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How to Treat Dry Skin, According to Experts

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I think most of us have been there at least once in our lives: You used a strong retinol or acid product and your skin is desert-dry, and it feels like no moisturizer can work hard enough to quench its thirst. Or, maybe you inherited your dry skin and you’ve been fighting an uphill battle all your life. Unfortunately no matter the cause of your dry skin, or how many rich oils and butters make up a formula, the problem isn’t fixed overnight. Well, maybe temporarily (a great mask can work wonders), but building back a compromised skin barrier takes patience. Here, dermatologists and aestheticians explain the causes of dry skin, how to treat it and the best products to use if your skin craves more moisture.

What causes dry skin?

First, it’s important to understand that there is a difference between “dry skin” as a skin type and dry skin that is brought on by a particular aggressor or condition. If you fall in the first group, Omaha, NE dermatologist Joel Schlessinger, MD says, “dry skin is a skin type and something that can’t necessarily be changed, but with the right products and lifestyle choices, it can be treated and even improved. People with dry skin types naturally produce less sebum and lipids, which are two components that are necessary for helping skin retain essential moisture. Dry skin can also be genetic.”

Davie, FL dermatologist Marianna Blyumin-Karasik, MD explains that because of this decreased amount of moisturizing lipids in the top layer of the skin, as well as a reduced water-binding capacity, the skin has wider cracks that are rough around the edges instead of a smooth, plump surface. “Therefore, dry skin presents as flaky, scaly, ashy-looking, rough and tight-feeling with irregular texture like lines, wrinkles and crepiness.”

There are also natural and lifestyle factors that contribute to dry skin (“group two,” as mentioned above). “Age, medications like diuretics, continued exposure to cold weather, smoking, vitamin deficiencies, diabetes, hypothyroidism, and many other factors can contribute to chronic dry skin,” says Dr. Schlessinger. “Dry skin can be a minor nuisance or something more complex like eczema, ichthyosis or psoriasis. Very-dry skin, also called xerosis, can cause skin to scale, crack and be painful.”

Hallandale Beach, FL dermatologist Bertha Baum, MD adds that other habits that can cause the skin to be dry include washing your skin too frequently, as well as applying topicals. “Sometimes even the skin-care products you use can cause dryness.” Surprisingly, celebrity aesthetician Shani Darden says that of all her clients, “I probably have two that have truly dry skin. It’s very weird, but I think a lot of people don’t realize that. Many times the actually just [have an] oily T-zone. That’s why you have to be careful about what’s in your moisturizer. A lot of moisturizers are just all oils, and if you have an oily T-zone, you’re going to get so much congestion.”

The Best Ways to Treat Dry Skin

For individuals prone to dry skin, Dr. Blyumin-Karasik says, “it is important to protect and repair the skin barrier to reinforce resilience and enhance radiance. This is ideal with a blend of moisturizing agents such as humectants, emollients and occlusives, as well as skin adaptogens, which can enhance skin barrier fortifications and amplify skin-restorative mechanisms.”

New York dermatologist Marina Peredo, MD says other daily habits that can be tweaked to improve dry skin include avoiding hot showers, limiting your time in the shower and applying a rich moisturizer twice a day (or more often if your skin needs the extra help). “I recommend moisturizing as soon as you get out of the shower when your skin is still wet for maximum absorption,” she adds. “The environment can play a big role in dry skin, especially in the colder months or if you live in a dry climate, so you may find a humidifier to be helpful because it brings moisture into the room.” We like Canopy, which is dishwasher-safe to make cleaning easy and inhibits mold.

The Best Ingredients For Dry Skin

Dry skin benefits most from moisturizing ingredients that are commonly referred to as emollients or occlusives that form a protective seal on the surface of the skin to keep water trapped inside. Ceramides, squalane and dimethicone are emollients, Dr. Blyumin-Karasik notes, and occlusives include mineral oil, lanolin, castor oil and silicones. Plant-based oils, such as coconut, almond, and jojoba, and rich butters like shea and cocoa, are also great examples of moisturizing ingredients to look for. “Also, it’s important to hydrate from the inside, too, and drink plenty of water throughout the day,” she adds.

Dr. Schlessinger adds that if you have dry patches of skin or eczema flare-ups, a product that will actually heal those spots is a must-have. “I formulated FixMySkin 1% Hydrocortisone Healing Body Balm with my son Dr. Daniel Schlessinger as a portable, melt-free balm treatment to calm and moisturize skin while using 1-percent hydrocortisone to heal the irritating symptoms of dry skin conditions. If dry skin doesn’t improve with concerted effort, schedule an appointment with a board-certified dermatologist. They will let you know if you need a simple regimen change or if it’s time for a prescription treatment cream.”

The Best Products to Use on Dry Skin

“A minimalistic skin-care regimen is ideal in for dry-skin individuals to minimize skin irritants and allergens, such as cleansers with many preservatives and physical exfoliators like scrubs,” Dr. Blyumin-Karasik explains. “I also recommend identifying multitasking products to reduce layering too many products that can potentially agitate the skin.” Dr. Baum adds that “products should be fragrance-free, hypoallergenic and hopefully made with ceramides so it can help restore the compromised skin barrier.”

Cleanser: “A gentle cleanser with minimal irritants such as preservatives, fragrances or heavy surfactants, is best,” says Dr. Blyumin-Karasik. “I recommend using Avène Cleanance HYDRA Soothing Cleansing Cream at night.” We also often hear the advice that you don’t need to wash your face with cleanser twice a day, but rather just use a splash of water and a cotton round or wash cloth in the morning to remove any residue from sweat or your pillow that your skin may have acquired overnight.

“A cream cleanser is always the best bet for dry skin, as it helps remove makeup and impurities without stripping the skin,” says Dr. Schlessinger. “LovelySkin LUXE Cream Cleanser contains olive oil extract and meadowfoam seed oil to help skin retain more of its own moisture.” Dr. Baum adds that she advises her patients with dry skin to avoid foaming cleansers and any formula with alcohol.

Moisturizer: A thicker formula made with oils and butters is generally best-suited for dry skin. Dr. Blyumin-Karasik recommends semi-occlusive La Roche-Posay Cicaplast Balm B5 for Dry Skin Irritations, as well as Stamina Cosmetics Stamina Intention Moisturizer. “The Stamina Moisturizer is for acne-prone and dry skin types that are vulnerable to breakouts and irritations.” Dr. Peredo prefers ointments for dry skin, and likes Aquaphor Healing Ointment Advanced Therapy

Sunscreen: For dry skin, Dr. Schlessinger likes EltaMD UV Replenish Broad-Spectrum SPF 44. “Dry skin often tends to be easily irritated, so an all-mineral sunscreen is often the best choice. This pick from EltaMD is formulated for dry—or post-procedure—skin as it’s gentle and offers hydration with hyaluronic acid. Dimethicone, which is an occlusive, helps skin hold on to more of its own moisture, too.”

Can you exfoliate dry skin?

Though most dermatologists recommend avoiding physical exfoliants like scrubs, a gentle chemical exfoliator is not completely off the table for those with dry skin. “Believe it or not, dry skin also needs some—gentle—exfoliation, but exfoliating scrubs should be avoided as they can cause micro-tears in dry skin,” says Dr. Schlessinger, who recommends afa Brightening Gel. “It uses afaLUXE, a dermatologist-developed molecule, to encourage active, effective exfoliation while working with skin’s Natural Moisturizing Factor (NMF) and strengthening the moisture barrier.”

“Exfoliate only weekly to reduce over-dehydrating the skin and agitating skin barrier,” Dr. Blyumin-Karasik says. “If you do prefer a scrub, make sure it’s gentle and designed for dry skin, such as SkinCeuticals Micro-Exfoliating Scrub.” Like anything, it may require a little bit of trial-and-error before you find what makes your skin happy.

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