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DocSpot: Dry skin

Dear Dr Margaret
My skin is dry and flaky, like dandruff. It’s worse on my legs. How can I get it normal again?

The natural oils from the sebaceous glands in the skin should prevent it from drying out, but our modern lifestyle is not skin-friendly. We bath or shower every day, using soaps and shower gels that degrease the skin of its natural oils. Then we add in the drying effects of central heating at home and in the workplace. It’s not surprising that dry skin is such a common problem. And as we get older the skin becomes even drier, because the sebaceous glands are less efficient. There are, however, some skin conditions, such as eczema or psoriasis, that cause scaly skin.
There is a lot you can do to improve the condition of your skin. You probably won’t like my first piece of advice – don’t bath or shower every day. On alternate days, just wash the smelly parts of your body and leave the rest of it alone. This will allow the natural oils to do their job.
Use a good moisturizing (‘emollient’) bath oil. When you emerge from the bath, a thin film of oil will remain on your entire skin, and this will prevent it from drying out. For this reason, I think a bath with an emollient oil is better than a shower if you have dry skin. Ask your pharmacist for an emollient bath oil specially for dry skin. Some of these are expensive. For a cheap and effective version, ask the pharmacist for ‘Emulsifying Ointment BP’. Whisk about 30 g of this with some hot water in a jug, and pour it into the bath under the running tap. Oils can make the bath slippery, so take care. Avoid foaming bath products, because they usually contain detergents that have a drying effect.
Dry skin is often sensitive, so avoid ‘enzyme’ or ‘biological’ detergents for washing your clothes and look for a detergent labelled ‘for sensitive skin’. Similarly, avoid perfumed fabric softeners.
If you still have the problem, check with your doctor to see if you have a specific skin condition such as eczema or psoriasis. Eczema (also called dermatitis) is an itchy, dry skin condition. Psoriasis is a skin disorder in which there are pinky-silvery, scaly patches each with a distinct edge. The patches can be anywhere, but most often occur on the scalp, elbows and knees. It is not infectious. It often waxes and wanes, for no apparent reason.

Last updated; Sunday, August 30th 2020

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