Medical Term for Dry Skin - Definitions and References

Posted by Dr. Natasha Ryz on

The medical term for dry skin is xerosis cutis.

'Dry skin' is skin that is lacking water, humectants and fats.

Humectants absorb and hold water, while fats coat the skin and seal in moisture.

When there is not enough water, humectants or fats, skin barrier disruption can occur, further worsening symptoms of dry skin.

Dry skin appears dry, rough, and may scale and flake.

Dry skin may also show premature signs of aging, like fine lines, surface wrinkles and loss of elasticity.

Anyone can develop dry skin.

This article will cover:
    • What is definition of dry skin?
    • What are symptoms of dry skin?
    • What is very dry skin?
    • What is dry skin type?
    • Dry skin type and Helena Rubinstein
    • Medical definitions of dry skin
    • What causes dry skin?
    • What is your skin barrier?
    • Is dry skin due to a lack of water?
    • Is dry skin due to a lack of fat?
    • Is dry skin due to a lack of water and fat?
    • Who suffers from dry skin pain?
    • Summary - what is dry skin?
    • References

Medical Term for Dry Skin - Definitions and References

What is definition of dry skin?

You have most likely experienced dry skin during the cold, dry winter months.

Despite how common dry skin is, it is surprisingly difficult to find a clear definition of dry skin.

In their 1987 paper, on the ‘Biophysical Characterization of Dry Facial Skin,' Leveque et al. state "while dry skin is a common disorder, which can make people feel miserable, the fact is we know very little about it. Indeed, dryness is merely a descriptive term that implies lack of water, but this has not been shown conclusively" (Leveque et al, 1987).
In an 1989 editorial titled 'What Do You Mean by Dry Skin?' Gérald Piérard comments:
"Despite its common use, the term ‘dry skin’ has never been defined in a repeatable way and often covers misinformation. The different ways to interpret dry skin by the cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries are enough to persuade us about the pseudoscientific character of that elusive terminology. Claims of some cosmetologists would have us believe that bringing water to the skin with ‘moisturizers’ is the solution to the problems of dry skin. The pharmaceutical industry usually has an opposite view when it proposes an ointment rather than a cream to treat the chronic dry type of various dermatitides. If there are such discrepancies in the concepts, what does dry skin mean?" (Piérard, 1989).
 
He continues:
"According to dictionaries, dry skin would mean skin without water. This is the skin of mummies" (Piérard, 1989).

Fortunately, since that time, significant progress has been made to further understand dry skin and explain why both water and fat are necessary for treating dry skin. 

Medical Term for Dry Skin - Definitions and References

What are symptoms of dry skin?

Dry skin is uncomfortable - it is overly tight, dehydrated, rough, and may flake and itch. Dry skin is a seemingly simple condition that has a wide spectrum of symptoms - from mild dryness and flaking to severe itching, redness and pain.

Symptoms of dry skin include:

  • Loss of skin elasticity.
  • Skin feels tight, dehydrated.
  • Skin appears dull, rough and blotchy.
  • Slight to severe flaking, scaling or peeling.
  • Fine lines and wrinkles are more pronounced.
  • May have irritation and a burning sensation.
  • May have itching.

Medical Term for Dry Skin - Definitions and References

What is very dry skin?

Very dry skin is a more severe type of dry skin, and is characterized by skin barrier damage, microbe imbalances and inflammation, leading to red, irritated, itchy skin.

Symptoms of very dry skin include:

  • skin feels tight and dehydrated, especially after showering, bathing or swimming
  • skin appears dull, rough and blotchy
  • slight to severe flaking, scaling or peeling
  • fine lines and wrinkles are more pronounced
  • irritation and itching (pruritus)
  • inflammation and redness
  • deep cracks on hands and feet that may bleed
  • associated with skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis
  • dry skin pain

Very dry skin usually has underlying genetic components as well as environmental factors that play a role.

Very dry skin does not typically respond to just moisturizers.

Nutrient-rich oils, balms and barrier creams are required to improve very dry skin and protect against further damage.

Active ingredients, including vitamins, humectants, ceramides, fatty acids and cholesterol can help repair the skin barrier, calm redness, and sooth irritation and itch.

Some people with very dry skin may also require medications to control symptoms, including antimicrobial agents, antihistamines, anti-inflammatory agents, immunotherapy, biologicals, phototherapy, and others.

Read more: What is Very Dry Skin?

Medical Term for Dry Skin - Definitions and References

    Dry Skin on Face. The medical term for dry skin is xerosis cutis.

    What is dry skin type?

    Dry skin can be understood as both a 'skin type' and a 'skin condition.'

    Your skin type is what you are born with and largely determined by your genetics.

    However, skin type can also change with age, stage of life (i.e., pregnancy), and health status. For instance, someone with oily skin type may develop dry skin type as they get older or undergo treatment for cancer. Or someone with dry skin type may develop sensitive skin type during pregnancy.

    'Skin type' includes:

    1. normal skin
    2. dry skin
    3. oily skin
    4. combination skin
    5. sensitive skin 

    Normal Skin Type

    ‘Normal’ is used to refer to well-balanced skin. It is neither too oily nor too dry. Normal skin tends to have balanced pH levels, adequate moisture and sebum production. Normal skin is smooth and radiant in appearance and blemish-free. As a person with normal skin ages, their skin can become dryer, due to diminished levels of sebum and water-holding ability.

    Dry Skin Type

    ‘Dry’ is used to describe a skin type that produces less sebum than normal skin.

    Sebum is an oily, waxy substance produced by your body’s sebaceous glands. It coats the skin, seals in moisture, and protects your skin from getting too dry. As a result of less sebum, dry skin is characterized by a dull appearance and rough

    Learn more: Dry Skin Type vs. Dry Skin Condition: What Is the Difference?

     Dry Skin on Face. The medical term for dry skin is xerosis cutis.

    Dry skin type and Helena Rubinstein

    'Skin types' terminology is thought to originate in the early 1900’s by cosmetics entrepreneur Helena Rubinstein as a marketing strategy to sell her products.

    Rubinstein classified skin as normal, oily and dry, with each type determined by the relative production of secretions from the skin glands.
     
    "The normal velvety gloss of the skin possesses aesthetic significance. It is produced by the evenly measured excretion of the moisture and fat-secreting glands. Abnormal diminution or increase of the secretions make the skin either dry and dull or unduly moist and greasy, whereby in either case the beauty of its lustre, its “enamel”, disappears." - Helena Rubinstein, 1915
     
    It is interesting to note that Rubinstein recognized that both water-loss and fat-loss play a role in dry skin.
     
    Rubinstein suggested that dry skin was brought about by insufficient natural lubricants, a condition that could be exacerbated using harsh alkaline soap, alcohol preparations such as Eau de Cologne, as well as weather extremes such as frost, dry winds or excessive heat. Cosmetics and Skin: Helena Rubinstein (1915-1930)
     
    Again- it is worth noting that Rubinstein understood some of the major external factors that can contribute to dry skin.
     
    Today, the cosmetic industry still classifies products based on skin types as normal, dry, oily, and combination (Youn 2016), and most products sold on the market follow this classification.
    Dry Skin on Face. The medical term for dry skin is xerosis cutis.

    Medical definitions of dry skin

    The medical term for dry skin is xerosis cutis.

    It originates from the Greek word ‘xero’ meaning ‘dry’, and ‘osis’ meaning ‘disease’ or ‘medical disorder’. The word 'cutis' means the true skin or dermis.
     
    The medical definition of xerosis is abnormal dryness of a body part or tissue (as the skin or conjunctiva) (Merriam-Webster Medical Dictionary).
     
    The International Classification of Disease (ICD-11) defines xerosis cutis as “dryness of the skin surface commonly due to defatting of the epidermis by excessive exposure to soaps and detergents or desiccation from prolonged exposure to low ambient humidity. In more severe cases the skin may become inflamed (asteatotic eczema).”
     
    The US National Library of Medicine's definition of xerosis states "dry skin occurs when your skin loses too much water and oil" (MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia). 
     
    Or more simply, as the American Academy of Dermatology states "when skin loses too much water, it becomes dry."
    Dry Skin on Face. The medical term for dry skin is xerosis cutis.

    What causes dry skin?

    Dry skin is very common and can occur for a variety of reasons. You may have naturally dry skin. But even if your skin type is normal or oily, you can still develop dry skin from time to time. Dry skin can affect any part of your body.

    Dry skin can be caused or worsened by:

    • Exposure to cold weather
    • Low humidity levels
    • UV radiation and sunlight
    • Harsh soaps or detergents
    • Swimming in chlorinated pools
    • Long and hot showers or baths
    • Aging
    • Menopause

      Read more: What Causes Dry Skin?

      Dry Skin on Face. The medical term for dry skin is xerosis cutis.

      What is your skin barrier?

      Your skin barrier protects you from physical, chemical, and microbial insults, and prevents the loss of water from your body.

      The skin barrier includes the outermost layers of skin, called the stratum corneum.

      Your skin barrier is essentially what you can see and touch on the surface of your body.

      When your skin barrier is healthy, it feels and appears smooth, soft, and plump.

      In contrast, a damaged skin barrier looks dry, rough, dull, and dehydrated, and may become irritated and inflamed.

      The stratum corneum can be thought of as a brick wall that protects you.

      The "bricks" are the skin cells, called corneocytes, and the "mortar" that holds the bricks together is the lipids or fats, that together create the outer barrier.

      Learn More: What is The Skin Barrier?

      Dry Skin on Face. The medical term for dry skin is xerosis cutis.

      What is Dry Skin on Your Face? Medical Definitions and References

      Is dry skin due to a lack of water?

      "Dry skin is a common condition that is attributed to a lack of water in the stratum corneum" (Proksch et al, 2020).

      Water is absolutely essential for the normal functioning of the skin.

      The water content of skin is remarkably high - the epidermis (the outer skin layer) contains more than 70% water, while its outermost layer, the stratum corneum has been shown to contain ~15% water (Warner et al, 1988; Caspers et al, 2003).
       
      However, it is not as simple as just treating your skin with water or a moisturizer.
       
      The retention of water in the skin is dependent on:
      1. Natural moisturizing factors (NMFs) and other humectants (such as glycerin and hyaluronic acid) to attract and hold onto moisture.
      2. Intercellular lipids (fats) that form a barrier to prevent transepidermal water loss (TEWL) (Verdier-Sévrain et al, 2007).
      What is Dry Skin on Your Face? Medical Definitions and References

      Is dry skin due to a lack of fat?

      The surface of your skin is covered by a layer of protective lipids (fats), including epidermal lipids and sebum.

      Epidermal lipids are released from keratinocytes (skin cells), and are a mixture of ceramides, free fatty acids and cholesterol. These lipids are released from skin cells and fill the spaces between the cells, like mortar or cement (Pappas, 2007).

      Sebum is an oily, waxy substance produced by your body’s sebaceous glands and eventually released to the surface of the skin. Sebum is primarily made up of non polar lipids as triglycerides, wax esters and squalene. Sebum coats the skin, seals in moisture, and protects your skin from getting too dry (Pappas, 2009). 

      Learn more: Beneficial Fats Found Naturally in The Skin Barrier

      What is Dry Skin on Your Face? Medical Definitions and References

      Is dry skin due to a lack of water and fat?

      A more complete definition of dry skin is provided by Kresken et al:

      Xerosis cutis is defined as skin deficient in hydrolipids. The condition is characterized by decreased quantity and/ or quality of lipids and/or hydrophilic substances (the latter is referred to as natural moisturizing factor) (Kresken et al, 2009; Augustin et al, 2019a).
      This definition is interesting because it includes both lipids and water substances.
       

      As we have seen, many definitions describe dry skin as skin deficient in water or skin deficient in fat.

      In order to treat dry skin, you must consider both.

      What is Dry Skin on Your Face? Medical Definitions and References

      Who suffers from dry skin pain?

      Dry skin can be painful.

      Dry skin can damage your skin barrier, leading to irritation, inflammation, wounds and pain.

      Dry skin pain can include:

      • over-tight skin
      • irritation and/or burning sensation
      • itching (pruritus)
      • inflammation and redness
      • deep cracks on hands and feet that may bleed
      • skin damage, including wounds

      Dry skin pain is common in:

      • Aging Skin 
      • Atopic Dermatitis / Eczema
      • Diabetes
      • Hypothyroidism

      Anyone can develop dry skin.

      But you're more likely to develop dry skin pain if you are older or have certain diseases or conditions.

      Learn more: Dry Skin Pain - Who Suffers from Dry Skin Pain?

      What is Dry Skin on Your Face? Medical Definitions and References

      Summary - what is dry skin?

      Dry skin is a bit more complicated than it first appears.

      The medical term for dry skin is xerosis cutis.

      The following can define dry skin:
      • Dry skin has a lack of water.
      • Dry skin has a lack of water-holding substances called humectants (glycerin, hyaluronic acid, natural moisturizing factors).
      • Dry skin has a lack of epidermal lipids (ceramides, fatty acids, cholesterol).
      • Dry skin has a lack of sebum (triglycerides, wax esters, squalene). 

      Dry skin is skin that is lacking water, humectants and fats. Humectants absorb and hold water, while fats coat the skin and seal in moisture. When there is not enough water, humectants or fats, skin barrier disruption can occur, further worsening symptoms of dry skin.

      Dry skin is often relieved with the use of moisturizers, a good face oil, and some lifestyle modifications, such as using a humidifier, avoiding harsh cleansers, and supplementing the diet with essential fatty acids. 

      Learn more: 5 Benefits of Wild Orange Oil Cleanser for Dry Skin

       

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      References

      Augustin, Matthias, Dagmar Wilsmann‐Theis, Andreas Körber, Martina Kerscher, Götz Itschert, Michaela Dippel, and Petra Staubach. 2019a. Diagnosis and treatment of xerosis cutis – a position paper. JDDG: Journal der Deutschen Dermatologischen Gesellschaft 17 (S7): 3–33. 

      Augustin M, Kirsten N, Körber A, Wilsmann-Theis D, Itschert G, Staubach-Renz P, Maul JT, Zander N. Prevalence, predictors and comorbidity of dry skin in the general population. J Eur Acad Dermatol Venereol. 2019b. Jan;33(1):147-150. 


      American Academy of Dermatology website. Dry skin: Overview. www.aad.org/public/diseases/a-z/dry-skin-overview. Accessed September 10, 2021.

      Bennett, James. 2021. Helena Rubinstein (1915-1930). Cosmetics and Skin (blog). Accessed September 10, 2021. https://www.cosmeticsandskin.com/companies/helena-rubinstein-1915.php.

      Caspers PJ, Lucassen GW, Puppels GJ. Combined in vivo confocal Raman spectroscopy and confocal microscopy of human skin. Biophys J 2003 July; 85: 572-80.

      Dry skin: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia
      ICD-11 for Mortality and Morbidity Statistics (who.int)

      Kresken J, Daniels R, Arens-Corell M. Leitlinie der GD. Gesellschaft für Dermopharmazie e.V.: Dermokosmetika zur Reinigung und Pflege trockener Haut. Gesellschaft für Dermopharmazie e.V., 30. April 2009.

      Leveque JL, Grove G, de Rigal J, Corcuff P, Kligman AM, Saint Leger D. Biophysical characterization of dry facial skin. J. Soc. Cosmet. Chem., 82, 171-177 (May/June 1987).

      Pappas A. Epidermal surface lipids. Dermatoendocrinol. 2009 Mar;1(2):72-6.

      Piérard GE What do you mean by dry skin? Dermatologica. 1989;179(1):1-2.

      Pons-Guiraud A. Dry skin in dermatology: a complex physiopathology. J Eur Acad Dermatol Venereol. 2007 Sep;21 Suppl 2:1-4.

      Proksch E, Berardesca E, Misery L, Engblom J, Bouwstra J. Dry skin management: practical approach in light of latest research on skin structure and function. J Dermatolog Treat. 2020 Nov;31(7):716-722.

      Verdier-Sévrain S, Bonté F. Skin hydration: a review on its molecular mechanisms. J Cosmet Dermatol. 2007 Jun;6(2):75-82.

      Warner RR, Myers MC, Taylor DA. Electron probe analysis of human skin: determination of the water concentration profile. J Invest Dermatol 1988; 90: 218–24.

      Xerosis Medical Definition | Merriam-Webster Medical Dictionary

      Youn, Sang Woong. 2016. "Cosmetic Facial Skin Type." In Measuring the Skin, edited by Philippe Humbert, Howard Maibach, Ferial Fanian, and Pierre Agache, 1–6. Cham: Springer International Publishing.

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