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What Causes Dry Skin? 6 Medical Conditions You Need To Know

by
Sara Coughlin
Author
Medically Reviewed
March 19, 2021

Spring is just around the corner which means goodbye dry indoor air, hello sun-drenched picnics in the cool breeze. And yes, your skin will thank you—especially if you are prone to chapped and ultra-dry winter skin. However, irritated skin can happen at any time of year and for a myriad of reasons. So, what causes dry skin?

Below, with insight from Annemieke Austin, MD , a family medicine physician at Parsley Health, we’ll take a closer look at the lesser-known causes of dry skin that you need to be aware of the next time your skin starts to look a little flaky and parched.

First, rule out non-urgent causes.

Of course, dry skin is about as common as a condition can be—and there are plenty of commonplace explanations for it when it crops up. For one, Dr. Austin says dry skin can occur due to environments in which there’s less moisture in air (like low-humidity or cold climates) or homes with forced heat or air conditioning. For another, she notes that our habits and choices can also lead to dry skin, particularly those around personal care products. Soaps can be drying in general, and excessive cleansing and washing (something we can all relate to, thanks to the pandemic) will only dry skin out to a greater degree.

Eating habits can also play a role in our skin’s health, Dr. Austin says. Specifically, people whose diets lack sufficient amounts of vitamins A, C, and E, as well as zinc , may deal with dry skin. All of these nutrients play important roles in maintaining skin function and structure. Without them, the skin’s moisture barrier won’t retain its natural oils and moisture as effectively as it should, leading to dryness. That’s just one of many reasons why Parsley Health providers test all members for vitamin deficiencies as part of a baseline testing panel.

While these causes of dry skin aren’t life-threatening, unless you have a severe nutrient deficiency, they can certainly be frustrating. Luckily, treatment typically involves relatively easy lifestyle or diet changes .

Next, try a holistic dry skin treatment.

If you believe your environment or lifestyle is to blame for your dry skin, treating it at home is a smart first step. Dr. Austin recommends using a cream (not lotion, which can contain drying ingredients like alcohol) right after you get out of the shower. Apply the cream while your skin is still slightly damp, in order to lock in as much moisture as possible. And, ideally, your showers are brief, with lukewarm (rather than blazing hot) water and gentle cleansers.

In addition to treating dry skin topically , you can also use a humidifier to increase the moisture in the air of your home, and add foods rich in the aforementioned nutrients plus healthy fats to your diet, which Dr. Austin recommends for healthier skin. Eggs, fish, and orange or yellow produce are great sources of vitamin A, while eating more citrus fruits, dark green vegetables, and tomatoes will increase your vitamin C intake. You can get more vitamin E from nuts, seeds, and leafy vegetables, and more Zinc from meats, whole grains, and beans. Finally, avocados and olive oil should be your go-to sources of good-for-you fats.

You should hope to see improvements in your dry skin after adopting these changes, but if you don’t, further action may be needed. If you need extra support in making nutritional changes, you can also work with a nutritionist or health coach, like those at Parsley Health .

Watch for accompanying symptoms.

Dry skin alone doesn’t always signal something serious, but if it isn’t reduced after a holistic dry skin treatment , or comes with other symptoms (like fatigue or chronic diarrhea) it may indicate underlying health conditions—and some may require a diagnosis and treatment plan from your doctor. If you suspect you might be dealing with any of these issues, contact your doctor .

Eczema

The key symptom that will tip you off as to whether your dry skin is actually eczema is itchiness, Dr. Austin says. She adds that you should also look out for redness and inflammation , and be aware that eczema can appear anywhere on the body. According to the American Academy of Dermatology , eczema can occur if your skin comes into contact with an irritating substance, as a result of an allergic reaction, or even due to stress. Eczema is also symptomatic of immune system dysregulation .

New research suggests that treating the body’s immune response may be more effective against eczema than previously thought, which is why Parsley Health clinicians work with members who have eczema to reduce inflammation. You can also begin a dry skin treatment at home by avoiding irritating products and allergens and moisturizing your skin regularly.

Psoriasis

Dr. Austin describes psoriasis as an autoimmune condition in which skin builds up in flaky, silvery plaques, most frequently around points of extension like the elbows and knees. Your skin will not only feel dry but appear thick and scaly, too. Psoriasis is a chronic condition that tends to flare up in response to stress, infections or illnesses, physical injury to the area, and cold dry weather. Dermatologists typically treat psoriasis with topical or oral steroids, which help thin out those plaques of dry skin. Light therapy, retinoids, and supplemental vitamin D are other common forms of treatment. Similar to eczema treatment, at Parsley Health your care team would work with you to decrease inflammation that can exacerbate psoriasis and other autoimmune symptoms.

Vitamin malabsorption

If your diet is rich in nutrients known to bolster skin health and moisture, and still you experience dry skin, you may have a gut issue, Dr. Austin says. You should be all the more suspicious if you experience chronic diarrhea, loose stools, or weight loss. People with inflammatory bowel disease, Crohn’s disease, or celiac disease are more likely to deal with vitamin malabsorption and the dry skin that results from it. Parsley Health doctors focus on getting to the root cause of why you may not be properly absorbing nutrients and work to heal the gut .

Thyroid disease

Dr. Austin says that both hyperthyroidism (in which the thyroid gland overproduces the metabolism-regulating hormone thyroxine) and hypothyroidism (in which the thyroid gland doesn’t produce enough thyroxine) can cause dry skin. With the former, you may also notice weight loss, nervousness, and an increase in heart rate, appetite, and bowel movements. Meanwhile, the latter will likely come with constipation, sensitivity to cold, weight gain, and joint pain. Both are indicated by fatigue , an enlarged thyroid gland, weakness, and irregular periods. It’s important to see your doctor right away if you think you may have thyroid disease, as it can pose risks to your long-term health. Parsley’s clinicians run extensive thyroid tests to identify thyroid issues and formulate a personalized treatment plan.

Kidney disease

While dry skin isn’t the main symptom of kidney disease, and will only appear later into its progression, it bears noting. Dialysis, the form of treatment in which excess water is removed from the body, will exacerbate dry skin if it’s related to kidney disease. As far as treating dry skin in this specific case goes, your best course of action is to talk to your doctor and make the environmental and lifestyle changes mentioned above. Both should at least help to counteract the drying effects of kidney disease and its treatment.

Bottom line: Don’t ignore dry skin.

Whether you’re dealing with dry skin due to a change in season or an underlying condition that is more serious, it’s important to address it immediately—if for no other reason than dry skin is downright uncomfortable. Beyond the discomfort, of course, is the fact that you could be overlooking a condition that requires medical attention. If you’ve been adhering to a dry skin treatment and nothing seems to help, get in touch with your doctor or schedule a free consultation with a Parsley Health advisor.

by
Sara Coughlin
Author

Sara Coughlin is a writer living in Brooklyn, NY. She's covered health, wellness, and lifestyle trends for such publications as Refinery29, InStyle, SELF, Livestrong, and Food52.

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