Dry skin can be intensely itchy. It feels rough and flakes easily. Cracks and redness can form in more severe cases. It affects both sexes, and is more common in Caucasian skin than those whose skin has a higher oil content, such as Afro-Caribbean or Mediterranean skin types. Children can be particularly at risk, and this may take the form of eczema - where inflammation of the uppermost layer of skin causes dryness, and this is most likely to appear on the insides of elbows or the backs of knees. Eczema may run in families or run alongside asthma or hay fever. Dry skin is a variant of normal skin and is not contagious.
Dry skin is very common in the elderly, owing to loss of elasticity, collagen and fat (asteatosis). This commonly occurs on the lower legs. A lack of oestrogen can cause the same effect in menopausal women. The key to treating dry skin is to moisturise, moisturise, moisturise. Particularly in winter, particularly if you live in a hard water area, particularly if you are addicted to long hot bubble baths, and particularly if you are elderly or post-menopausal.
There are a plethora of emollients that can be used to treat dry skin conditions and help retain moisture in the skin. It is often a case of trying them and finding the right one (or combination) that works best for your skin type or condition. Emollients can come in a variety of formulations such as creams, ointments, oils, as well as soap substitutes and bath additives. They all serve the same purpose of aiming to moisturise the skin. Creams generally absorb quite well into the skin, providing a good moisture barrier and hydrating the top layer of the skin known as the epidermis. This can help treat dry and dehydrated skin, and help to maintain elasticity and prevent cracks in the top skin layer. Ointments generally do not absorb as well into the skin as creams, and are often more greasy in consistency. They tend to sit on top of the skin and provide an additional barrier over the skin. This is particularly useful for very dry skin, or in harsh weather conditions. Ointments can be used alone or in combination with creams, but you should put creams on first, so the skin can absorb them. This is important if you are prescribed a steroid cream alongside an emollient: leave the steroid cream to absorb for at least 30 minutes before applying any other cream or ointment is used. It provides a greasy barrier over the skin to help repair and protect. Lotions and oils can be used instead of creams and ointments if a large area needs to be covered, or over particularly hairy areas, since these formulations are finer in consistency and easier to apply. Many emollients are designed to moisturise the skin, and also be used as soap substitutes, or as bath additives. For particularly sensitive skin or children's skin, try to find mild skin products that are either hypoallergenic, fragrance-free or colour-free.
If your dry skin is not responding to over-the-counter remedies, it's widespread or you develop a red or bumpy rash, you should book an appointment with your doctor, who will discuss your symptoms and examine you. They may decide to send you for further tests and refer you on if necessary to a specialist.