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The major causes of dry skin

Dry skin isn’t only annoying—it can also be painful. The first step to treating dry skin is understanding the underlying causes. We sought some professional help from Dr. Suzan Obagi and she clued us in to the causes of dry skin and what we can do to cure it.

The major causes of dry skin

Cracked. Red. Raw. Irritated. All words used to describe the painful—and annoying—problem of dry skin.

More than 20 percent of people regularly suffer from dry skin. The first step to combating this painful problem is understanding the underlying causes of dry skin.

We sought help from Dr. Suzan Obagi, professor of dermatology at the University of Pittsburgh, and she clued us in on the major causes of dry winter skin and what you can do to minimize it this winter.

1Dry air

Low temperatures and fierce winds zap the humidity out of the air, taking your skin’s moisture with it. Your skin needs at least 60 percent humidity to maintain moisture—the average central heating system in your home or office dips down to 40 percent humidity in the winter. The result? Dry, itchy skin that can crack and bleed without proper hydration. Keep your home or office at proper moisture levels with a humidifier during the winter months.

2Hot showers and baths

Hot water feels amazing on cold days, but it doesn’t do your skin any favors. Hot water strips your skin of natural oils, leaving it with a dry, tight feeling; therefore, short, lukewarm showers are preferred over long, hot baths. A good rule of thumb is to keep your showers under 10 minutes and dry off with quick pats from an absorbent towel.


Many soaps are designed with harsh detergents designed to strip dirt off of skin. Unfortunately, the soap also takes your skin’s natural oils and vital moisture along with it.

Few people get dirty enough to need soap, especially in the winter. Dr. Obagi recommends washing the main areas of your body with water and save the soap for the “dirty areas,” the groin and armpits. “Water alone is usually enough to cleanse the skin of the arms and legs without risking the drying effects of soap,” she says.

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4Misusing lotion

Moisturizers work wonders on dry skin, if used correctly. Unfortunately, many dry skin sufferers use lotion after their skin is already dry; Dr. Obagi recommends using lotion when your skin is damp. “Using a thick body cream while your skin is still damp helps ‘lock-in’ moisture,” she says.

Also, using the right moisturizer for your skin type is important for combating dry skin. Avoid lotions with fragrance if you have sensitive skin and use a heavy-duty body cream if you have rough patches on the skin. Dr. Obagi also recommends using lotions with 12 percent lactic acid to help slough off rough patches of dry skin.


You probably have that one sweater in your closet that you both love and loathe. You know the one—it’s warm, but oh so itchy. Unfortunately, the material is irritating your skin and could eventually create a painful rash. Can’t bear to part with your favorite wardrobe staple? Layer it with a more comfortable cotton top underneath.

Too tight clothes can also cause skin problems when the material continually rubs against already dry skin. Avoid this by wearing looser clothing that fits your body type—and consider using dye- or fragrance-free detergents to wash your clothes.

6Medical conditions

Hormones, medical conditions, and other uncontrollable factors can cause dry skin. Eczema, psoriasis, hypothyroidism, malnutrition, and hormonal changes are all known to cause dry skin in people both young and old.

If you have a condition that contributes to your dry skin, ask your doctor to help treat the underlying cause (e.g., diabetes, hypothyroidism, etc.) and your dry skin problem will improve over time. Doctors should also treat eczema and psoriasis with special skincare regimens designed to combat these causes of dry skin.


Many medications that work wonders for certain ailments will noticeably dry out your skin. For example, some blood pressure patients take diuretics to avoid fluid build-up and acne sufferers use medications to keep their skin’s oil production at bay. The result? Skin doesn’t get the oil and hydration it needs to keep skin moisturized.

If you take one of these prescriptions, consider asking your doctor to switch your dosage or prescribe an alternative medication to treat your condition and keep your skin’s moisture balanced.

More help for dry skin

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