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Xerosis is the medical term used to describe dry skin. The condition occurs when the outer layer of skin loses moisture, causing roughness, itching and redness. The most common areas affected by xerosis are the face, forearms, hands, lower legs and feet, although it can appear anywhere on the body. Individuals exposed to excessive levels of sunlight and air pollutants are more prone to developing dry skin, and the problem appears more frequently in winter, when relative humidity is lower.
Older people often develop xerosis, as the outer layer of skin becomes less able to hold moisture with age. Some prescription medications can also cause the condition by changing the chemical composition of the skin. Other common causes include the use of harsh soaps and detergents, frequent bathing in hot water and genetic inheritance.
The symptoms of xerosis are easily recognized and include itching, flaking patches of skin, which often worsen during winter or in areas of low humidity. In severe cases, the skin may begin to crack, which can lead to more serious problems. If irritants enter the cracks in dry skin, reddening, swelling, scaling and localized pain may occur. This is an indicator of eczema, a chronic, recurring, inflammatory skin condition that requires medical attention.
Xerosis is typically an incurable condition, but symptoms can be controlled with proper skin care techniques. Bathing or showering only once per day, using moisturizing soap with few chemical additives and wearing clothing made of natural materials can help reduce the frequency of outbreaks. A humidifier inside the home can also help reduce dry skin, as well as using a daily moisturizer on the areas most prone to xerosis.
Moisturizers that contain petroleum or lanolin are best, as these ingredients trap and hold moisture in the skin. Individuals that are susceptible to xerosis should apply moisturizer generously and frequently, particularly after bathing, swimming or being outdoors in cold weather for long periods of time. Skin care products that contain alcohol and fragrances are more likely to dry out the skin and should be avoided.
In rare cases, prescription products may be necessary to control xerotic skin. Creams that contain high levels of lactic or glycolic acid keep the skin moist and help remove painful scales. Prescription products that contain urea, an organic compound produced by the body when protein is metabolized, may also be used to moisturize the driest areas of skin. If the skin becomes red, swollen or painful due to xerosis, a doctor may prescribe corticosteroid ointment that will reduce these symptoms.