Dry Skin Guide: Why You’re Flaky AF + How To Fix It

Ugh. Your skin doesn’t produce enough oil. And when things get bad, you end up looking like Voldemort…when he died.

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While you can’t change your skin type (thanks in large part to genetics), you can absolutely manage it.

So let’s get down to business, shall we?

Dry Skin Questionairre

Okay. If you’re reading this, chances are, you’re dry af.

But there’s no harm in double checking. So, ask yourself:

  1. Is my skin flaky?
  2. Do I ever feel itchy?
  3. Is my makeup always cakey?
  4. After washing, does my skin feel tight?
  5. When I look in the mirror, do I see scaly (lizard skin) staring back at me?

Answered yes to all of the above? In that case, you most likely have dry skin.

Of course, skin conditions are never clear-cut. These symptoms can indicate other things like seborrheic dermatitis, which is why it’s important to see a dermatologist.

Cause #1: Genetics

Dry skin is often genetic.

You know what that means, right?

Yep, you can thank (or, more likely, curse) your parents for pretty much all of your skin troubles.

Okay, okay. It’s not their fault either. I mean, it’s not like they could’ve engineered their DNA to give you pore-free, acne-free, and stress-free skin. At least not in this day and age.

Needless to say, you’ve gotta work with what you got.

And in some cases, what you got is a filaggrin mutation.

What’s that you say?

Well, filaggrin is a skin-healthy protein that releases free amino acids into your skin. And those free amino acids make-up a huge part of your skin’s natural moisturizing factors–you know, the molecules that keep your skin hydrated.

Here’s a breakdown of NMF for the ultra-curious:

natural moisturizing factors related to dry skin
Data adapted from Practical Dermatology

At this point, it’s safe to say that filaggrin is kind of a big deal.

And–to nobody’s surprise–a lot of research has been dedicated to this stuff.

One study found that dry skin types have either 10, 11, or 12 filaggrin gene repeats instead of the normal 13. That’s a mouthful–I know. But it pretty much boils down to this: people with less filaggrin are more susceptible to dry skin.

Of course, filaggrin variations aren’t the only thing that can cause dry skin.

Cause #2: Environment

Winter is coming!!!

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GOT jokes aside, you’ve probably noticed that your skin reaches new levels of flakiness in the wintertime. And often enough, you’re not just dealing with flakiness–you’re also dealing with cracked skin, redness, eczema flare-ups, and chapped lips.

But why?

Low humidity–that’s why!

You see, when you’re in a low humidity environment–like when you’re thawing out in front of three space heaters in the dead of winter–there isn’t enough moisture in the air. So evaporation happens. And when evaporation happens, moisture is sucked straight out of your face.

The end result: a weakened skin barrier.

Cause #3: The Health Issue

Dealing with medical issues is never easy. And when you tack-on cosmetic blunders to an already bad situation, things can get really overwhelming.

The three most common medical conditions that cause dry skin are:

  1. Diabetes–especially true for those with type 1 diabetes
  2. Hypothyroidism
  3. Kidney Disease

And if that wasn’t enough, certain medications also run the risk of drying out your skin:

  1. Diuretics
  2. Some cholesterol Meds
  3. Some high-blood pressure meds
  4. And, of course, Accutane (aka Isotretinoin)

The best way to combat this type of dryness is to talk to your doctor. They might be able to shed some light on your situation (often times, with a medical prescription).

Cause #4: Harsh Products

When your skin isn’t cooperating with you, it’s tempting to use a boatload of products to try to scrub away the flakiness.

The thing is, the outermost layer of your skin (aka the horny layer–thanks Latin) is pretty freakin’ delicate. And when you overdo things, your natural oils–as well as your skin’s protective barrier–is bound to get stripped away. Which will ultimately make your skin feel as dry as the Sahara desert.

What should you avoid?

A good rule of thumb is to stay away from foaming cleansers. Sure, these’ll leave you feeling squeaky clean, but they’ll also decimate your skin’s natural oil reserves.

Other than that, some people have sworn off products containing “bad” alcohols–like ethanol and SD alcohol. But this is a hotly debated topic that isn’t exactly backed by science.

Cause #5: You’re Getting Old!

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It’s simple: when your body starts to age, so does your skin.

And often enough, skin gets drier when you get older. In fact, after collecting data from 756 patients, one study found that 55.6% of those patients suffered from dry skin. Sorry to say, the study also found that women are (wayyy) more likely than men to experience dry skin when they age.

There are tons of factors that can lead up to this–some of which we already discussed (like medical conditions + medications).

But there’s another thing I want to touch on–sebaceous glands.

At puberty, you might have noticed that your skin got oilier. After puberty, you might have noticed that your oil-levels balanced-out.

Well, when you get to a certain age (~80 for men, ~70 for women), things take a turn in the other direction. Your sebaceous glands don’t produce as much oil, leaving you with a dry (or at least a drier) skin type.

Cause #6: Hot Showers

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There’s nothing better than taking a hot shower on a cold winter morning. It just feels so…right.

Hate to break it to you, but it’s so wrong!

Here’s the problem: the combination of hot water–yep, even water is a skin irritant–and soap can wipe out your skin’s natural moisturizing factors. When this happens, you’ll experience something called TEWL (transepidermal water loss), which can cause a whole host of problems (psst–dehydrated skin).

Basically, the longer you stay in the shower, the worse off you’ll be. So, you might want to limit your shower time and temp if you’re struggling with dry skin.

Treatment #1: Moisturize!!!!

It’s is a no-brainer:

To keep dry skin at bay, you NEED to moisturize it.

You see, moisturizers do loads of magical things. First and foremost, they’ll keep your skin hydrated. Second, they’ll make your skin soft and pliable. Third, they’ll help alleviate the itchy feeling that‘s often associated with dry skin.

Now, what kind of moisturizer should you use?

Studies have found that as long as you use a moisturizer in your daily routine, it doesn’t matter which kind you choose. That means there’s no need to dip into your savings for an overpriced jar of moisturizer from Sephora.

Treatment #2: Live Your Best Slug Life

If you aren’t native to Reddit’s /r/SkincareAddiction, you’re probably scratching your head right about now.

Slugging–as the cool kids call it–is a hyped-up way to talk about occlusives.

Okay, but what are occlusives? Well, they’re are a class of ingredients that form a layer on top of your skin to prevent water loss.

To live your best slug life, all you do is add an occlusive–Aquaphor & Vaseline are popular choices–to the back-end of your nighttime routine. Then, in the morning, you can reap the benefits of ultra-soft and supple skin.

Oh and don’t forget to apply it on slightly damp skin–it’s the best way to take advantage of all that moisture!

Treatment #3: See A Dermatologist

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To quote MTV’s Diary, “You think you know, but you have no idea.”

The truth is, it’s hard to self-assess your skin.

Going to see a dermatologist could uncover the real cause of your skin woes. And then, if your skin needs it, derms can give you a prescription and/or a plan-of-action to alleviate your symptoms, whether those symptoms are related to dry skin or something more serious.

So, if you have the funds (I know that the state of healthcare in America is abysmal), then there’s no reason to skip an appointment in lieu of a self-diagnosis.

Treatment #4: Urea

Earlier in this post, we went over how free amino acids make up a huge part of NMF (Natural Moisturizing Factor). Now, let’s talk about another component of NMF: urea.

Basically, urea is an emollient and keratolytic found in healthy skin. It’s also a key component in urine–but that’s another story.

One study, in particular, synthesized a good deal of the urea-based articles on PubMed. In terms of dry skin conditions, they documented that creams containing urea can:

  • Reduce TEWL + increase hydration
  • Improve roughness
  • Reduce scaling

Pro tip: Use urea in 10% (or less) formulations if you want to reap its moisturizing benefits.

Treatment #5: Go Forth And Humidify

This might be your grandma’s #1 skincare tip. But don’t knock it–it actually works!

But by adding a humidifier to your sleeptime routine, you’re essentially preventing your skin from facing any undue damage. Often enough, your skin (and hair!) will thank you with ultra-dewy skin.

Just be careful, humidifiers can be breeding grounds for things like mold and bacteria, so it’s imperative that you keep your humidifier clean. Another thing. You don’t want to go overboard with your humidifier. You can have too much of a good thing.

Ingredients to Avoid

Even if you don’t have dry skin, stay away from the ingredients below:

  • Scrubs (like St. Ives Apricot scrub aka the spawn of Satan)
  • Astringents (like witch hazel)
  • Drying alcohols (only if they’re listed high-up on the ingredients list)
  • Foaming cleansers (or other surfactants)
  • Fragrance

MORNING Routine

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IMPORTANT: When starting a new routine, it’s best to start slow. Introduce one product at a time in 2-3 week intervals so that you can evaluate whether that product is working for you or whether you should chuck it in the trash.

1. Splash your face with lukewarm water

It’s a myth–not everyone needs to wash their face in the morning. And most people with dry skin find that skipping harsh (or even hydrating) cleansers makes a huge difference in their skin.

Oh, and it’s free! Just imagine how much money you’ll save.

2. Toner/Essence/Serums (Optional)

This one goes out to all the AB-ers (aka Asian Beauty-ers) out there.

Some people prefer applying a series of light, hydrating layers to their skin in lieu of heavy, hydrating creams–it just comes down to personal preference.

Product Rec’s:

3. Moisturizer

Dry skin types lack moisture, among other things. To add moisture back into your skin (and to maintain a healthy skin barrier), add a moisturizer to your routine.

Bonus: Add a couple drops of oil to your moisturizer for an extra boost. Squalane oil is fan- favorite, but other oils could work just as well.

Product Rec’s:

4. Sunscreen

I know a lot of people hate putting on sunscreen in the morning. Sure, there are some drawbacks when you use a sunscreen that’s not right for you (hello, white-cast!). But this step is non-negotiable. That’s because sunscreen can defend you against things like premature aging, hyperpigmentation, AND skin cancer.

Different sunscreens are made for different skin types. So when choosing a sunscreen for dry skin, make sure the label mentions that it’s moisturizing (or something else to that effect).

Product Rec’s:

NIGHTTIME Routine

1. Makeup Remover (Optional)

Skin sin #1: Going to bed with your makeup on.

I know you had a long day and you’re tired. But, for the love of God, take off your makeup before you go to bed.

If you don’t, (a) your pillow will be angry, (b) your pores will be clogged into oblivion, and (c) you’re asking for premature wrinkles.

Dry skin types often benefit from an oil-based makeup remover because they’re gentle.

Product Rec’s:

2. Hydrating cleanser

Just because you skipped this step in the morning, doesn’t mean that you can skip it in your nighttime routine.

Why?

Because dirt and pollution are inevitable features in our daily lives. And the best way to fight them is to wash them off with a proper cleanser (and maybe use some kind of an antioxidant in your routine–but I’ll leave that scenario for another post).

Pro tip: try to stay away from harsh/foaming cleansers and opt for a hydrating or milky cleanser to avoid that tight-face feel.

Product Rec’s:

3. Toner/Essence/Serums (Optional): See above.

4. Moisturizer

You can certainly stick with your morning moisturizer–that’s what I would do–or you can pick a heavier moisturizer that’s designated for nighttime use.

Product Rec’s:

  • Eucerin night cream (contains urea)

5. Occlusive

Truth be told, slugging isn’t for everybody. Those of you with acne-prone skin would be better off skipping this step.

Otherwise, trap-in that moisture, my dudes.

Product Rec’s: