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Why Is My Skin So Dry?: A Dermatologist Weighs In

Dry skin has a wide variety of causes. Here at Kiehl’s, an expert shares what may be causing your dry skin and how to address it.

If you’ve ever struggled with persistently dry skin, you’ve probably spent a decent amount of time wondering what causes it. It makes sense: If you figure out the underlying cause, you can better address the issue. The thing is, dry skin can have a slew of potential triggers, ranging from genetic to environmental. That can make it tricky to nail down what’s leading to those frustrating symptoms like flakiness and scaling. To help you better understand what could be contributing to your dryness, we spoke with board-certified dermatologist Dr. Brittany Oliver. Here, Dr. Oliver reveals some of the main causes of dry skin and offers her expert advice on what you can do to help alleviate dryness. Keep reading to get the skinny on caring for, nourishing, and managing dry, scaly skin.

What Is Dry Skin, Actually?

We’re guessing you know what dry skin feels like—it’s something nearly everyone experiences occasionally—but you may not know what it is. According to Dr. Oliver, “dry skin is a manifestation of a lack of hydration and moisture in the skin”—specifically, in the skin’s outer layer, the stratum corneum. This outermost layer, she explains, is the skin’s “first line of defense,” which is why it's sometimes referred to as the skin’s natural moisture barrier. It’s made up of various compounds, including sebum, which helps to trap water in the skin. When the skin barrier is “dysfunctional in some manner,” it can’t keep that moisture in effectively. And, over time, this can lead to visible symptoms like ashy skin, roughness, and scaliness.

Why Is My Skin So Dry?

The causes of dryness can vary dramatically, Dr. Oliver says. Generally speaking, though, the causes can be divided into two categories: internal factors and external factors. Internal factors include things like genetics and age. Age is actually a big one—as Dr. Oliver explains, oil production decreases with age, which can cause the skin to become less able to retain moisture. At the same time, “years of exposure to the elements” like air pollution and sunlight can further affect the skin, leaving it dry, rough, and dull-looking.

External factors, meanwhile, typically refer to the environmental causes of dry skin, including harsh weather and low ambient humidity. These, Dr. Oliver says, are among the most common causes of dry skin on the face and body (including less-exposed areas like the armpits). The good news is that while you can’t always control your environment, you can practice proper skincare, which can help to keep the symptoms of dryness at bay.

How To Care For Dry Skin

According to Dr. Oliver, one of the most effective ways to manage dry skin is to moisturize regularly—but we’re guessing you already knew that. Ahead, discover seven more things you can do to help repair and restore dry skin on your face.

Tip #1:

Use a Mild Face Wash

Ultra Facial Cleanser

You might be hesitant to wash your face if you have dry, flaky skin, but cleansing is a necessary step in an effective skincare routine. If you’re prone to dryness, aim to use a gentle cleanser that won’t strip your skin’s natural moisture barrier, like our classic Ultra Facial Cleanser. Made with squalane and glycerin, this mild face wash helps dissolve excess oil, dirt, and debris without over-drying the skin. It’s also pH-balanced to help maintain the skin’s natural protective barrier, making it suitable for all skin types, including dry. When you do wash your face, be sure to do so with cool or lukewarm water—hot water can be too harsh.

Tip #2:

Reach For Gentle Hydrating Products

Toner isn’t typically considered a hydrating product in the way that moisturizer is, but used properly, it can be incredibly helpful in managing dry skin. The key is to opt for one that’s alcohol-free and designed to help hydrate the skin, like our Ultra Facial Toner. Formulated with effective emollients, including vitamin E, apricot kernel oil, and avocado oil, it comforts the skin and helps prepare it for the rest of your routine. Use it immediately after cleansing, then smooth on a hydrating facial serum to help seal in moisture. We suggest Hydro-Plumping Hydrating Serum, which deeply hydrates the skin and helps to improve the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, and dullness—concerns that can be made worse by chronic dryness. A formula with hyaluronic acid, like our Vital Skin Strengthening Super Serum, is also a great option.

Tip #3:

Moisturize Consistently

When it comes to managing patchy, dry skin, Dr. Oliver says, moisturizing—with a formula designed for your skin type— is essential. And not just when your skin feels dry but every day. For lightweight hydration (great for the warmer months), you can opt for a water-based gel moisturizer, such as Calendula Serum-Infused Water Cream. It’s made with concentrated calendula flower extract and provides soothing hydration to help soften and refresh the skin. With continued use over time, the unique moisturizer also helps even skin’s tone, improves texture, and visibly reduces redness for skin that appears fresh and radiant.

If you’re already using a light lotion but your skin has become dry, Dr. Oliver says to consider “reach[ing] for a moisturizing cream.” Our recommendation: Ultra Facial Cream with Squalane. This beloved moisturizer delivers up to 24 hours of hydration, helping to strengthen and repair the skin’s natural moisture barrier. It’s also ideal for addressing dry patches on the face, as the unique formula helps balance the skin’s driest areas with an up to 132% increase in hydration.* And, despite its intense hydrating power, this iconic face cream is lightweight, fast-absorbing, and suitable for all skin types. We suggest applying it twice daily for soft, smooth skin.

*Based on stripped skin instrumental study.

Tip #4:

Don’t Neglect Your Eye Area

Since the skin around your eyes is so thin, it’s especially vulnerable to dryness. That’s why a hydrating eye cream is a must, especially if you’re already prone to dry skin. As for which eye cream to use, we suggest Avocado Eye Cream. The cult-classic eye cream boasts a unique water-in-oil formula that provides instant and long-term hydration without migrating into your eyes. It also helps defend the eye area against digital fatigue caused by exposure to blue light (like the kind that’s emitted by electronic devices). Apply it to your entire eye area twice daily, or use it as a deeply-nourishing 10-minute mask as needed for a noticeably more hydrated eye area.

Tip #5:

Try a Nourishing Mask

Taking the time out of your busy schedule to indulge in a once-weekly face mask isn’t just good for your mental health—it can be hugely beneficial for dry skin, too. To combat occasional dryness, treat yourself to a weekly at-home facial with Avocado Nourishing Hydration Mask. Formulated with avocado oil and extract, this creamy green mask helps seal in moisture to prevent water loss, leaving your skin feeling softer and hydrated within just 15 minutes.

If your skin is frequently dry, or you have dry flaky skin on your face, an overnight mask may be a better option—because they remain on overnight, these powerful formulas can be instrumental in alleviating dryness. To nourish your skin while you sleep, we suggest using Ultra Facial Overnight Hydrating Mask with 10.5% Squalane. This intensively hydrating face mask for dry skin helps replenish your skin’s natural lipids to prevent overnight moisture loss. In addition, the rich balm-to-oil mask helps boost resilience against drying external stressors, leaving your skin protected from dryness for up to three days. We recommend applying the nourishing formula before bed three times per week to help ward off dryness. In the morning, there’s no need to rinse—just follow your usual morning skincare routine for flake-free, healthy-looking skin.

Tip #6:

Use a Humidifier

As we noted above, environmental triggers, like harsh weather, are among the most common causes of dry skin. And while you can’t change the environment outside, you can control your home’s environment. If you have “chronically dry skin,” Dr. Oliver suggests “invest[ing] in a humidifier” to help keep moisture in the air (and, therefore, your skin). Put it on your nightstand and let it run while you sleep to prevent the air from becoming too dry.

Tip #7:

Cut Out Fragrances

Lastly, know that dryness can coincide with other skin concerns, such as irritation. As Dr. Oliver explains, this is chiefly because dry skin can’t protect itself as well from irritants as hydrated, healthy skin can. So if you’re noticing that your dryness is accompanied by sensitivity or irritation, she suggests avoiding potential irritants by steering clear of “perfumes and air fresheners and switching to fragrance-free detergents, cleansers [and] moisturizers.” If, after making the above changes, you’re not seeing the improvement you’re seeking, consider scheduling an appointment with your dermatologist: They can help you determine how to give your skin the targeted care that it needs.

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