Rough and Bumpy Skin
Why Is My Skin Scaly? Common Causes and Ways to Treat
The skin naturally sheds and renews itself, and this process generally goes unnoticed. If the skin’s natural exfoliation process goes awry, the result can be visibly scaly skin. An effective moisturizer can help restore a feeling of smoothness and softness to dry scaly skin.
Scaly skin can appear on the face and body, most often on the legs, hands and feet. Scaly patches on skin in these areas can be the result of common dry skin, as well as a variety of skin conditions like eczema, psoriasis and more.1 To help improve the appearance of dry scaly skin, look for moisturizers that help replenish hydration. Additional ingredients can help soothe skin, restore the skin’s barrier and provide gentle exfoliation that may improve dry, scaly skin.
Potential causes of dry scaly skin patches
Rough skin can be caused by common dryness, but scaly skin can be a symptom of a specific skin condition.1 Scroll down to learn more about the various causes of scaly skin.
- Seborrheic dermatitis
- Actinic keratosis
- Ichthyosis vulgaris
- Athlete’s foot
- Skin cancer
What is scaly skin?
Dry scaly skin is often the result of a combination of factors, and may be associated with a compromised skin barrier that allows moisture to escape. When the skin’s natural renewal process is disrupted, a buildup of dead cells may lead to scaly skin.2The natural aging process, climate, prolonged submersion in water, and external irritants can lead to patches of dry or scaly skin as well.3
Skin conditions that cause scaly skin
Eczema: This scaly skin condition causes itchy, red, rough patches, commonly inside the elbows and behind the knees, although it can appear anywhere on the body. Eczema is a chronic condition that often begins in childhood, and it is usually triggered by specific environmental factors.4
Psoriasis: Another chronic scaly skin condition, psoriasis, leads to inflamed patches of red skin covered with thick, silvery-white scales. Usually seen on the knees, elbows, lower back, palms and soles of the feet, this condition requires ongoing treatment to help relieve dry scaly skin patches and prevent them from returning.5
Seborrheic dermatitis: Flaky, scaly skin on the scalp, eyebrows, sides of the nose and behind the ears can be due to this form of eczema, which can also present as dandruff.6
Actinic keratosis: Individual scaly patches on skin with a history of sun exposure can be caused by actinic keratosis. These dark, thickened spots can lead to skin cancer if left untreated.7
Ichthyosis vulgaris: This common genetic skin condition prevents dead skin cells from shedding naturally, in turn causing accumulation that resembles fish scales. Mild cases can usually be controlled with regular moisturizer use.8
If you suspect your dry or scaly skin may be caused by one of these skin conditions, it’s best to see a dermatologist who can offer the most effective treatment options.
Scaly skin causes by location
Face: Dry scaly skin patches on the scalp, sides of the nose, behind the ears and on the scalp are usually caused by seborrheic dermatitis.9 If patches are covered in silvery-white scales, this may be a sign of psoriasis.5
Hands: Scaly skin on hands can be due to dry skin, eczema, psoriasis or several other skin conditions. Over-washing and harsh soaps are common culprits for dry, scaly skin on the hands.1
Legs: The most common causes of scaly skin on other areas of the body can affect the legs as well. However, scaly skin on legs that doesn’t improve with moisturizer can be a sign of a more serious issue.
Feet: In addition to dry skin, eczema and other skin conditions, athlete’s foot is a common cause of scaly feet.10
If you experience dry, rough areas of skin that do not improve with moisturizer use, it’s best to see a doctor who can diagnose the cause.
Improving dry, scaly skin
In addition to making minor changes to your usual routine that can help minimize dry skin, hydrating skincare products such as moisturizer and body wash can help with dry, scaly skin. Ceramides are a beneficial ingredient to look for in order to help restore the skin’s barrier, which helps the skin hold on to hydration.2 Hyaluronic acid is another useful ingredient as it is able to draw moisture from the environment and hold up to 1,000 times its weight in water.12 Gentle exfoliation with ingredients like salicylic acid and lactic acid can also help smooth the look and feel of dry, scaly skin.13,14
If over-the-counter skincare products don’t help improve the appearance of scaly skin, it’s best to seek the help of a dermatologist who can diagnose the cause and suggest additional treatment options.
- Baumann, L. (2009) Cosmetic Dermatology: Principles and Practice (pp.83-91). New York: McGraw-Hill Medical
- T. Ruzicka, B. Przybilla, J. Ring (2006) Handbook of Atopic Eczema; 2nd edition; Springer
- DiGiovanna, J.J. & Robinson-Bostom, L. Am J Clin Dermatol (2003) 4: 81. https://doi.org/10.2165/00128071-200304020-00002
- Baumann, L. (2015) Cosmeceuticals and Cosmetic Ingredients (pp.77-79). New York: McGraw-Hill Medical
- Baumann, L. (2015) Cosmeceuticals and Cosmetic Ingredients (pp.301-304). New York: McGraw-Hill Medical
- Baumann, L. (2015) Cosmeceuticals and Cosmetic Ingredients (pp.323-324). New York: McGraw-Hill Medical