Skip to Content

Dry Skin (Xeroderma)



James G. H. Dinulos

, MD, Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth

Last full review/revision May 2021| Content last modified May 2021

Xeroderma is ordinary dry skin.

(See also Itching.)

Normal skin owes its soft, pliable texture to its water content. To help protect against water loss, the outer layer of skin contains oil, which slows evaporation and holds moisture in the deeper layers of skin. If the oil is depleted, the skin becomes dry. Dry skin, unless it is an inherited disorder or is caused by another condition, is called xeroderma.

Dry skin is common, especially among people past middle age. Risk factors for dry skin include

  • Cold, dry weather
  • Frequent bathing, particularly if using harsh soaps
  • Atopic dermatitis
  • Older age

Bathing washes away surface oils, allowing the skin to dry out. Dry skin may become irritated and often itches. Sometimes it sloughs off in small flakes and scales. Scaling most often affects the lower legs. Rubbing or scratching dry skin can lead to infection and scarring.

Diagnosis of Dry Skin

  • A doctor's examination of the skin

Doctors diagnose dry skin when they see dry, mildly to moderately scaly skin that comes off in small flakes.

Treatment of Dry Skin

  • Moisturizers
  • Other measures to prevent dryness

The key to treating dry skin is keeping the skin moist. Taking fewer baths and using lukewarm instead of hot water allows protective oils to remain on the skin. Moisturizing ointments or creams containing petroleum jelly, mineral oil, or glycerin can also hold water in the skin and should be used immediately after bathing. Moisturizers that contain certain substances such as lactic acid or salicylic acid can also be used. Harsh soaps, detergents, and the perfumes in some moisturizers irritate the skin and may further dry it.

Drugs Mentioned In This Article

Generic Name Select Brand Names
salicylic acid No US brand name

Copyright © 2022 Merck & Co., Inc., known as MSD outside of the US, Kenilworth, New Jersey, USA. All rights reserved. Merck Manual Disclaimer