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To diagnose dry skin, your doctor is likely to examine you and ask about your medical history. You might discuss when your dry skin started, what factors make it better or worse, what your bathing habits are, and how you care for your skin.
Your doctor may suggest that you have some tests to see if your dry skin is being caused by a medical condition, such as an underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism). Often, dry skin is a symptom of another skin condition, such as dermatitis or psoriasis.
Dry skin often responds well to lifestyle measures, such as using moisturizers and avoiding long, hot showers and baths. If you have very dry skin, your doctor may recommend a moisturizing product formulated for your needs.
If you have a serious skin disease, a doctor may want to treat it with a prescription cream or ointment. If your dry skin becomes itchy, you may use a lotion with hydrocortisone in it. If your skin cracks open, your doctor may prescribe wet dressings to help prevent infection.
Lifestyle and home remedies
The following measures can help keep your skin moist and healthy:
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Gently wash your face at least twice a day. Use a gentle, alcohol-free, nonfoaming cleanser on your face twice a day and after sweating. Products with stearic acid (found in shea butter) or linoleic acid (found in argan oil and others) can help repair your skin. If you have sensitive skin, wash with a cleanser in the evening and just rinse with water other times.
While your skin is still damp, apply any topical medication you’re using, wait a few minutes (see medication packaging for specifics), then apply your moisturizer. If you use cosmetics, consider selecting products with a cream or oil base. Use a moisturizer that contains sunblock or a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30, even on cloudy days. Apply sunscreen generously and reapply every two hours — or more often if you’re swimming or sweating.
Moisturize. Apply moisturizer several times a day, especially when your skin feels dry and after handwashing or bathing, while your skin is still moist. Ask your doctor about the pros and cons of various products for your skin and condition. You may need to try several products before you find those you like, that help you and that you’ll use regularly.
Look for healing ingredients such as urea, ceramides, fatty acids and glycerol (also known as glycerin), shea butter, and cocoa butter. Look for fragrance-free products that don’t cause acne (noncomedogenic) and don’t contain allergy-causing substances (hypoallergenic). Avoid products that contain sodium lauryl sulfate, which is drying.
For the face and neck, you might want to use a cream. Choose something that’s easy to apply and leaves no visible residue. If you are acne-prone, avoid products on your face that contain petroleum jelly, cocoa butter or coconut oil. If you skin is very oily, try using a sunscreen instead of a moisturizer. If you have mature skin, you might prevent scaly, flaky skin by using products that contain antioxidants or alpha hydroxy acid. Moisturizers often form the basis for wrinkle creams, with added retinoids, antioxidants, peptides and other ingredients.
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If nonfacial skin is very dry, you might want to use a thicker moisturizer (Eucerin, Cetaphil, others) or an oil, such as baby oil. Oil has more staying power than do lotions and prevents the evaporation of water from the skin’s surface. Another possibility is a petrolatum-based product (Vaseline, Aquaphor, others). If it feels too greasy, use it only at bedtime or just on tiny cracks in your skin. For very dry hands, apply petroleum jelly liberally at bedtime and put on plain cotton socks or gloves.
- Use warm water and limit bath time. Long showers or baths and hot water remove your skin’s natural oils. Limit bathing to no more than once a day and no longer than 5-10 minutes. Use warm, not hot, water.
Use allergen-free moisturizing soap. For handwashing, use fragrance-free (hypoallergenic) moisturizing soap. Then apply a moisturizing cream while your hands are still damp.
In the shower or bath, try a nonsoap cleansing cream or shower gel, and use soap only in areas where needed, such as the armpits and groin. Avoid loofahs and pumice stones. Rinse thoroughly and pat dry.
- Use a humidifier. Hot, dry, indoor air can parch sensitive skin and worsen itching and flaking. A portable home humidifier or one attached to your furnace adds moisture to the air inside your home.
Choose fabrics that are kind to your skin. Natural fibers, such as cotton, allow your skin to breathe. Wool, although natural, sometimes irritates even healthy skin.
For laundry, use detergents without dyes or perfumes, both of which can irritate your skin. These types of products usually have the word “free” in their names.
- Relieve itchiness. If dry skin causes itchiness, apply a clean, cool, damp cloth to the affected area. You might also apply an anti-itch cream or ointment, containing at least 1% hydrocortisone.
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If these measures don’t relieve your symptoms or if your symptoms worsen, see your doctor or consult a dermatologist about creating a personalized skin care plan based on your skin type and any skin condition you may have.
Preparing for your appointment
You’re likely to start by seeing your primary care doctor. Sometimes, you may be referred directly to a specialist in skin diseases (dermatologist). Here’s some information to help you get ready for your appointment.
What you can do
Preparing a list of questions will help you make the most of your time with your doctor. For dry skin, some basic questions to ask include:
- What’s the most likely cause of my dry skin?
- Do I need tests?
- Is it likely the condition will clear up on its own?
- What skin care routines do you recommend?
Don’t hesitate to ask any other questions you may have.
What to expect from your doctor
Your doctor is likely to ask you several questions, such as:
- How long have you had dry skin?
- Do you have other symptoms?
- Have your symptoms been continuous or occasional?
- What, if anything, makes your skin better?
- What, if anything, makes your skin worse?
- What medications are you taking?
- How often do you bathe or shower? Do you use hot water? What soaps and shampoos do you use?
- Do you use moisturizing creams? If so, which ones, and how often do you use them?