Rough skin can be, well, rough. While we all crave silky smooth skin, a variety of factors—from environmental to behavioral—can keep us from getting there. Fortunately, there are some easy ways to achieve smoother skin—from your face all the way to your arms, legs, and feet—that dermatologists David Lortscher and Jennifer MacGregor let us in on. With a heavy dose of TLC and plenty of moisture, slough off dead cells and get your skin back to looking its best. Check out the expert-approved tips below to learn exactly how to kickstart the process of getting smoother skin.
Meet the Expert
- David Lortscher, MD, is a board certified dermatologist and CEO of Curology. He serves as a remote dermatology consultant for rural healthcare clinics in Arizona and New Mexico that lack specialty medical care.
- Jennifer MacGregor, MD, is a board certified dermatologist at Union Square Laser Dermatology in New York City. She is a member of the World Professional Association for Transgender Health and a top dermatologist to the transgender community.
What Causes Rough Skin?
Before we jump into how to remedy rough skin, let's understand what causes it in the first place. "Whether it's a result of a damaged skin barrier lacking in lipid moisture, chronic rubbing, Keratosis Pilaris (aka rough follicles often on the upper arms and legs), or chronic exposure to water or other irritants, rough skin can mean a lot of things," says MacGregor.
According to Lortscher, "The ingredients in your skincare products may be contributing to rough, dry skin. To be on the safe side, avoid any potentially irritating ingredients like denatured alcohol." Another culprit? "A lack of sun protection," he says. "Prolonged UVA exposure damages the collagen fibers in the skin which can lead to dry, rough, and leathery skin," as well as, "environmental factors such as low humidity or cold dry winds." And while exfoliation is an important step in your skincare routine, "Over-exfoliation from overuse of chemical exfoliants like AHAs and BHA (beta hydroxy acid) and/or physical exfoliants (e.g. cleansing brushes and scrubs) can cause redness as well as a feeling of 'tightness', sensitivity, and dryness," says Lortscher.
Moisturize with Hyaluronic Acid
Not all moisturizers are created equal. Choose one that meets your needs and complements your lifestyle. Is your skin super dry and topical cream moisturizers just don't cut it? Opt for a serum or oil that penetrates the skin deeper for extra moisture. MacGregor advises, "Look for and test out moisturizers that contain a mix of ‘moisturizers’ to do all the things your skin needs to feel ‘moisturized'. Ceramides and squalene are lipid replacements while humectants (hyaluronic acids, glycerin, etc.) draw water into the skin and plump it up. You don’t need the fanciest moisturizer, just the right mix for you."
Lortscher identifies hyaluronic acid (HA), in particular, as being "a humectant in the outermost layer of the skin [that] is known for its moisture-binding properties, which helps keep your skin looking plump and dewy." He goes on to explain: "The natural aging process and exposure to environmental factors like UV radiation from the sun, tobacco smoke, and pollution causes a decrease in skin’s HA levels over time and can lead to dry and/or dehydrated skin. Incorporating HA into your routine can help your skin retain moisture. Most commonly, this comes in the form of topical creams, but hyaluronic acid supplements may also possibly encourage a smoother appearance to the skin according to some studies."
Lortscher adds, "Even though your face is likely to be exposed to [the aforementioned] environmental factors more frequently, the rest of your skin is also susceptible to dryness and dehydration as a result of lower HA levels."
His recommendations? Ren Keep Young and Beautiful Instant Firming Beauty Shot ($62), which he says is "a great option for instant hydration and skin brightening. It may result in temporarily smoother and 'plumper' skin." There's also The Curology Moisturizer: "Our gel-cream hybrid moisturizer is soothing and hydrating. It features hyaluronic acid to lock in hydration all day long, and the formula is free from irritating ingredients like common sulfates, fragrances, and dyes." Lastly, Lortscher suggests this oil-free Neutrogena Hydro Boost Water Gel ($24) moisturizer that "features hyaluronic acid for intense hydration but is lightweight enough to work for oily skin. It locks in moisture all day long."
Skip the foaming cleansers and gel-based products if you are dry. Instead, stick to creamy formulations with a mix of moisturizing ingredients to replenish your skin.
Incorporate a Vitamin C Serum into Your Morning Skincare Regimen
According to Lortscher, "Vitamin C has anti-aging benefits and helps repair existing skin damage, helping you achieve a brighter and smoother appearance: It helps to block damage before it even happens by neutralizing free radicals, unstable atoms or molecules that can come from inside our bodies and from external sources such as UV radiation. Free radicals launch tiny attacks on the healthy cells in our bodies. Vitamin C helps protect against damage caused by free radicals. It also helps rebuild your skin’s structure by stimulating collagen production, a protein that makes up your connective tissue and gives your skin its structure."
He continues, "Exposure to UV light has been shown to decrease vitamin C levels in the skin. As topical application of vitamin C helps to restore these photoprotectant levels, it follows that morning application of vitamin C may help protect skin from sun damage. Antioxidants such as vitamin C, in contrast to sunscreens, are absorbed and will have an effect for some time despite washing and rubbing. It has been shown that protection from the sun may persist for perhaps up to four days after several daily applications."
"Vitamin C serums are generally meant to be applied to your face and neck. That being said, vitamin C repairs the skin throughout your whole body by supporting collagen synthesis and acting as an antioxidant to protect against photodamage from UV exposure," says Lortscher. His top picks include Paula's Choice C15 Super Booster ($39), Mad Hippie Vitamin C Serum ($34), Topix Citrix Vitamin C Pro-Collagen Brightening Serum ($87), No7 Youthful Vitamin C Fresh Radiance Essence ($25), and Mario Badescu Vitamin C Serum ($45).
Protect Your Skin from Harmful UV Exposure
It should come as no surprise that "The most important factor for keeping your skin healthy and looking young is being proactive with sun protection. Prolonged sun exposure can lead to dry, rough, and leathery skin," says Lortscher. He recommends, "A product with at least SPF 30 should be used daily and reapplied every two hours if you’re going to be in the sun."
Lortscher adds, "Remember, no sunscreen is a complete block—no matter what the SPF is! In general, dermatologists recommend clothing, hats, sunglasses, seeking the shade (especially between 10 AM and 4 PM), and using a broad-spectrum sunscreen. It is important to use both a facial and body sunscreen for adequate protection. The effects of harmful sun exposure are felt by your whole body, inward and outward." For body sunscreen, Lortscher opts for Neutrogena Pure & Free® Baby Sunscreen Lotion SPF 50 ($13) and Sensitive Skin Sunscreen Lotion Broad Spectrum SPF 60+ ($9). When shopping for face sunscreens, he says EltaMD UV Clear Broad-Spectrum SPF 46 and CeraVe AM Facial Moisturizing Lotion with SPF 30 "contain niacinamide, which can help lighten dark spots from years of sun exposure, decrease redness, and may reduce fine lines and improve skin elasticity" as well as, "hyaluronic acid, which can help the skin retain moisture, having a positive effect on the appearance of wrinkles and possibly improving skin elasticity."
Try Laser Devices and Dilute Injectables
MacGregor says, "I love active skincare products and laser/energy devices to enhance moisture retention. Young kids and babies have plump and luminous skin naturally, but UV and environmental damage occurs over time and dries out the skin. Anything that repairs the skin and makes it more healthy will improve moisture retention as well." That includes "lasers like fractional resurfacing and radiofrequency needling devices." Also, "Dilute injectables spread over the skin surface act like internal moisturizers smoothing, thickening, and stimulating our own collagen and proteoglycans. This is becoming very popular to enhance hydration and improve skin quality (not just for volume, lift, and wrinkles)," according to MacGregor.
Chemically Exfoliate with AHA (Alpha Hydroxy Acid)
AHAs are nothing new when it comes to practicing smart skincare. Lortscher explains why: "Exfoliation with AHAs can help trigger the skin’s natural renewal process, revealing new younger skin cells and helping your skin look healthier. AHAs can help promote a more even skin tone and may result in improved skin texture. AHA may also help reduce hyperpigmentation. AHAs can cause photosensitivity, so it is recommended to use them in the PM only and use sunscreen in the morning. Start just once weekly, gradually increasing the frequency as tolerated."
He notes, "While AHAs are primarily used on the face, they can also be used on the body in the form of an AHA body lotion." His AHA product recommendations include Pixi Glow Tonic ($29), Derma-E Overnight Peel ($19), Mario Badescu Glycolic Acid Toner ($18), First Aid Beauty Facial Radiance Pads ($36), and Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Framboos Glycolic Night Serum ($90).
Chemically Exfoliate with BHA (Beta Hydroxy Acid)
"Products with salicylic acid (aka beta hydroxy acid, aka BHA) help dissolve the 'cement' that holds the dead skin cells on the skin’s surface, allowing them to be shed more efficiently, helping dull, dry, or flaky skin and clogged pores," according to Lortscher.
He adds, "BHA is best for oily skin types. Salicylic acid is lipid-soluble and is able to penetrate the follicle and reduce blocked pores. It helps dislodge the gunk (sebum and dead skin cells) in your pores so that it’s no longer trapped inside the pore. This helps clear your pores, avoiding buildup that can trigger an acne breakout."
"BHAs do not cause photosensitivity, so they can be used morning or night—although the FDA still advises sun protection if you use a BHA product. Anytime the layers of dead skin cells on the surface of the skin are removed, such as by exfoliation, the skin loses some of its physical protection against the sun’s UV rays. So as always, it is important to be diligent with sunscreen when using BHAs," advises Lortscher.
He informs, "BHA products are typically sold as an exfoliant for your face, but they are also now being sold in body treatments to help with breakouts on the body." Stridex Med Pads ($3), Neutrogena Oil-Free Acne Wash ($8), and Paula's Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant ($24) are a few of his favorite BHA products.
Or... (Gently) Physically Exfoliate with a Konjac Sponge
"You don’t need aggressive exfoliation to get rid of dry skin. In fact, over-exfoliating can make it worse!" warns Lortscher. "A gentle way to physically exfoliate your skin is with a konjac sponge, made from fibers of the root of the Asian konjac ('Konnyaku') plant. The sponges may be used to cleanse the face, either with plain water or combined with a small amount of any facial cleanser. They have a mild exfoliating effect, yet are typically soft, and gentle on the skin."
In terms of when and where to use a Konjac sponge, Lortscher says, "Although [it's] commonly paired with a cleanser to exfoliate the face, it can be used in the shower to exfoliate rough flaky parts of your body."
Take Care of Your Hands and Feet
According to MacGregor, "Exfoliate areas that are rough with thick skin first before applying a moisturizer. You can use a stronger exfoliant on knees, elbows, hands, feet, and heels as long as they are not red, cracked, or infected. My favorite products for these thick skin areas contain both lactic acids and urea." Consider Topix Replenix Heel, Knee & Elbow Rescue Ointment which combines the exfoliating power of glycolic acid with urea to give you smoother-looking skin. She adds, "If your hands and feet are super dry, coat them in a thick layer of old fashioned Vaseline and apply gloves. It’s amazing how much the occlusion helps the product sink into the skin."
You can wear cotton gloves overnight, but an alternative (if it’s uncomfortable) is to use nitrile exam gloves or gardening gloves over the Vaseline petrolatum layer while you are walking, commuting, watching TV, etc.
Sleep with a Humidifier
Our skin can easily dry out during the night. Sleeping with a humidifier nearby may help reduce the loss of moisture in your face and body while we catch some z's. "Oftentimes, the fans and central air conditioning and/or heating may contribute to dry room air, causing or aggravating dry skin. So, try using a humidifier and applying a moisturizer while your skin is still a little wet after showering, to 'seal in' the water, recommends Lortscher.
Use a Moisturizer That Contains a Protectant
MacGregor explains, "Protectants (petrolatum, some oils, butters, and waxes) seal in moisture." She advises that they are best used after bathing when skin is damp and will more readily absorb the product. "The most common [protectant] is petrolatum, but I also love Doctor Rogers Restore Healing Balm which is more spreadable (this is safe for those with lanolin allergy as lanolin is found in Aquaphor)," says MacGregor. If you're really dry, she adds that you can even apply a body oil—"Avene makes a fantastic luxurious one"—before using your moisturizer.