How dry is too dry?

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Dry skin might seem inevitable when the temperature drops and your home's internal heating system fires up, but at a certain point, your symptoms might go beyond run-of-the-mill dehydration. When they do, it's imperative to make an appointment with your dermatologist—but how dry, exactly, is too dry, and how can you know when it's truly time to seek out professional help?

Exacerbating Factors

Before we dive into dry skin symptoms and signs that warrant a dermatologist's attention, let's first explore what exacerbates this condition. According to board-certified dermatologist Dr. Corey L. Hartman, the founder of Skin Wellness Dermatology in Birmingham, Alabama, classic winter (or even fall) temperatures are harsh; the low humidity that accompanies these seasons can cause skin to dry out and become itchy, cracked, and irritated. "Cold air also tightens pores, reduces oil production, and reduces circulation," he shares, which is why the dermis often feels so parched during the colder months. It is not, however, solely the weather's fault. Dr. Hartman reminds us that hot showers and indoor heat also promote dryness.

Prevention

Yes, dry skin is often seasonal—but you don't have to move to a warmer climate to find relief. Instead, board-certified dermatologist Dr. Hadley King notes that taking a preventative approach and adding as much moisture back into our skin and immediate environment (including our home and office) is key. "This means using a humidifier, limiting time in baths or showers, using gentle cleansers, and moisturizing, moisturizing, moisturizing," she says, noting that lotions made with humectants, emollients, and occlusives will best trap in hydration. In addition to choosing a cream with the right ingredients, Dr. King says it's extremely beneficial to apply it at the right time.

"Immediately after you shower, even before your skin is dry, apply emollients to lock in the moisture," she says. "You may need heavier emollients and occlusives in the winter than you do during the warmer months—and you may need to apply more." That said, she encourages you to apply as much as necessary; you should walk out of your bathroom feeling truly hydrated from head to toe. "If your skin seems to quickly absorb what you have applied, then you need to either apply more or switch to a more moisturizing product," she adds.

applying lotion on shoulder
Credit: Prostock-Studio / Getty Images

Severe Symptoms

If none of the above measures do your skin any good, it's time to re-evaluate your methods. After all, what might seem like seasonal dry skin may very well point to a bigger problem. "Dry skin that is not alleviated by moisturizers and experiences redness, swelling, flaking, burning, itching, or pustules could indicate a more severe dry skin condition associated with inflammation," explains board-certified dermatologist Dr. Naissan Wesley. When these symptoms arise, it's time to consult a dermatologist.

Dermatologist Intervention

According to Dr. Hartman, once the itch cycle begins (which is common in severely dry skin conditions), it is difficult to break it and restore the skin barrier without prescription medication and a dermatologist-recommended product regimen, which "includes mild cleansers and emollient creams containing ceramides, oils, squalene, or petrolatum," he shares. While you might feel like a skin care aficionado capable of selecting your own formulas, Dr. Hartman reminds us that "dermatologists can recommend the appropriate gentle cleansers to spare some naturally-occurring skin oils, emollient creams and ointments to seal in hydration and restore the skin barrier, prescription topical steroids and immunomodulators to control the inflammation that leads to the rash, humidifiers to drive in moisture, and antihistamines to help control the itch."

What's more, he says that in extreme cases—namely ones that develop into infections—a dermatologist is able to prescribe prescription antibiotics get dangerous problems under control. A doctor won't only suggest products and prescribe medicine, though: They'll be able to get to the root of the problem. "A dermatologist can properly assess the reason behind the dry skin condition, and diagnose and treat any conditions that are beyond dry skin," Dr. Wesley says. "Some of these conditions may involve underlying inflammation that can require treatment with lifestyle or product changes or prescription medications."

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