The Real Reason You Keep Getting Dry Patches On Your Skin

illustrated by Mallory Heyer.
Like your parents and siblings all jetting off to Paris for the holidays and accidentally leaving you behind to defend the family mansion against petty crooks, dry patches are usually something that only happens in the winter — or, ideally, not at all. But as for me, I live with them on a daily basis, in scattered areas on my neck and face, no matter the season. I know, I know: Cue the Kevin McCallister Home Alone scream.
If you're not sure where you fall on the spectrum, know that there's a difference between the normal kind of dry skin, the type that just feels tight and uncomfortable right when you get out of the shower or for the entire month of January, and raised, scaly patches that seem impervious to moisturizer. "Concentrated spots of dry skin are generally reoccurring and in the same placement on the body," explains dermatologist Dendy Engelman, MD, of MDCS: Medical Dermatology & Cosmetic Surgery. "It's usually rough as a result of intrinsic defects in that area of the skin, like a weakened moisture barrier, low density of oil glands, or deficiencies of filaggrin," a protein that's crucial for maintaining the structure and strength of the epidermis.
Throw in a little stress, some chafing winds, a dip in temperature, or exposure to harsh chemicals, and you — like me — have a recipe for disaster on your hands. And dry patches don't discriminate: "All skin types can be prone," Engelman says, though she adds that, in the event of eczema, you'll notice it more in the "bends" of the body where there's a lot of friction. (Inner elbows, knees, ankles, fingers, feet...)
To treat the patches, you'll obviously want to keep them hydrated, but that doesn't necessarily mean basting yourself in Vaseline. First, dial back on any treatments that can be drying to the skin, like retinoids or acne medications. "Gentle exfoliation can help, but only when followed with aggressive moisturization to rebuild the skin barrier," Dr. Engelman says. Reach for fragrance-free formulas that are packed with ceramides, like Cetaphil's new Restoraderm Skin Restoring Body Moisturizer or Elizabeth Arden's Advanced Ceramide Capsules, to do just that.
Adding a second layer of hydration in the shower (with Curél's Hydra Therapy Wet Skin Moisturizer) or immediately after (Engelman swears by Bio-Oil) can also trap in moisture. If your dry patches still persist, spread a thin layer of 1% hydrocortisone over the affected area, then smooth on a generous amount of the thickest salve you can find. I stash Aquaphor here, there, and pretty much everywhere for that exact reason. (Or, you can try a newfound favorite of mine: nipple cream.)
Should the area start to clear up, pat yourself on the back. You're in the clear! If not, now would be the time to talk to a derm about topical steroids or other prescription medications. After all, it's always better to ask for help when you're going through a bit of a rough patch than try and go it alone.

More from Skin Care

R29 Original Series