You might think that dryness, flakes, and skin peeling are reserved for the frigid, dry temperatures of winter—but that's actually far from the truth. Unfortunately, dry skin can occur at any time, regardless of the season or climate.
There are many factors that can contribute to facial skin dryness, including genetics, the weather, environmental factors, dehydration, overwashing, and some dermatological conditions like eczema, psoriasis, and dermatitis.
But before you head to the store and start buying every product available to treat dry skin, take a breather. NYC Dermatologist Dr. Joshua Zeichner explains that to improve your skin's condition, it's important to identify the cause first (and then tackle with the appropriate products and treatments).
Here, we round up the most effective treatments for the most common causes of dead, peeling skin on the face.
Moisturize With Hyaluronic Acid
Dry skin that's peeling is often genetic, so if your grandma, mom, dad, aunt, uncle, etc. suffer from dry skin too, chances are you can blame them. If you've inherited the "dry skin" gene, you aren't alone. In fact, plenty of people aren't able to maintain adequate hydration because of this. Luckily, Dr. Zeichner says moisturizers can help. He recommends looking for ingredients such as hyaluronic acid which, "act like a sponge to pull in hydration to the outer skin layers." He especially recommends Neutrogena Hydro Boost Water-Gel.
Ensuring you are always properly hydrated on the inside is also important to prevent dryness and dehydration of the skin. Currently, the CDC currently recommends consuming enough water each day for overall health and that intake can vary by, "age, sex, pregnancy, and breastfeeding status" while other experts say you should aim to drink about half your weight in ounces of water each day.
Wash Your Face Less Frequently
Do you know that squeaky clean feeling you get after giving your face a good thorough cleansing? Well, if you've been chasing after that feeling while washing your face each day, you'll probably want to stop. Dr. Zeichner says that sensation "is actually harmful to the skin and represents post-wash dryness." This, he says, can lead to redness, dryness, and flaking of the skin. So if you think you've been over-washing, he recommends sticking to a more gentle cleanser that won’t compromise the integrity of the skin barrier—like Dove's Beauty Bar for Sensitive Skin, "which hydrates the skin while cleansing."
Try Washing Your Face With a Dandruff Shampoo... Seriously
Contrary to what you might think, slathering on the moisturizer won't help if your flaky skin is a result of perioral dermatitis. In fact, it may unfortunately make things worse.
"Moisturizers may actually make this condition worse because they can create an oily environment that encourages yeast growth," Zeichner says. Instead, he recommends sticking to products that contain an ingredient called zinc pyrithione which is, "an ingredient that lowers levels of yeast and reduces inflammation and flaking." He recommends Kamedis Dandruff Shampoo.
But wait, use a shampoo... on your face? Yep.
He says, "Use this shampoo like a liquid cleanser for your face. Apply, lather, and rinse off after singing 'Happy Birthday' to give it enough contact time on the skin for it to do its job."
Use a Petrolatum-Based Cream
Dr. Rita Linkner of Spring Street Dermatology in NYC says that during this time of year, eczema is one of the most common causes of dry facial skin. "With humidity levels dropping with temperatures, skin that runs on the sensitive end of the spectrum is sure to flare up," she says.
If this is happening to you, she recommends changing up your skincare routine. "Moving from serums or lotions to creams that are petrolatum-based is the easiest first move. If this alone doesn't help, then a prescription-strength steroid is best." She swears by Cetaphil Moisturizing Cream for the body and Alastin Ultra Nourishing Moisturizer for the face for both eczema and psoriasis-prone patients.
Look For Products With Anti-Inflammatory Benefits
Rosacea is a common condition where the skin on the face is extra sensitive and overactive to the environment, explains Zeichner. It commonly manifests as red or pink skin, redness, flaking, and bumps (or even pus pimples in some cases).
If you find that you are experiencing redness, sensitivity, and flaking simultaneously, you just might be suffering from Rosacea. In this scenario, he suggests opting to use moisturizers that contain soothing and anti-inflammatory ingredients—such as Aveeno's Ultra Calming Nourishing Night Cream—which contains calming feverfew (a flowering plant that is similar to the daisy) and skin-protecting and soothing colloidal oatmeal.
Other dermatologists call out CeraVe, Elta MD, and Naturopathica as their favorite brands for Rosacea skin. See the full list here.
Be Consistent With Your Skincare Routine
If you're experiencing flakiness and you've recently changed up your skincare routine, it's possible you might be suffering from contact dermatitis, which Zeichner explains is a skin rash and/or peeling of the skin "caused by direct contact of a product to the skin leading to either irritation or a true allergy." Often, the most common culprits include ingredients like retinoids and hydroxy acids which can be irritating to sensitive skin, while "preservatives and fragrances" may also lead to allergies and irritation.
If you have just introduced new products and are now struggling with flaking or peeling skin, Zeichner advises, "Stop using anything new, and if the rash does not improve visit your dermatologist for allergy testing."
Maul J-T, Maul LV, Kägi M, et al. Skin recovery after discontinuation of long-term moisturizer application: a split-face comparison pilot study. Dermatol Ther (Heidelb). 2020;10(6):1371-1382.
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Tolaymat L, Hall MR. Perioral dermatitis. In: StatPearls. StatPearls Publishing; 2021.