Rough and Bumpy Skin
Understanding Your Skin: Why Is My Skin Scaly?
Your skin constantly sheds and renews itself through a natural exfoliation process known as desquamation. Although you normally can’t see or feel it, the average person sheds about 40,000 skin cells every day, according to the Cleveland Clinic.1 Regular cell turnover is an important part of maintaining healthy-looking skin and any disruption to this process can cause the skin to take on a visibly rough, scaly appearance. Read on to learn more about the possible causes of dry, scaly skin, and discover a few tips to help restore a feeling of smoothness and softness to scaly skin.
Although scaly skin can appear anywhere on your face or body, it’s most often found on the legs, hands, and feet. According to research, scaly patches on your skin can be caused by a number of factors, such as dry skin or skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis.2 If you’ve recently developed scaly skin, consider consulting with a medical professional to help identify the cause. A board-certified dermatologist, for example, can offer personalized guidance on the right skincare routine to help address scaly skin patches and restore your skin’s healthy appearance. Below, discover some of the possible triggers of scaly skin.
What Is Scaly Skin?
”Scaly skin” is a term used to describe skin that has a dry, rough-textured appearance with large, scale-like flakes. This can sometimes be accompanied by peeling, itchiness, redness, sensitivity, and skin discoloration. Scaly skin may appear anywhere on the body but is commonly seen in areas prone to dryness, such as the hands, feet, elbows, face, and legs.
Understanding How Your Skin Functions
There are many possible causes of dry, scaly skin, but in order to really understand them, it’s important to first explain how your skin functions. As your body’s largest organ, skin is made up of three primary layers that work together to help protect your body from germs and other environmental aggressors. These three layers are known as the epidermis (top layer), dermis (middle layer), and hypodermis (the fatty bottom layer). Each of these layers plays a unique role in maintaining your skin's health and appearance.
What is the skin barrier?
Your skin’s outer layer (the epidermis) is responsible for many essential functions. It constantly renews itself, shedding dead skin cells to make room for new cells. The epidermis also houses your skin barrier (stratum corneum) in its outermost part. This natural barrier contains important lipids (such as ceramides) and acts as the primary gatekeeper between your skin and the external environment—keeping moisture in and harmful irritants out. When the skin barrier is weakened, research shows that it can lead to a number of skin concerns, including dry, itchy, flaky, or scaly skin.3
What Causes Scaly Skin?
Dry, scaly skin is often the result of a combination of factors, such as slowed skin cell turnover or environmental stressors. If your skin suddenly appears scaly, we recommend visiting a board-certified dermatologist for a professional assessment. They can help pinpoint the primary cause of your scaly skin and offer personalized guidance on how to restore healthy-looking skin. Below, we’re explaining some common causes of scaly skin to help you better understand this skin concern.
Scaly skin patches may be associated with a compromised skin barrier. If the skin barrier isn’t functioning properly, your skin may lose too much moisture, eventually leading to dry skin (formally known as xeroderma). In some cases, dryness can be accompanied by scaling skin. Factors that can influence dry skin include the natural aging process (especially after age 60), prolonged exposure to low-humidity climates, genetics, certain health conditions, and frequent hand washing. Learn more in our guide to understanding common causes of dry, flaky skin on your face.
At least 31 million Americans experience some form of eczema, according to the National Eczema Association.4 This chronic skin condition often begins in childhood and is believed to be the result of an overactive immune system (though specific environmental factors may trigger it as well). Eczema typically causes dry, rough, red scaly patches on the skin that feel itchy and uncomfortable. It often shows up in skin creases—especially behind the elbows and knees—but can appear anywhere on the body.
The Cleveland Clinic defines psoriasis as a common, chronic scaly skin condition that causes a skin rash with itchy, silvery-white scaly patches.5 Psoriasis is usually seen on the knees, elbows, scalp, and lower back. This condition tends to occur in cycles (known as “flares”) and generally requires ongoing treatment to manage.
Dandruff (also known as seborrheic dermatitis, seborrheic eczema, or seborrheic psoriasis) is a skin condition that causes flaky, scaly skin primarily on oily areas on the body, like your scalp. People with this skin condition may also experience skin scales on their face—specifically the eyebrows, sides of the nose, and behind the ears, per the Mayo Clinic.6
Actinic keratosis causes rough, scaly patches on skin that, according to the Mayo Clinic, are caused by repeated sun exposure.6 These scaly patches usually appear in adults over 40 and tend to affect the face, forearms, scalp, lips, ears, and back of the hands.
Note: To help protect your skin from the sun’s harmful rays at any age, it’s important to follow daily protective measures. This includes wearing broad-spectrum sunscreen, avoiding direct sunlight between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., seeking shade whenever possible, and wearing protective clothing (like hats and sunglasses). Learn more about sun protection with board-certified dermatologist Dr. Sejal Shah in our guide to mineral vs. chemical sunscreens.
Ichthyosis vulgaris is a genetic scaly skin condition that typically first appears during childhood. This condition causes your skin's natural shedding process to slow, which allows dead skin cells to accumulate on the skin's surface. These clumps of dead cells are often described as looking like fish scales. Scaly patches are usually thick and very dry, and typically develop on the elbows and lower legs, according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD).7
Although scaly skin can be caused by general dryness or a scaly skin condition, there are also other possibilities. If you experience scaly skin on your feet, for example, it may be a sign of athlete’s foot in some cases. Athlete’s foot is caused by fungus and typically affects the soles of the feet.8
Note: If you suspect your dry or scaly skin may be caused by an underlying illness or skin condition, it’s important to visit a board-certified dermatologist who can assess your skin and offer the most effective treatment options.
What Helps Improve the Appearance of Dry, Scaly Skin?
For dry, scaly skin, the Cleveland Clinic recommends following a regimen designed to help restore the skin’s moisture. They suggest regularly applying gentle, fragrance-free moisturizers with ingredients like hyaluronic acid, ceramides, and glycerin.8 If you’re unsure where to start, a board-certified dermatologist can help identify the underlying causes of your scaliness and suggest a routine that’s right for your skin.
Your dermatologist may also recommend lifestyle changes—such as avoiding long, hot
showers—and skincare products that offer gentle exfoliation. This might include products with ingredients like salicylic acid and lactic acid, which can help smooth the look and feel of dry, scaly skin. In the case of scaly skin conditions, these should always be managed and treated under the supervision of a medical professional.
For help choosing the right products for your specific skin type and skin concerns, use our Find My Skincare Solution tool.
- “Skin: Layers, Structure and Function.” Cleveland Clinic, 2022.
- Gade A, Matin T, Rubenstein R. “Xeroderma.” [Updated 2022 Apr 11]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Jan.
- Murphrey MB, Miao JH, Zito PM. “Histology, Stratum Corneum.” [Updated 2021 Nov 19]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Jan.
- National Eczema Association. “Eczema (Atopic Dermatitis): Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment.” National Eczema Association, 17 Nov. 2022.
- “Psoriasis - Symptoms and Causes.” Mayo Clinic, 8 Oct. 2022.
- “Actinic Keratosis - Symptoms and Causes.” Mayo Clinic, 24 Aug. 2022.
- “Ichthyosis Vulgaris: Diagnosis and Treatment.” American Academy of Dermatology Association, 2022.
- “Dry Skin (Xeroderma): Symptoms, Causes, Treatment and Prevention.” Cleveland Clinic, 2022.
*This information is for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for the medical advice of a licensed physician or health professional. For concerns regarding your skin’s health, always consult with your doctor and/or board-certified dermatologist for a professional assessment and treatment plan.
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