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When to see a dermatologist about your dry skin

Lisa A. Goldstein is a freelance journalist with a Master’s in Journalism from UC Berkeley. She loves to read, torment her kids, and can type over 150 words a minute.

How to tell if your dry skin needs a dermatologist visit or just a drugstore cure

Do you feel like you’re turning into a crocodile because your skin is so dry? When is it time to see a zookeeper, err, dermatologist? If you have itchy, dry skin, it could be from the cold weather or harsh water — isn’t this a lovely time of year? But what if it’s an allergic reaction or symptom of an illness? Before you freak out, know that dry skin is common, doesn’t discriminate by age and has many causes.

Over time, people do become more susceptible to developing dry skin, says Dr. Delphine Lee, M.D. Ph.D., dermatologist at John Wayne Cancer Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California.

More: 11 Causes of dry skin that prove you're your own worst enemy

People who have a history of certain skin diseases like eczema are more likely to have dry skin, says Dr. Nada Elbuluk, M.D., MSc, Assistant Professor of Dermatology at Ronald O. Perelman Department of Dermatology at NYU Langone Medical Center, and diplomate of the American Academy of Dermatology. People who spend a lot of time in water (swimmers, people who bathe or shower multiple times a day) and people who live in cold climates with frequent exposure to central heating are also more susceptible to dry skin, she says. So basically, it doesn’t matter whether you live in Florida or New York. Doesn’t that make you feel better?

Children and adults working outdoor jobs also fall in this category, says Dr. Tien Nguyen, M.D., dermatologist at Orange Coast Memorial Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California. People with thin skin are also at risk.

In addition to these risk factors that cause dry skin, other causes include harsh soap, itchy clothing and several drugs, says the American Skin Association (ASA). Dry skin often worsens in winter, but constant exposure to air conditioning also results in similar effects. (There’s that Florida reference again!)

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Usually, dry skin isn’t serious but it can be difficult to treat. It can also be related to other skin diseases or associated with conditions like diabetes, hypothyroidism, hyperthyroidism, Sjogren syndrome and malnutrition, the ASA says.

According to the AAD, extremely dry skin can be a warning sign of a skin condition called dermatitis or eczema, which means inflammation of the skin. It can look like an itchy rash or patches of dry, irritated skin. The earlier dermatitis is diagnosed and treated, the better, because otherwise it can get worse.

When dry skin cracks, germs can get in through the skin and cause infection, says the AAD. Red, sore spots on the skin may be early signs of infection.

“Usually dry skin improves with simple measures such as taking shorter showers, using warm and not hot water, and using thick moisturizing creams and emollients on a regular basis,” says Dr. Elbuluk. “If it does not improve after trying these measures, then one should see a board-certified dermatologist for further evaluation.” The general rule of thumb is to give these at-home treatments about two weeks to work.

More: Woman suffers from excessive skin touching (VIDEO)

If it’s especially severe, comes on suddenly, seems chronic or if you have another medical condition, all the more reason to make an appointment. Dermatologists are trained to make the distinction between dry skin or dry skin caused by another condition, and a diagnosis will exclude more serious conditions.

Luckily there are a lot of easy ways to prevent and treat dry skin, starting with applying moisturizer immediately after bathing. Use a very gentle soap only when necessary, since soap can wash away your skin’s natural oils, Dr. Lee adds.

Other suggestions from the ASA and AAD:

  • Choose short showers over baths
  • Apply moisturizing creams, emollients or ointments several times a day
  • Choose a non-alcohol-based moisturizer
  • Avoid antibacterial soaps
  • Place a humidifier in your home or add it to the central heating system
  • Avoid rubbing or scratching skin
  • Wear gloves, hats and scarves in winter
  • Moisturize right after baths and showers
  • Soften skin before you shave
  • Change razor blades after five to seven shaves
  • Apply cool cloths to itchy dry skin

Typically, the best treatment is a moisturized cream, but a steroid cream or ointment may be prescribed if it's more serious, the ASA says. Antihistamine pills can also be ordered.

Consider dry skin another “perk” of getting older and heed the AAD, which says, “By our 40s many people need to use a good moisturizer every day.” If only we could moisturize those wrinkles away too!

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