Is it eczema or just dry skin?

Dr Marianne Nolan|Skin care and sun protection
3 May 2019

If your skin feels dry and is prone to getting flakey and itchy, many people believe it to be eczema.

But how can you tell if it’s really eczema – the form of dermatitis that has specialised treatment options – or if it is simply dry skin that has a much simpler path to improvement?

Do you just have a dry type of skin?

Dry skin is simply one form, or type, of skin. Other skin types include oily, normal or combination. We categorise skin in these ways to help tailor our skin care, moisturiser and make up products, to get the best result.

However, while your natural skin type may be dry, certain things can take place which affect the level of dryness experienced by any skin type.

The Cause of Dry Skin

Dry skin occurs when the epidermis (the outer layer of the skin) is unable to produce enough oils to keep the barrier function of the skin intact.

This can be due to lifestyle factors such as skin care products that dry the skin (even those that claim to moisturise can sometimes have a long-term drying effect), water exposure, sun damage, cold weather and genetics. And, of course, ageing can play a part as well.

Treatment for Dry Skin

Dry skin can be treated by pharmacy products such as emollient skin care, which can help restore the barrier function to the skin.

Also, keep showers short and not too hot, as hot water dries out your skin. And if you shower more than once a day, you’re likely to make things worse so try to avoid this.

After showering, apply moisturiser immediately, to help replace the oils that are stripped from the skin by water.

Is it Eczema?

Eczema creates dry and scaly skin which can become red and inflamed.

Some people develop small blisters on the skin, which can burst and ooze a clear, serous discharge. These blisters can be intensely itchy.

The Causes of Eczema

Eczema is thought to be largely genetic, although exact causes are not known. It’s often linked to have fever and asthma.

Eczema described as “atopic” refers to this genetic or familial trend towards developing eczema, hay fever and asthma. Eczema can also be defined as atopic dermatitis, pompholyx, varicose, contact, asteatotic, or seborrhoeic dermatitis.

The inflamed nature of the skin in eczema sufferers is caused by a mis-functioning immune system.

In some people, eczema can be triggered by exposure to certain plants, animal hair and saliva, dust mites, perfumes, detergents, hair dyes, prolonged water exposure (particularly in occupations that require regular hand washing, such as medical professionals and food preparation staff).

Eczema can often be worse in childhood and can then abate with age.

Risks Associated with Eczema

Eczema can increase the risk of staph and other infections, due to the fine cracks in the skin that disrupt the skin’s barrier system.

Eczema can cause mental health issues from the distress of constant itching and the social and self-consciousness issues that can arise from the appearance of red, flakey and blistered skin.

Some people find they need to change professions, such as hairdressers, because their eczema is flared or returns when certain products are in contact with the skin, such as hair dyes or perfumed products.

Treatment for Eczema

Eczema often needs medical intervention (as opposed to dry skin, which does not need a Doctor to be managed).

A doctor can determine whether a topical steroid is needed, or other prescription, non-steroid creams, in order to manage the condition.

However, similarly to those with dry skin, eczema sufferers are advised to limit their showering to once a day or less, and have short, tepid showers.

They should moisturise immediately after showering, with a moisturiser recommended by their doctor.

So, do you have eczema, or just dry skin?

If you’re still unsure whether your symptoms are indicative of eczema or just dry skin, your best course of action is to see your dermatologist.

Appointments with our dermatologist can be made by calling our receptionists on (02) 9953 9522, or by visiting your GP and asking for a referral.


Written by Marianne Nolan.
Marianne is a cosmetic physician and specialises in helping our clients look great for their age.