Flaky skin is most commonly skin that’s too dry, although it can occasionally be a sign of another skin condition called seborrheic dermatitis. Most cases of flakiness come from skin that lacks moisture. Dry, flaky skin is especially common in the winter months when the air is dry and people spend more time indoors where their skin is exposed to dry heat.
What Causes It?
Dry, flaky skin is caused by a lack of moisture in the outermost layer of the skin called the epidermis. The epidermis consists of clusters of skin cells that are held together by lipids. These lipids help to prevent loss of water from the surface of the skin. Some people don’t have enough of these lipids or the lipid layer is damaged, which makes it difficult for their skin to hold on to moisture. When this is the case, skin cells in the epidermis aren’t shed in an orderly manner. Instead, they build up and cause skin to look flaky and feel rough to the touch.
Some people are genetically prone towards dry skin. For others, the lipid layer that protects the skin from moisture loss becomes damaged when they use harsh soaps and cleansing products. Damage can also come from bathing frequently in hot water or exposing skin to dry conditions and temperature extremes. Some medical conditions, medications and dietary deficiencies, especially a low-fat diet, can contribute to dry skin. Skin needs essential fatty acids to make lipids that protect the skin against moisture loss.
To reduce flakiness, it’s important to treat the underlying problem - dry skin. People who live in a dry home will benefit from getting a humidifier to add moisture to the air. Other simple ways to reduce moisture loss is to avoid using soaps and harsh cleansers that damage the delicate layer that protects skin from dryness. Choose a product that gently cleanses and removes surface dirt and debris without stripping skin of its natural protective oils. Look for added ingredients that gently loosen and exfoliate dead skin cells that cause skin to look rough and flaky.
After cleansing, apply a gentle moisturizer formulated for dry skin. Many products contain natural botanicals that help to soothe dry skin and restore moisture balance. Many also contain antioxidants that protect skin against damage. Always apply a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 that protects against UVA and UVB rays for added protection against the sun’s damaging rays. Sun exposure can worsen dryness and flakiness. Select a nourishing sunscreen with antioxidant vitamins that’s specifically formulated to meet the needs of very dry, flaky skin.
Gentle exfoliation instantly removes dead skin cells that cause skin to look flaky. Some people use exfoliating pads, but these can be too rough for some skin types. A gentler alternative is skin polishers which contain very fine particles of jojoba to lift away dead skin cells that cause flaking and reveal the healthier skin underneath. Look for ingredients like allantoin to reduce skin irritation and redness. Exfoliate once or twice a week in addition to your regular cleansing and moisturizing program to help skin look smoother and less flaky.
The Bottom Line?
Most skin flakiness comes from the build-up of dead skin cells in the outer layer of the skin. This happens when the protective lipid layer is damaged and skin loses too much moisture. Fortunately, this problem can be corrected by using a gentle cleanser made for dry skin and applying a moisturizer formulated for the special needs of dry, dehydrated skin. Using a skin polisher like SkinMedica Skin Polisher once or twice a week also helps to keep flakiness in check.