Xerosis (Dry Skin) in Older Adults


Published: 04 May 2021

Xerosis is a common condition that generally isn’t serious (Cafasso & Sullivan 2018). However, it can significantly affect quality of life, especially if accompanied by itching (Augustin et al. 2019).

What is Xerosis?

xerosis stratum corneum diagram

Xerosis (also known as asteatosis) is the medical term used to describe abnormally dry skin, which is caused by dehydration of the stratum corneum (the horny cell layer of the epidermis) (Oakley 2015).

A lack of moisture in the stratum corneum causes the skin surface to lose its flexibility, resulting in splits and cracks. Flaking, scaling, redness or itchiness may also occur (Ciconte 2017).

Skin surfaces affected by xerosis may appear dull, rough or scaly (Oakley 2015). While xerosis can appear anywhere on the body, the most commonly affected areas are the lower legs, arms, scalp and hands (Ciconte 2017).

While the condition is equally common in males and females and affects people of all ages, it is most prevalent in older adults, affecting almost every person over the age of 60 (Oakley 2015).

Why is Xerosis More Common in Older Adults?

Skin is the first part of the body to show age, with changes such as drying, thinning, sagging and wrinkling being an inevitable part of the ageing process (Better Health Channel 2018).

Specific age-related changes in the skin that may contribute to xerosis include:

  • Thinning of the epidermis and dermis
  • Reduction in mechanical strength
  • Reduction in the number of cutaneous blood vessels and nerve endings
  • Reduction in connective tissue (which includes collagen and elastin)
  • Reduction in sweat glands and oil glands
  • Reduction in subcutaneous fat
  • Decreased moisture-retaining ability
  • Decreased thermoregulation
  • Reduced ability of the skin to sense the external environment
  • Decreased cell turnover
  • Decreased skin barrier function
  • Decreased immune system response
  • Decreased vascularity.

(BPAC NZ 2014; Better Health Channel 2018; Chinniah & Gupta 2014)

Risk Factors for Xerosis

In addition to older age, risk factors for xerosis include:

Health-related factors
  • Genetic factors (e.g. acquired ichthyosis)
  • Inflammatory skin conditions (e.g. eczema, psoriasis)
  • Certain comorbidities (e.g. thyroid disease, renal disease, diabetes)
  • Systemic disease that results in ichthyosis (e.g. lymphoma, malnutrition)
  • Certain medicines (e.g. diuretics, cholesterol-lowering drugs, retinoids)
  • Infection (e.g. hepatitis B and C, HIV)
  • Hormonal changes (e.g. menopause, pregnancy)
  • Certain psychological conditions (obsessive-compulsive disorder, anorexia, alcohol and drug abuse)
  • Excessive sweating
  • Dehydration
  • Weight loss
Environmental factors
  • Low-humidity climate
  • Cold, dry air
  • Direct heat (e.g. central heating, wood-burning stoves, fireplaces)
  • Air conditioning
  • Chronic sun exposure and damage
  • Soaps or detergents with harsh ingredients
  • Irritation from rough clothing etc.
Lifestyle factors
  • Frequent immersion in water
  • Swimming in chlorinated pools
  • Long, hot showers or baths
  • Excessive handwashing
  • Over-cleaning or scrubbing the skin
  • Drying skin too vigorously with a towel

(Ciconte 2017; Mayo Clinic 2019; BPAC NZ 2014; Augustin et al. 2019; Cafasso & Sullivan 2018; Oakley 2015)

Symptoms of Xerosis

xerosis dry skin finger

People with xerosis may experience:

  • Skin tightness, particularly after being immersed in water
  • Roughness
  • Itching
  • Flaking, scaling or peeling (can range from mild to severe)
  • Fine lines or cracks
  • Grey, ashy-looking skin
  • Redness
  • Bleeding from deep cracks.

(Mayo Clinic 2019)

Potential Complications of Xerosis

  • Eczema
  • Skin infection (if pathogens enter a break in the skin)
  • Overheating
  • Food allergies
  • Contact allergies.

(Oakley 2015)

How is Xerosis Treated?

Depending on the severity of the dryness, treatment may involve using moisturisers (to add moisture to the skin) and emollients (to soften the skin). Ideally, these should be liberally applied to the affected skin area after washing or when itchy (Oakley 2015).

Generally, the drier the skin, the more thickly an emollient should be applied (especially on the hands) (Oakley 2015).

Moisturisers and emollients help to:

  • Decrease itching
  • Improve the functioning of the skin barrier
  • Prevent irritants and pathogens from entering the affected skin area
  • Decrease transepidermal moisture loss
  • Attract water to the epidermis from the dermis
  • Prevent the escape of moisture from the skin by creating an oily layer (if using in an ointment form)
  • Reduce inflammation.

(Oakley 2015; BPAC NZ 2014)

Additionally, patients may require topical steroids or topical calcineurin inhibitors (seek medical direction) (Oakley 2015).

Preventing Xerosis in Older Adults

xerosis prevention patting skin dry
Drying the skin by patting it gently and thoroughly rather than rubbing vigorously may help to prevent xerosis.

The following practical strategies may help to prevent xerosis in your patients:

  • Identifying and avoiding triggers such as harsh soaps, hot water and clothes that cause irritation
  • Reducing the frequency and length of bathing
  • Using a humidifier in winter
  • Using lukewarm water instead of hot water when washing or bathing
  • Replacing soaps with gentle substitutes (soap-free, fragrance-free cleansers or bath oil)
  • Drying the skin by patting it gently and thoroughly rather than rubbing vigorously
  • Ensuring patients are getting adequate nutrition and hydration
  • Ensuring fingernails and toenails are trimmed to a suitable length
  • Using dressings that are non-adherent and non-adhesive
  • Managing incontinence (as exposure to urine and faeces are associated with skin breakdown)
  • Reviewing medicines (if appropriately qualified to do so)
  • Treating skin conditions.

(Oakley 2015; BPAC NZ 2014; VIC DoH 2015; Ciconte 2017)

Additional Resources


Test Your Knowledge

Question 1 of 3

One of your clients, Sue, enjoys washing her body with a fragrant soap that she has been using for many years. However, she has recently developed xerosis. What would be the best solution?


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