How to Find Real Relief for Dry Skin

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We tend to think of itchy skin as an annoyance that grows more common with age, not as a serious health concern. And common it is: A study of more than 300 seniors in Mexico found that 1 in 4 complained of chronic itch.

But itchiness can lead to lost sleep or depression, especially when scratching an itch seems to only make it worse. And itchy skin isn’t just challenging on its own—it can sometimes indicate an underlying medical problem.

The good news is that simple home remedies can often help relieve it, and doctors can help treat more serious cases.

“I really try to get my older patients out of the mindset that dry, itchy skin is something normal that they have to live with,” says Ilana DeLuca, M.D., Ph.D., a clinical assistant professor of dermatology at George Washington University. “You don’t have to just grin and bear it.”

Why Age Is a Factor

For most people, the diagnosis is simple: xerosis, the medical term for dry skin. Xerosis is often exacerbated in the winter by the dry air from home heating systems, but it’s common in seniors year-round.

Later in life, our bodies lose the ability to regenerate the fats and proteins that contribute to a healthy outer layer of skin, says Adam Friedman, M.D., a professor and the interim chair of dermatology at George Washington University. As a result, the skin loses its natural buoyancy and can become drier, rigid, and cracked.

Eczema and Psoriasis

Another common cause of itching is eczema, an umbrella term for several conditions that cause swollen rashes. Older adults with eczema may notice severe skin cracking on the lower legs.

Psoriasis, which is associated with autoimmune problems, can also lead to significant itching. Outbreaks frequently—but not always—occur on the elbows, knees, lower back, and scalp. Psoriasis shows up in red patches covered by a thick crust of dry and cracked skin, which will typically peel off in big white pieces.

Your doctor should be able to diagnose eczema or psoriasis with a physical exam.

Simple Tips for Relief

Small changes in your routine can help you manage itchiness and alleviate xerosis on your own. DeLuca says these steps should work for nine out of 10 people with itchy skin.

Wash with a mild soap. Common soaps can leave your skin itchy and dry. Try a gentle cleanser that’s free of dyes and perfumes.

Cool it with the showers. Washing your skin too frequently can dry it out, so avoid showering more than once a day. You may also want to try lukewarm showers; hotter water can wash away substances in skin that help it retain moisture.

Use a humidifier. This tip is especially useful in winter, when heated indoor air can make dry skin even drier.

Ice the itch. If you need immediate relief—and you’re tempted to scratch—Friedman says that icing the itchy area is a good quick fix.

Chlorinate your bath. Adding just a quarter-cup of bleach to 40 gallons of warm bathwater has been found to be an effective means of combating eczema. But be careful not to use too much.

Use moisturizer effectively. Moisturizers work primarily by locking in moisture your skin already has. So Friedman suggests using one right after you get out of the shower or bath. Wearing gloves or socks for a half-hour after application can also help, he says.

Talk to your doctor. If you’ve tried all of these suggestions and you’re still itching, it might be time to see a dermatologist, says DeLuca. Psoriasis and eczema, for example, can often be treated with topical steroids or narrow-band UVB light therapy. These help some patients, but ongoing steroid use can thin out the skin and light therapy can be time-consuming.

A doctor can investigate other possible causes of unrelenting itchy skin, such as kidney, liver, or thyroid problems. In very rare cases, itching could even be a sign of certain cancers, such as lymphoma. Allergies and medications (particularly opioids) can also make you itchy.

Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the May 2019 issue of Consumer Reports On Health.

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