Healthcare Professionals

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What is Dry Skin?

Happy face emoji Healthy skin

Healthy skin provides a barrier between the body and the external environment. In healthy skin, natural oils fill spaces between plump skin cells to form a good skin barrier – keeping moisture in and irritants out.

Skin cells and the surrounding natural oils are often shown as a brick wall. The skin cells are the ‘bricks’ and the natural oils are the ‘mortar’.

Diagrammatic representation of healthy skin
Sad face emoji Dry skin

An impaired skin barrier has a shortage of natural oils which allows moisture to escape from the skin too quickly.

The skin cells shrink, opening cracks which allow greater moisture loss and the entry of irritants. The skin will become dry and may be itchy. Scratching damages the skin even more.

People with dry skin conditions, such as eczema or dermatitis, psoriasis and ichthyosis, have an impaired skin barrier. Certain factors can make dry skin conditions worse, such as air conditioning, central heating or bathing or showering with soaps or detergents.

Diagrammatic representation of dry skin

Eczema is a commonly occurring condition, which affects up to 1 in 5 children, and 1 in 12 adults. Eczema skin can be dry, red, hot and itchy. Eczema treatment should always include an emollient or moisturiser, which needs to be applied at least twice every day, even if the skin looks or feels healthy.


Psoriasis is caused by an overproduction of skin cells, and can affect all areas of the body. Symptoms include raised silvery patches which have distinct red edges. Emollients help to soften scales, keep the skin supple, reduce the dryness and improve the appearance of the skin.


Ichthyosis is a condition that causes widespread thickening of the skin which can be very dry. Emollients help to improve the condition of the skin, making it less dry and scaly, and also help to relieve discomfort. Regular use of emollients can help achieve this (applied at least twice a day to the entire body).

Treatments for dry skin

Emollients, medical moisturisers, work by helping replace the missing oils which trap water into the skin and thus helping to restore the skin barrier. Emollients are often recommended to people with dry skin or conditions such as eczema, psoriasis and ichthyosis. There are different types of emollients available and it is important to find an effective emollient that is easily absorbed and leaves your skin feeling softened, moisturised and protected.

Do’s and Don’ts for applying
leave-on emollients

  • Emollient being applied to a hand Do use moisturisers/emollients generously and regularly, to improve the condition of the skin and to help reduce itching. The more the better!
  • Applied emollient making skin shiny Do apply sufficient emollient so that the skin looks shiny. Allow time for any excess emollient to soak in, if necessary.
  • Various bottles and tubes Do try to find suitable emollients for your skin with your nurse, doctor or pharmacist’s help. This may be a combination of cream, ointment, lotion or gel emollients, depending on how dry your skin is and which you prefer to use.
  • Emollient being gently applied to skin Do smooth the emollient gently onto dry skin. Use gentle strokes in the same direction as hair growth (like stroking a cat or dog). This avoids blockage of the hair follicles.
  • A shower head spraying water Do apply emollients immediately after a bath or shower as this helps to trap moisture in the skin. Pat the skin dry before applying the emollient.
  • Highlighting the face, neck and hands Do remember that exposed areas such as the face, neck and hands may need more frequent treatment.
  • A hand scratching itchy skin Don’t scratch itchy skin if you can avoid it, as this causes further skin damage.
  • Emollient being vigorously applied to skin Don’t vigorously rub the emollients into your skin.