Dermatologist-Reviewed Articles

Dry Patches on Skin: Psoriasis or Just Dryness?

woman examining her leg

Chronic and seasonal dry skin is something most people deal with, but how do you spot the difference between a mild skin irritation and something more serious? Characterized by itchy red plaques, bumps, rashes or blisters, psoriasis is a chronic inflammatory skin disease that affects 2 to 3 percent of Americans. Just like with dry skin, cold weather and wind can trigger flare-ups for psoriasis sufferers. Because the causes, symptoms and treatments differ for each person, it’s important to diagnose it first to find relief.

Dry Skin vs. Psoriasis

Dry skin, known medically as xerosis cutis, means molecules known as lipids that make up skin cells with oils and other essentials are low and the moisture is sapped from the outermost layer of your skin. Psoriasis is an autoimmune disease that causes flares of rapid skin cell growth, resulting in raised skin lesions that can be red, scaly and itchy. The rash isn’t contagious, and the condition often develops between the teenage years and the mid-30s.

What Causes Each

Dry skin can be caused by anything as simple as a shift in the climate to over-washing your hands during a cleaning binge. It can also reflect prescriptions you’re taking or underlying medical conditions such as poor nutrition, hormone imbalances, thyroid disease or diabetes. Psoriasis can be inherited—about one-third of those with psoriasis have a relative with the condition. The immune system also plays a strong role, though researchers have yet to pinpoint exactly what causes some to get psoriasis while others don’t.

Signs and Symptoms

Think back to the last harsh winter you experienced or a summer spent in the air conditioning, and you can easily recognize the signs of dry skin. It can feel rough, and look dull and parched. If left untreated or exposed to particularly harsh elements, it can get even more irritated and crack or peel. The most common type of psoriasis shows up as reddened and raised plaques. It can be mild to severe, with different degrees of pain or itching. Other types of psoriasis are reflected in symptoms including smooth red rashes in skin folds, blisters or peeling skin.

Road to Recovery

The best treatment for dry skin is prevention: Stop it before it starts by regularly applying a heavy moisturizer, cleansing with mild soap or using a humidifier to counter dry spells. If home treatments aren’t doing the trick, a dermatologist can recommend stronger creams or even prescribe you an antihistamine. If your psoriasis is mild—defined as occurring on less than 3 percent of the body, according to the National Psoriasis Foundation—topical treatments such as a menthol shampoo to control scalp itch or moisturizer with salicylic acid may keep the condition under control. More serious cases are usually treated with a multi-pronged strategy that can include prescription drugs and even phototherapy.


This article has been reviewed by board-certified dermatologist Dr. Emmy Graber.

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