How To Treat Dry, Flaky Skin

Experts share their best tips, ingredients and products to soothe chapped lips, parched eyelids and irritated noses.

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Dry skin doesn’t play favourites—it can creep up just about anywhere, from your cheeks and lips to your eyelids. And anyone who’s had a runny nose knows how painful a patch of chapped, irritated skin can be. There are ways to restore your skin to its supple, pre-winter condition, but it requires a little bit of insider knowledge. We called on the expertise of Ilona Alfaro, a Toronto-based celebrity beauty expert and certified esthetician, along with Dr. Julia Carroll and Dr. Sonya Cook, co-founders of Compass Dermatology, to shed some light on known causes, preventative measures and the best ingredients to treat dry, flaky skin.

What causes dry, flaky skin?

In an ideal world, the culprit would be easy to identify. In reality, there can be numerous causes—and though it pops up more often in winter, skin can flake all year-round. “The most common cause is mild eczema, related to winter conditions, low humidity and harsh weather,” says Dr. Carroll. “Another common cause is contact dermatitis, [a reaction] to ingredients in personal care products, or a condition known as seborrheic dermatitis, which is scaly red areas around the nose and in the eyebrows.” Alfaro also lists medication, hot water usage and sun exposure among the top triggers. Each one can have a compromising effect on skin’s barrier function, which is vital to moisture retention. “If you’re suffering from dry, flaky skin, then consulting with a dermatologist or certified esthetician is the best first step,” she says. And don’t ignore any warning signs. “If your skin is just dry and flaky but there is no associated redness or itchiness, then it’s just dryness. If there is redness or itchiness, it may be more than dryness—if it doesn’t respond to simple measures it’s best to see your dermatologist,” says Dr. Cook.

How do you treat it?

If you’re already dealing with skin that feels tight, rough and fragile, you may be tempted to just leave it be. But gentle action often helps support the repair process and prevent further damage—it all depends on what causes it. “For winter eczema, it’s recommended to switch to richer products as the season changes, but to avoid multi-step routines with complicated sets of ingredients. These types of products can increase your chances of developing contact dermatitis,” says Dr. Carroll. Alfaro encourages a routine based on the bare essentials, too. “Establish a simple skin care routine for morning and night,” says Alfaro. “Use a hydrating, non-stripping cleanser and nourish your skin with an appropriate moisturizer.”

Should I exfoliate flaky skin?

A gentle exfoliator once a week can go a long way towards storing a smooth complexion. Alfaro’s favourite is AmorePacific’s Treatment Enzyme Peel. “It’s an extremely gentle, non-abrasive, powder formula. I adore how the botanical enzymes sweep away dead skin, it’s even ideal for lip care,” she says. Mild is the keyword when choosing an exfoliator—give gritty scrubs a miss. “When skin is dry, it isn’t able to properly exfoliate dead skin cells and this is why dry skin is flaky. Using a cream or serum containing glycolic acid or a mild retinol can help to exfoliate dead skin cells and smooth the surface of the skin, but these can also be more irritating to dry skin, so I typically recommend starting with use once or twice weekly,” says Dr. Cook.

What ingredients should I look for to treat it?

Hyaluronic acid is a superb hydrator,” says Alfaro. The substance is naturally present in the skin, giving it its bounce, and it has the power to hold a thousand times its weight in water. “It swells in the skin, which makes it an excellent product to boost moisturization,” says Dr. Carroll, “I also really like ceramides in moisturizers. They help repair the skin barrier and are found naturally in our skin. And also lactic acid, an alpha-hydroxy acid, that is both an exfoliator and a moisturizer, so it does double-duty.”

How you apply products will also increase efficacy. “Moisturizers should be applied while the skin is still damp in order to help retain water in the skin. Most of us are willing to lavish a little more attention—and money—on our faces, so applying a serum containing hyaluronic acid to damp skin, followed by a moisturizer will help hydrate it,” says Dr. Cook. One thing to note, she adds, is that HA needs to be sealed with an occlusive ingredient, such as a moisturizer or an oil. “Otherwise, the water in the serum will evaporate and leave your skin even drier, because HA is able to pull water up to the surface from deeper in the skin.”

What are the best products to treat dry skin?

Flaky lids? Cracking lips? A nose that hurts when you breathe? Soothe your irritated skin in a way that works for you. If appearing glossy is no big deal (at bedtime, for example), Dr. Carroll’s go-to product for lips, lids and sniffly noses is petroleum jelly, such as Vaseline. “It’s an excellent occlusive, which means it locks moisture in, and it also protects skin from the rubbing associated with runny noses. It’s also very inexpensive and easy to find,” she explains. When you want to keep things low key, Alfaro suggests a healthy dose of hydrating eye cream and nourishing lip care. “Another remedy is introducing a hydrating mist which can be applied over your face throughout the day and evening to provide skin barrier relief, hydration and comfort,” she adds.

Another way to achieve round-the-clock soothing is to invest in a humidifier. “Our skin prefers a relative humidity of about sixty-percent, so the low relative humidity during the winter in our climate is a major contributing factor. A simple measure is a humidifier to attain a relative humidity of thirty- to forty-percent—any higher and there is a risk of mold,” says Dr. Cook.