Causes of Dry, Itchy, and Flaky Skin

Dry skin is a skin issue that affects people in varying degrees. It usually isn't a serious issue. Some people occasionally have mildly tight or flaky skin that goes away with a good moisturizer. Others have flaking and itching so bad that it's physically uncomfortable and affects their ability to sleep.

Many of the causes of dry skin listed below affect the stratum corneum: the top layer of the epidermis. The stratum corneum works like plastic wrap around the body by keeping harmful substances and germs out and keeping water and oils in, making skin soft and supple.

Before you reach for your favorite moisturizer, see if any of these seven causes could be to blame for your dry skin.


Affectionate grandmother and granddaughter hugging on the beach
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Older age is one of the most common causes of dry skin. As we age the epidermis becomes thinner and the stratum corneum can't retain as much water as it once could. Many people start getting dry skin in their 50s; by our 60s, almost everyone is experiencing some degree of dry skin. Unfortunately, it's unavoidable.


Woman in snowfall

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Climate has a huge impact on skin. In general, skin is at its driest during the winter when the temperature and humidity levels drop, and cold winds suck moisture out of the skin. Cold weather also calls for heat and more time spent indoors, which also dries out skin. Central heat, space heaters, and fireplaces all wreak havoc on the skin's moisture levels.

Conversely, even weather in warm areas can cause dry skin. For example, desert regions might have warm temperatures, but they also have low humidity levels, which strips the skin of moisture.

Sun Exposure

Black woman leaning out car window

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Sun exposure in any climate can dry out the skin. UV rays penetrate deep below the skin's surface, which also creates wrinkles and sagging in addition to dryness. The heat of the sun dries out skin by reducing its natural oil levels.


Woman washing face with wash cloth over sink, side view

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Water is good for the skin. That is when you drink it. Water can actually dry out the skin because when it evaporates, it takes the skin's natural oils with it. Swimming in a pool, especially one that's heavily chlorinated, and taking excessively hot baths, can seriously dry out skin. The more frequently skin comes in contact with water and the hotter that water is, the more oils leach out, leaving skin with that dry, tight, uncomfortable feeling.

Soaps and Detergents

The woman is washing her face.

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Soaps and detergents cause dry skin in the same way water does. They surround the water molecules in the skin and take them with when they're rinsed off. Certain soaps and deodorants are typically the most drying. Some liquid body cleansers actually help moisturize the skin.

A good rule of thumb to follow is that any bar soap is going to be harsher on the skin than a liquid soap.


Hispanic girl putting on acne cream

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There are certain medications that cause dry skin by reducing the stratum corneum's water levels, making it porous and leaky. Some common medications that cause dry skin are diuretics like hydrochlorothiazide or furosemide, Retin-A, cholesterol medication like pravastatin and simvastatin, and Accutane.

Diseases & Skin Conditions

Mid adult woman applying lotion on her legs

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Certain diseases and skin conditions cause dry skin for different reasons. Dry, flaky skin is the hallmark symptom of two common skin diseases: atopic dermatitis and psoriasis. Malnutrition, kidney disease, and dialysis can all cause dry skin because they can deprive the skin of essential vitamins.

9 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Farage MA, Miller KW, Elsner P, Maibach HI. Characteristics of the aging skin. Advances in Wound Care. 2013;2(1):5-10. doi:10.1089/wound.2011.0356

  3. Engebretsen K, Johansen J, Kezic S, Linneberg A, Thyssen J. The effect of environmental humidity and temperature on skin barrier function and dermatitis. J Eur Acad Dermatol and Venereol. 2016;30(2):223-249. doi:10.1111/jdv.13301

  4. Goad N, Gawkrodger D. Ambient humidity and the skin: the impact of air humidity in healthy and diseased states. J Eur Acad Dermatol and Venereol. 2016;30(8):1285-1294. doi:10.1111/jdv.13707

  5. Flament F, Bazin R, Rubert , Simonpietri , Piot B, Laquieze. Effect of the sun on visible clinical signs of aging in Caucasian skin. CCID. 2013;6: 221–232. doi:10.2147/CCID.S44686

  6. Penn Medicine. The winter itch: what causes dry skin, and what you can do about it.

  7. U.S. Pharmacist. Causes and treatment of dry skin.

  8. Griffiths CEM, van de Kerkhof P, Czarnecka-Operacz M. Psoriasis and atopic dermatitis. Dermatol Ther (Heidelb). 2017;7(S1):31-41. doi:10.1007/s13555-016-0167-9

  9. Combs SA, Teixeira JP, Germain MJ. Pruritus in kidney disease. Seminars in Nephrology. 2015;35(4):383-391. doi:10.1016/j.semnephrol.2015.06.009

By Heather L. Brannon, MD
Heather L. Brannon, MD, is a family practice physician in Mauldin, South Carolina. She has been in practice for over 20 years.