retain hydration and minimize the drying effects of extreme temperatures from the outdoor chilly weather and the indoor heat. Products with a thicker consistency (oil or cream base) will be more effective. Frequent applications of lotions and creams can serve to continually replenish lost moisture, and especially help manage the discomfort of chronically dry and irritated skin.If you have dry skin, you may want to use a humidifier in your home to add moisture indoors.

Harsher winter conditions affect your skin’s ability to self-hydrate and maintain its natural moisture barrier function.

To prevent the dry skin caused by sun damage, take precautions before going out into the sun.

Limit sun exposure: Reducing your time in the sun is perhaps the easiest way to avoid damage to your skin caused by UV rays. When outdoors, set a time limit and seek shade when necessary. Also keep in mind that UV radiation is the strongest between the hours of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Use Sunscreen: Sunscreens are an essential part of protection against the sun. Look for sunscreens that are labeled “Broad Spectrum”. They are often the most effective and offer protection against both UVA and UVB rays. Make sure to apply generously and frequently.

Cover and protect: Wrap-around sunglasses, wide-brimmed hats and clothing that covers your arms and legs, can offer extra protection against the sun’s harmful UV rays.

In most cases, dry skin can easily be remedied at home by using over-the-counter skin moisturizing products. Moisturizers traditionally are made up of occlusives, which seal in water. Emollients are a component of moisturizers that smooth the skin and fill in the cracks. Humectants are responsible for pulling water into the skin surface.For skin that is scaly and dry, creams containing humectants such as lactic acid and urea, (which suck water into the skin surface both from lower in the skin and from the air) are recommended.There is also a category of moisturizers that aim to repair the barrier function of the epidermis. These moisturizers contain ceramides, cholesterol and free fatty acids in a ratio that repairs and maintains barrier function.

For severe cases of dry, skin, a doctor may prescribe creams or lotions containing hydrocortisone to soothe areas of irritation.