Your Persistently Dry Skin Is Trying To Send You a Message

Your Persistently Dry Skin Is Trying To Send You a Message

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Illustration of a woman with cracks in her face skin - Dry Skin
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Snake skin and snow globes. At first glance they don’t seem to relate, but if you have dry skin, you know exactly what this is like. The idea of a snake shedding its skin or the little flecks that slowly fall in a shaken snow globe may be familiar to you if you suffer from dry skin.

Dry skin is very common; in fact, it’s one of the most common skin abnormalities that people see the doctor for. Some of us are more susceptible to dry skin, such as those of us with naturally dry skin, but even oily skin can get dry at times. Dry skin affects people of all ages, male or female. When it occurs it can be irritating, uncomfortable, and sometimes embarrassing. Knowing how dry skin occurs and what causes it will make it much easier to manage.

Photo of a woman with cracks in her dry face skin
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What Exactly is Dry Skin?

Severe conditions may be characterized by intense redness and itchiness with the tendency to crack and bleed.

Dry skin can be acute (short-term) or chronic (long-term) and can affect the whole body or just specific areas, most commonly the legs, arms, hands, and abdomen.

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How Does Dry Skin Occur?

Skin consists of three layers: the hypodermis, dermis, and epidermis.

  • The hypodermis is the deepest part of the skin that functions as insulation and padding for the body.
  • The dermis is the middle layer, which provides structure and support.
  • The epidermis is the outer layer that functions as a protective shield for the body, consisting of five layers.2

In the first layer, keratinocytes (epidermal skin cells) begin developing. They move through the layers until they reach the fifth layer, called the stratum corneum, which is the outermost part of the epidermis consisting of dead, flattened keratinocytes.

The water comes from the air, the underlying layers of skin, and sweat. Oil produced by skin glands and fatty substances (produced by skin cells) act as natural moisturizers, allowing the stratum corneum to seal in water.

Photo of Dermatitis on leg skin
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Types of Dry Skin

While typical dry skin may be reflective of your environment, hydration, or diet, extremely dry skin can be a sign of a skin condition called dermatitis.

Dermatitis refers to inflammation of the skin that can cause an itchy rash or patches of dry, irritated skin. The term eczema is often used interchangeably with dermatitis even though they are different, and describes skin when it is dry, hot, itchy, and red. There are several common types of dermatitis, including:

  • Atopic dermatitis
  • Contact dermatitis
  • Seborrheic dermatitis
  • Dyshidrotic eczema
  • Nummular eczema
  • Neurodermatitis
  • Stasis dermatitis
  • Psoriasis
Photo of upper arm with atopic dermatitis symptoms
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Photo of human elbow with symptoms of dry skin
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Psoriasis: An autoimmune condition that causes skin cells to build up and form dry, itchy, scaly patches of skin, usually on your elbows, knees, scalp, face, palms, and feet.

Photo of a woman having skin itch
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Root Causes of Dry Skin

When lifestyle modifications fail to remedy your dry skin, it could be due to an underlying problem that should be investigated further. Most often, there are several of these underlying causes of dry skin occurring together. They include:

  • Gut dysfunction
  • Dysbiosis
  • Poor diet
  • Dehydration
  • Stress
  • Hormone imbalance
  • Toxins
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Root Cause of Dry Skin: Gut Dysfunction

Leaky gut, or intestinal hyperpermeability, occurs when the intestines become inflamed and cause the gut lining to become more porous, which allows foreign particles to seep through. The foreign particles, or antigens, react with immune cells, causing inflammation.10 The inflammation is not only in the gut, but system-wide, causing symptoms such as skin issues, brain fog, muscle aches and joint pain, and autoimmune conditions.

Dr. Liz Lipski, PhD, CCN says, “A skin rash or eczema is a sign that the body is trying to slough out toxins. It’s trying to eliminate a problem the best way it knows how.”11 There are four main causes of leaky gut:

Dietary sources: Things such as food sensitivities and allergies, nutrient deficiencies, and excessive sugar and/or alcohol consumption.

Chronic stress: Weakens your immune system over time, which decreases your ability to fight off foreign invaders like pathogenic bacteria, parasites, fungi, and viruses.

Toxin overload: Can occur from the use of medications, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, antibiotics, dysbiosis, and chemical and heavy metal exposure.

Dysbiosis: Occurs when there is an imbalance of good and bad organisms in the gut.

Illustration of a GI tract with gut flora
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Root Cause of Dry Skin: Dysbiosis

Dysbiosis is a common condition that occurs when there is an imbalance in beneficial microorganisms versus detrimental microorganisms in the gut.

A healthy gut has abundant bacteria and some yeast in the large intestine and some bacteria in the small intestine that are all important to our survival, as they help us digest and absorb nutrients, support our immune function, and help control inflammation.

Imbalances come in many forms, but some of the common ones include a general lack of beneficial microbes; SIBO, or small intestinal bacterial overgrowth, which occurs when there is inappropriate growth of bacteria in the small intestine; Candidiasis, a yeast overgrowth that suppresses immune function; H. Pylori, a bacterial infection of the stomach or intestines that suppresses acid production; or parasitic infections including amoebas, cysts, protozoa, and other pathogens that irritate the intestinal lining.

Illustration of gut flora
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The beneficial bacteria modulate the immune system’s inflammatory response and help prevent pro-inflammatory agents from entering the bloodstream. When there’s a disparity in the gut flora, the barrier function of the intestines breaks down (leaky gut), resulting in immune dysregulation, which leads to further dysbiosis, creating a vicious circle.20 This can manifest as itchy, inflamed, dry skin.

Dysbiosis is caused by poor diet, chronic stress, overuse of medications, infections, and inflammation. Symptoms of dysbiosis include gas and bloating, nutrient deficiencies, recurrent yeast infections, fatigue, and dry skin. Chris Kresser says, “If you want to heal your skin, you have to heal your gut.”21 He explains that when the gut flora is altered, so are the glands that produce oil, which increases the risk of sebaceous gland diseases including seborrheic dermatitis.

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Root Cause of Dry Skin: Diet

A variety of dietary factors contribute to the development of dry skin. The underlying causes are generally from lack of nutrients and inflammation.

Nutrient deficiencies: Poor gut function can lead to poor nutrient absorption from our food. Without adequate digestive function, foods are not properly broken down and the nutrients are not absorbed.

Zinc: Is involved skin cell renewal. A deficiency can manifest as eczema, seborrheic dermatitis, and slowed wound healing.12 Vitamin C plays a role in collagen synthesis and is vital for skin health. A deficiency can cause scurvy, which is displayed by a build-up of keratin, producing rough, dry skin. Omega-3 fatty acids can help reduce inflammation. Chris Kresser notes that atopic dermatitis has been shown to be positively affected by supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids.13 A nutrient-lacking diet consisting of processed foods will also cause these deficiencies.

Alcohol: Excessive alcohol consumption compromises gut health and can cause nutrient deficiencies.

Dehydration: A large proportion of our body, including our skin, is made up of water. Without adequate water, our skin becomes dehydrated, dry, and more prone to damage.

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Food sensitivities/allergies: When partially-digested food particles pass through a leaky gut, food sensitivities can occur. The immune system perceives the undigested particles as invaders and mounts an immune response that causes inflammation.

The most common reaction-producing foods include dairy, eggs, peanuts, soy, corn, and gluten/wheat. Every time the offending food is ingested, the immune system reacts, resulting in a food allergy or sensitivity. Symptoms of a food allergy are generally more severe than a sensitivity. Symptoms of both can include skin irritations, rashes, hives, stuffy/runny nose, swelling, wheezing, nausea, or heartburn, while allergies may produce more severe symptoms such as vomiting, trouble breathing, fainting, and when severe, anaphylaxis.

Excessive sugar consumption can also cause hyperglycemia, which is associated with thyroid disorders, hormone imbalances, diabetes, stress, and medications. Symptoms of hyperglycemia include an increase in hunger, thirst, and urination, which causes your body to lose fluid, including the moisture from your skin.

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Root Cause of Dry Skin: Stress

Prolonged stress raises the adrenal hormone cortisol, which changes our immune system’s ability to respond quickly, affects our ability to heal, and contributes to leaky gut.

During stress, our body’s natural balance (homeostasis) slows down, including our metabolism, immune function, and the ability to withstand illness, injury, and stress, resulting in a build-up of toxins that cause fatigue, poor sleep, mood swings, muscle and/or joint pain, constipation, and dry skin. Stress also contributes to inflammation.

Chronic stress can cause increased inflammation, which leads to DNA damage, impaired immune function, and delayed skin healing.17 This all contributes to accelerated aging, causing loss of skin tone, an increase in dryness, lines, and wrinkles, and may worsen skin conditions like psoriasis and eczema.

Illustration of hormone receptors
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Root Cause of Dry Skin: Hormone Imbalances

Intense or prolonged stress causes an immediate increase in cortisol levels, which forces the adrenals to work in overdrive. When they remain in a constant state of amplification, they can weaken, resulting in a condition known as adrenal fatigue. This condition leads to low cortisol and imbalanced hormones.

Mark Sisson of Mark’s Daily Apple notes that fluctuations in hormones can promote skin conditions like dry, flaky skin, oily skin, acne, and premature aging.18 Weak adrenals can cause a hormone imbalance known as hypothyroidism (low thyroid) that contributes to decreased metabolism and growth from low production of thyroid hormone. Dry, thin, itchy skin is associated with hypothyroidism.

Stress and age also cause estrogen to decline, especially in post-menopausal women. In the skin, estrogen plays a major role in collagen production and water content. Estrogen deficiency decreases elasticity, increases dryness, and increases wrinkles. Estrogens also have anti-inflammatory properties; a decline of these hormones can lead to increased inflammation, thereby intensifying inflammatory skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis.

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Root Cause of Dry Skin: Toxins

We are surrounded by toxins in our environment. They are in common industrial pollutants, agricultural pesticides, heavy metals, personal care products, cleaning products, and refined or processed foods.

Common signs of chronic toxicity include fatigue, muscle aches and pains, constipation, diarrhea, and skin problems such as rashes and eczema. Rashes and eczema develop because your skin is a primary detoxification organ and your body is trying to eliminate toxins through any route it can. This often generates an immune response and inflammation, which results in rashes, irritation, and dry skin.

Toxins can also include medications. Dry skin is a side effect of some commonly-prescribed drugs, including cholesterol-lowering drugs and retinoids. Dry skin can also be a side effect of diuretics.

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Natural Relief from Dry Skin

Shower every other day in order to help retain the natural oil in the skin.

Choose a short, warm shower (five to ten minutes). Long, hot showers increase the loss of oils from the skin and can worsen dryness. Moisturize immediately after you get out.

Use moisturizing soaps and avoid anti-bacterial soaps, which contribute to dryness.

It seems counterintuitive, but using oil to cleanse the skin (coconut or jojoba) is even better than soap. It will soothe dryness and improve texture.

Coconut oil is a great natural moisturizer useful in treating dry and irritated skin. It can strengthen and hydrate skin and connective tissues, exfoliate the outer layer of dead skin cells, and soothe inflammation.

Plant oils absorb easily in the skin and contain antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that nourish and protect dry skin. They also contain fatty acids that soothe dry skin. Examples include shea butter, olive oil, jojoba oil, aloe vera, almond oil, castor oil, and beeswax.

Honey is loaded with antioxidant, antimicrobial, and humectant properties that help lock in moisture to make your skin soft and smooth. It also contains vitamin A, which helps in the development in skin cells.

Avoid scrubbing and scratching your skin, which will further dry out your skin.

Use a humidifier in your home to maintain the moisture in the air.

Drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration.

Photo of supplement caps in a cup
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In addition to lifestyle remedies, there are natural supplements that can promote healthy skin.

Implementing any or even several of the suggestions that we’ve provided should get you on the path toward improved skin hydration.