About dry skin
Dry skin is very common in children and teenagers, and it has many causes.
Most often, it happens in dry environments – for example, cool, hot or windy weather with low humidity. It can also happen if you’re often in air-conditioned environments or near direct heat from a fireplace or heater.
Bathing too often and using soap or bubble bath products can cause dry skin or make skin worse if it’s already dry. This is because soap removes the skin’s natural oils and makes it harder for your child’s skin to keep moisture in. Bathing in water that’s too hot also dries out the skin.
Using rough clothing or towels or using alcohol-based products can also cause dryness.
Many babies have dry, peeling skin immediately after birth, particularly if they’re born after 40 weeks. This gets better quickly.
Sometimes skin conditions like eczema can cause very dry skin in childhood.
Some medicines can also cause dry skin – for example, isotretinoin for acne.
Very rarely, dry skin can be a sign of an underlying medical condition. This includes type-1 diabetes, type-2 diabetes or problems with the thyroid.
Symptoms of dry skin
Dry skin looks like flaky, dull, rough patches on the skin. If your child has dry skin, they might leave small white flakes of skin on surfaces.
Dry skin isn’t usually very itchy, and it doesn’t usually change colour.
Dry skin can come up anywhere on the body. Children mostly get it on their faces, arms (especially elbows) and legs (especially knees). The lips can also get very dry and cracked.
If your child’s skin is very dry, they might get cracks in their skin. These can be painful. Sometimes they might bleed or get infected.
If the skin gets infected, there might be crusted or oozing yellow or inflamed spots on top of the dry skin. On children with lighter skin, the area might also look red. On children with darker skin, the area might also look brown, purple or grey. Your child might also have a fever.
If dry skin gets itchy or inflamed, it’s likely that eczema has developed in the skin. Eczema usually comes up in patches in the elbow creases, behind the knees or on the face.
It’s common for dry skin to come and go.
Does my child need to see a doctor about dry skin?
Probably not. But you should take your child to your GP if your child has:
- dry skin that doesn’t get better with the treatment described below
- patches of dry skin that are inflamed and itchy
- patches of painful dry skin
- dry skin that has yellow or inflamed spots on top.
Your GP might send your child to see a dermatologist if the dryness doesn’t get better with standard treatment.
Treatment for dry skin
The best way to treat dry skin is to manage the underlying causes:
- Try to make the environment less dry. For example, use a humidifier and encourage your child to avoid long periods of air conditioning and direct heat on their skin.
- Dress your child in loose cotton clothing if possible, or add a cotton layer under woollen or synthetic clothing. Avoid overheating with too many layers.
- Keep bath or shower times short, and keep the water warm but not hot.
- Use plain water or a soap-free liquid wash in the bath or shower.
- Add fragrance-free moisturising bath oils to bath water. You can get these from pharmacies.
- Consider fewer baths or showers. In particular, younger children don’t need baths every day, especially in winter and when the humidity is low.
It’s essential for your child to use a fragrance-free, non-irritating moisturiser, emulsifying ointment, aqueous cream or sorbolene with 10% glycerine cream. Ointments are often better and less likely to sting than creams, because they have fewer added ingredients.
If you don’t know which moisturiser to get for your child, ask your pharmacist or child and family health nurse. They might even be able to give your child some samples to try. Your child might need to try several different moisturisers before they find one that suits.
Your child should use the moisturiser regularly, ideally twice a day when their skin is very dry. A good time is after your child’s bath or shower while their skin is warm and damp, because this will help the moisturiser sink into the skin.
Your child can also use moisturiser after they wash their hands and before and after swimming.
Dry skin prevention
The treatments described above can prevent dry skin. Preventing dry skin is always better than trying to treat it when it flares up.