The Causes and Treatment of Scaling Skin

Scales occur when the outermost layer of the epidermis becomes dry and flaky and peels. The excess of dead skin cells results in the appearance of scaly skin. Scales can be very thin and fine, as with pityriasis rosea, or thick, as with psoriasis.

Scaling skin is also referred to as peeling skin, flaking skin, dropping of scales, and desquamation. On visible parts of the body, like the face, hands, and feet, scaling skin can be particularly embarrassing. Scales can also become itchy and inflamed.

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Scaly, dry soles of feet
Scaly, dry soles of feet. ArveBettum / iStockphoto


Dry, scaling skin can be caused by a number of external factors, including the weather, central heating, hot baths, and harsh soaps and detergents. People who have skin conditions, like eczema and psoriasis, are more prone to scaling skin.

Scaling skin that isn't brought on by external factors is often a symptom of an existing condition, including, but not limited to:


Dry skin is common, especially during the winter, so you might "fix" it by applying lotion. But if a moisturizing lotion doesn't improve your skin, you might want to schedule an appointment with your healthcare provider. You should also see a practitioner if you experience any of the following:

  • Your skin is dry and red.
  • Your skin is so dry and itchy that it affects your everyday life, including the ability to sleep.
  • You have open sores due to scratching.
  • There are large patches of scaling skin.

Other things to consider include when the scales first appeared and if you started using any new products. The more information you can offer your practitioner, including your medical history and symptoms, the more accurate the diagnosis. What could also help in diagnosing the problem is letting your practitioner know if anything provides relief.

Your healthcare provider might refer you to a dermatologist if your condition is out of their wheelhouse.


The exact treatment method of scaling skin depends upon what caused the scales and the severity of the condition. In many cases, scaling skin is treated with a topical cream you can pick up at the drugstore. Your healthcare provider may recommend an over-the-counter cream that contains lactic acid or a combination of lactic acid and urea.

In cases of allergic reactions, discontinuing contact or use of the allergen would solve your problem. But you should see what is triggering the scales so seeing an allergist might be helpful.

If your skin scales are a sign of atopic dermatitis, ichthyosis, or psoriasis, your practitioner may prescribe you a topical cream or ointment, like a hydrocortisone. Depending on the severity, oral medication, like a steroid, may be prescribed.

Scaling skin rarely constitutes a medical emergency, but it still happens. An allergic reaction, for example, can become deadly if it isn't dealt with. Seek immediate medical attention if you exhibit any of the following:

  • Hives
  • Swelling
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Fever
  • Severe weakness
  • Sudden and severe blistering


There are a number of measures you can take to keep your skin healthy, whether you have a pre-existing skin condition like eczema or not. If your scales appeared due to an allergic reaction, simply avoid your allergens.

Apply lotions that contain emollients or ceramides as needed. Avoid taking long, excessively hot baths. After bathing, pat the skin dry and apply a moisturizer. Don't use products that contain harsh chemical ingredients. Use gentle cleansers and body care products with added moisturizers.

3 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.
  1. Cleveland Clinic. Dry skin/itchy skin. 2019.

  2. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Dermatologists' top tips for relieving dry skin. 2019.

  3. Eichenfield LF, Tom WL, Berger TG, et al. Guidelines of care for the management of atopic dermatitis: section 2. Management and treatment of atopic dermatitis with topical therapies. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2014;71(1):116-32. doi:10.1016/j.jaad.2014.03.023

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.