Why Is My Skin So Dry Even When I Moisturize?

by Riverchase Dermatology
January 30, 2024

You faithfully slather on moisturizer morning and night, but you still have tight skin that feels parched and may be flaky or itchy. What’s the deal? If the mystery of “Why is my skin so dry even when I moisturize?” has you stumped, discover some common reasons why moisturizer doesn’t work and how to fix dry skin for more than a few minutes at a time. 

Your moisturizer is too light

Frequently, the reason a moisturizer doesn’t work is that it’s the wrong product for your skin type. Light moisturizers and lotions typically contain a lot of water. That means they have less of the lipids (fats, oil) that lock in moisture. 

Dry skin responds best to heavier creams rather than lotions or water-based gels. Good ones to try include Eucerin Original Healing Cream and CeraVe Moisturizing Cream. For dry hands, you may need a dedicated hand moisturizer such as Eucerin Advanced Repair Hand Cream.

Choose a moisturizer labeled “fragrance free,” since fragrances can irritate dry, sensitive skin. Don’t pick one labeled “unscented” as it may contain chemicals that cover up the smell of the other ingredients.

Ointments, while they may be greasy, are even better than creams for very dry skin. Apply an ointment such as petroleum jelly or Aquaphor Healing Ointment to your driest patches of skin. 

You need to exfoliate

If you never exfoliate, a pile-up of dead skin cells may be preventing your moisturizer from penetrating. The solution to your dry skin could be as simple as regularly sloughing off those dead cells with a mild chemical exfoliant. Look for an exfoliating face wash or body wash that contains salicylic acid, glycolic acid or lactic acid and use it once or twice a week. 

You’re moisturizing at the wrong time

There’s really no wrong time to apply moisturizer, but there is one time you definitely should: right after you pat yourself dry from a shower or bath, while your skin is still slightly damp. 

Your wrinkle cream or acne treatment is drying out your face

Over-the-counter retinol products and prescription retinoids such as tretinoin are great for treating wrinkles, but they can make your skin dry and flaky. That’s because they speed up the skin’s natural exfoliation process. Use them sparingly at first. You may need to start with a lower-dose product. Your dermatologist can recommend or prescribe the right anti-wrinkle product for you and advise you whether to put on moisturizer before or after.  

Topical acne treatments can also dry out your face. Talk to your dermatologist about the best way to treat your acne. 

Your habits are robbing your skin of moisture

Love long, steamy showers? Your dry skin doesn’t. Keep showers short—less than 10 minutes—and use warm water, not hot. If you don’t sweat a lot, try showering less frequently than once a day. 

Other habits that can dry the skin include: 

  • Using a drying soap, such as a deodorant soap, instead of a gentle skin cleanser such as Dove
  • Using toners and other skincare products that are too harsh for your skin type
  • Wearing tight clothes that rub against the skin
  • Smoking cigarettes 
  • Swimming in chlorinated pools

You’re getting older

Once you reach your 40s, your skin’s production of sebum (oil) plunges and continues to decline less dramatically as you get older. Switching to a heavier cream or ointment will do a better job of keeping aging skin hydrated and can even reduce the appearance of fine lines.

You have certain skin conditions or other health issues

Several common skin problems cause dryness, flaking and peeling, including eczema, contact dermatitis and psoriasis. But even diseases you might not think affect the skin can leave it parched. These include diabetes, hypothyroidism, lymphoma and kidney failure. Dialysis for kidney disease leaves skin even drier. Talk to your doctor for advice. 

You take medications that dry out the skin

Dry, peeling skin is a side effect of many drugs. Common culprits include Accutane, beta blockers, hormonal birth control, cholesterol-lowering statins, diuretics (“water pills”) and chemotherapy drugs. Using a thicker moisturizer or switching to an ointment can help.

You’re deficient in certain nutrients

Stubborn dryness may occur if your body is low in vitamin A, vitamin D, iron, niacin or zinc, all of which are a must for healthy skin. Talk to your doctor about whether you might be deficient in one of these nutrients, and if you are, whether or not to take supplements.

Extreme calorie limitation due to anorexia also deprives the skin of nutrients it needs to stay hydrated.

You’re frequently exposed to dry air

If you live in a place where the air is cold and dry, or the air in your home is dry due to forced air heating in the winter or even air conditioning in the summer, keeping your skin moist may be an uphill battle. In addition to switching to a heavier cream or ointment, try running a humidifier in the room where you spend the most time.

Medically reviewed by Jennifer Wong, DO

Written by Jessica Brown, a health and science writer/editor based in Nanuet, New York. She has written for Water’s Edge Dermatology, Prevention magazine, jnj.com, BCRF.org, and many other outlets.