What Causes Flaky Skin? Everything to Know

Medically Reviewed By Clare Wightman MS, PAC
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If your skin becomes dry, it can begin to flake. There are many causes of dry, flaky skin. These include not drinking enough water, being out in cold weather, and certain medical conditions. You can get dry skin anywhere on your body. Healthy skin has a water content of 10–20%. If you do not have enough oil or water in your skin, your skin can dry out. In turn, skin can feel tight, rough, and itchy. It can also peel or fall off in flakes.

Read on to find out more about what can cause skin to become dry and flaky. This guide also includes information about related symptoms, treatments, when to contact a doctor, and more.

What causes flaky skin?

A person is applying hand cream.
Westend61/Getty Images

You can experience flaky skin for a number of reasons.

Medical conditions

Medical conditions that can cause flaky skin include:

Learn more about skin conditions.

Other causes

Other possible causes of dry, flaky skin include:

  • age, as our bodies produce less sebum as we get older
  • medication such as statins or diuretics
  • frequently carrying out wet work, which is when your hands are wet for long periods
  • spending time in cold temperatures
  • chemotherapy or targeted therapy for cancer, which can cause dry skin
  • having a deficiency in vitamin A, vitamin D, iron, niacin, or zinc
  • having the heater on in winter months, as this can dry out the skin

What are the symptoms of flaky skin?

Depending on the cause of flaky skin, you may experience other symptoms alongside it.

Possible symptoms you may experience with your skin include:

  • crusting
  • cracking
  • itchiness
  • scaling
  • burning sensation
  • rough texture
  • tightness
  • redness or discoloration

Let your doctor or dermatologist know about any symptoms you experience either alongside or soon before you developed flaky skin.

You should also let your doctor know if you have changed or started using any new products. These include soaps, detergents, or medication. Using a heater in your home can also dry out your skin.

Your healthcare professional should have a full overview of your symptoms and any recent changes in products you use. This can help them to reach an accurate diagnosis.

Learn more about symptoms that can affect the skin.

Are there any home remedies for flaky skin?

You may be able to alleviate dry, flaky skin at home. Home remedies and steps you can take to reduce dry skin include:

  • moisturizing with an alcohol-free cream twice a day, particularly after bathing or showering
  • applying products that contain glycerin, urea, hyaluronic acid, or ammonium lactate
  • washing with cool or warm water rather than hot water
  • patting skin dry rather than rubbing it
  • staying hydrated
  • wearing warm clothes in cold environments
  • avoiding dry, hot environments
  • wearing gloves when washing dishes or doing other wet work
  • wearing loose clothes that do not rub against your skin

These steps may also help to prevent flaky skin from occurring or recurring.

Discover more tips for caring for your skin after showering.

What are the medical treatments for flaky skin?

Treatment for flaky skin may focus on treating the underlying cause. This can depend on the condition that is causing flaky skin.

Your doctor or dermatologist may also recommend over-the-counter and prescription strength treatments to soothe dry, itchy, painful skin.

Possible treatments include:

  • over-the-counter emollients or moisturizers
  • topical corticosteroids to alleviate pain and inflammation
  • oral antihistamines to reduce itchiness
  • topical barrier creams, such as Tetrix, which may be useful if flaking occurs due to frequently washing hands
  • medicated bandages to soothe and protect skin

Your doctor or dermatologist will be able to advise on which treatments they recommend.

When should I contact a doctor?

Contact your doctor as soon as you have concerns about flaky skin.

In particular, you should contact your doctor if your flaky skin does not respond to home remedies. You should also contact your doctor if it keeps coming back after treatment. They can carry out tests to reach an accurate diagnosis and advise on the right treatments for you.

How do doctors diagnose the cause of flaky skin?

Your doctor or dermatologist may take a full personal and family medical history and carry out a physical examination. They may then ask you some questions and carry out tests.

Questions your doctor may ask

To get a better understanding of your symptoms, your doctor may also ask questions such as:

  • How long have you experienced flaky skin?
  • Do you have flaky skin in any other area of your body?
  • Do you have any cracks or open sores?
  • Have you had any redness or discoloration?
  • Has the area felt warm or itchy?
  • Have you had any blistering, oozing, or pus?
  • Do you have any known allergies?
  • Are you currently taking any medication, or have you stopped taking any medication recently?
  • Have you started using any new skin care, beauty, or personal hygiene products?
  • Do you have a family history of an autoimmune or endocrine disorder?
  • How often do you shower and for how long?
  • Have you noticed any other symptoms?

Tests

Once your doctor has an overview of your symptoms, they will have a better idea of what tests to order.

Tests that may assist in identifying the cause of flaky skin include:

  • patch test if your doctor or dermatologist suspects flaky skin is a result of an allergen or irritant
  • black light or Wood’s lamp examination, which involves examining the skin under black light from a Wood’s lamp
  • Tzanck testing if your doctor or dermatologist suspects a viral infection or condition
  • skin biopsy, which involves removing a sample of the affected skin for analysis under a microscope
  • blood tests, which can rule out a systemic cause

What are the complications of flaky skin?

With the right treatment, you may not experience any complications of dry, flaky skin. However, you should avoid scratching or itching untreated flaky skin. It can increase the risk of germs getting inside the skin and causing an infection.

Signs of a skin infection include:

  • swelling
  • discoloration
  • yellow crusting
  • pus or other fluid leaking from the skin

You may also experience complications from an underlying health condition that may be causing flaky skin. Contact your doctor as soon as you have concerns about flaky skin to reduce the risk of complications.

Learn about skin infections and eczema.

Frequently asked questions

Here are some more frequently asked questions about flaky skin.

Is flaking skin normal?

Over time, it is typical for skin to become dry, and this may cause flaking. Most people over the age of 60 have dry skin due to decreased sebum production. While many people have dry, flaky skin, staying hydrated and applying moisturizing creams can help to soothe skin and alleviate symptoms.

How do I get rid of flaky skin overnight?

Applying a moisturizer before you go to bed can help to alleviate dry skin overnight. The moisturizer should gently exfoliate your dry skin and repair the skin barrier. Wearing loose clothes to bed can help to reduce rubbing against your skin while you sleep.

Should I exfoliate dry, flaky skin?

You may exfoliate dry, flaky skin with a washcloth and mild chemical exfoliator. It is important to not rub at your skin or apply any products that contain alcohol, as this can worsen dry skin. Always pat your skin dry and apply a moisturizer after bathing or washing.

Q:

Why is my skin so dry even when I moisturize?

Anonymous

A:

This can depend on numerous factors, such as:

  • how often you shower
  • how long you shower
  • water temperature while showering
  • soaps and skin care products used
  • which climate you live in
  • medication or health changes
  • whether you wear tight or loose clothing

If it is just dry skin, you can try a cream with hyaluronic acid, ceramides, or both, such as CeraVe. If your skin is flaky, I would recommend applying a keratolytic. These are light chemical exfoliants, which include urea, salicylic acid, lactic acid, or glycolic acid.

If your dry, flaky skin started recently, I would consider getting bloodwork done.

Clare Wightman MS, PAC Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.

Summary

Dry, flaky skin occurs when the skin does not contain enough water, lipids, or oils This can happen because of numerous external, internal, or genetic factors.

You may be able to treat flaky skin at home by regularly applying moisturizers. It is important to wash with cool or warm water and pat your skin dry rather than rubbing it. You should also avoid any known triggers.

If your flaky skin does not respond to home remedies or if there might be an underlying cause, you may require medical treatment. Contact your doctor as soon as you have concerns about flaky skin. They may refer you to a dermatologist, a specialist for skin, hair, and nails. The dermatologist will be able to carry out tests to reach an accurate diagnosis.

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Medical Reviewer: Clare Wightman MS, PAC
Last Review Date: 2022 Aug 22
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.