Dry skin is often accompanied by an urge to scratch. Most people believe dry skin causes itchiness. What you're about to learn might surprise you.
Itch, scratch, relief. Recognise this cycle? It begins as a minor itch that's relieved by scratching. But a minute later, the itch seems even more intense, which pushes you to scratch a little more.
This process is scientifically known as 'the itch–scratch cycle'.
The urge to scratch irritated skin is an evolutionary phenomenon. Scratching interrupts the irritation signals that your skin sends to your brains and replaces those signals with pain signals.
Your body attempts to counteract this feeling with its own natural pain killers. When pain signals reach your brain, the body releases a feel-good chemical called 'serotonin', which gives temporary relief.
However, researchers believe serotonin actually causes sensitisation of the itch-signalling nerves within our bodies. In essence, the more we scratch, the more we will itch.
What we know so far about dry skin and itching leads us to the following understandings:
- Dryness does not itself cause skin to itch.
- Dry skin is more easily irritated, which can trigger the urge to scratch.
- The more you scratch an area of irritation, the more it will feel itchy.
Current research concludes that dry skin itself is more easily irritated—not inherently itchy. Dry skin has what scientists refer to as a 'reduced barrier function'. This means that when your skin is dry, it's less able to keep out allergens, irritants, bacteria, fungi, and viruses.
Many everyday substances have the potential to irritate to our skin, including:
- Skincare products
- Washing powders
- Clothes (especially those made from natural fibres, e.g. wool)
- Fragrances (a common source of allergens and irritants)
- Hard water
If you suffer from dry skin that's become itchy, it's best to:
- Avoid the urge to scratch an itch, now that you know this only leads to severe itching.
- Minimise your exposure to the risk factors listed above.
- Use skincare with anti-irritant, anti-inflammatory ingredients.
When caring for itchy, dry skin, it's best to design a skincare routine around the following three families of products.
1. Cleansing cream or gel
Cleansing creams and gels should replace any kind of face wash or shower gel currently in your skincare arsenal. Face washes and shower gels contain high quantities of irritating ingredients. Because of its impaired barrier, dry skin is much more likely to be irritated by these products.
Cleansing creams we recommend:
- Nuxe Reve de Miel Ultra Rich Cleansing Gel – Face and Body
- asap gentle cleansing gel (for the face)
- La Roche–Posay Lipikar Syndet Cleansing Cream–Gel (for the body)
2. A moisturiser containing anti-irritant & anti-inflammatory ingredients
Several skincare ingredients can combat the irritation associated with dry skin. These tried and tested soothers help treat itchy skin, providing long-lasting relief.
Products we recommend with a combination of anti-irritants & anti-inflammatory ingredients:
3. A moisturiser that helps skin repair its own barrier
You'll be forever trapped in the itch–scratch cycle unless skin becomes more resilient to irritation. Research has shown that vitamin B3 is very effective at improving the skin's barrier function.
Recommended moisturisers with vitamin B3:
It's important to note that several medical conditions can cause severe itching. These range from liver and kidney conditions to changes in thyroid activity and even cancer. If you're suffering from a severe and chronic itch, please do contact your doctor, who can provide you with further advice.