What Is Scaly Skin?

Medically Reviewed By Bukky Aremu, APRN
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Scaly skin is a common symptom of many conditions, as well as dry skin. It can appear anywhere on your body. This article will discuss what scaly skin is, what causes it, and how you can treat it.

What is scaly skin?

Snake skin wrapped around hands
Maryanne Gobble/Stocksy United

Scaly skin is a common symptom of dry skin and can occur anywhere on the body, although it is most common on the lower legs, arms, and thighs.

Irritation, inflammation, and itching increase the rate of skin cell turnover, leading to scale formation. While scaly skin is sometimes due to a variety of conditions, most scaly skin will result from natural processes, such as aging, or certain environmental conditions, such as cold, dry atmospheres.

Conditions that commonly cause scaly skin include psoriasis, eczema, and dermatitis.

If your scaly skin is persistent or causes you concern, contact your doctor.

What causes scaly skin?

Scaly, dry skin is often the result of temperature changes, aging, and other environmental factors. Showering and bathing habits can also affect your skin. Dry skin is a common side effect of aging as well.

There are various health conditions that can cause scaly skin as well.

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Psoriasis

Psoriasis is a common condition that affects more than 7.5 million adults in the United States.

Psoriasis causes inflammation in your body. This inflammation is then typically seen on your skin. Psoriasis generally presents in the form of raised plaques and scales on different areas of your body.

Psoriasis can appear anywhere on your body. The most common areas it is seen include:

  • genitals
  • face
  • scalp
  • skin folds
  • hands, feet, and nails

There are five types of psoriasis:

  • guttate
  • pustular
  • plaque
  • inverse
  • erythrodermic

Your doctor will help you determine which type you are experiencing.

The exact cause of psoriasis is unknown. However, there is a known link between psoriasis, your immune system, and genetics.

Psoriasis is not contagious.

Triggers can bring on the onset of psoriasis, and they can also cause it to flare or worsen. Triggers vary from person to person.

Common triggers include:

  • stress
  • injury to your skin
  • illness
  • weather

Eczema

Eczema is a condition that affects over 31 million people in the U.S.

Like psoriasis, eczema is an inflammatory condition. Also like psoriasis, it is not contagious.

Eczema typically causes:

  • dry skin
  • itchiness
  • rashes
  • scaly patches
  • skin infections
  • blisters

There are six different types of eczema:

The exact cause of eczema is unknown. However, there is a known link between genes, environmental triggers, and eczema.

Triggers are different for everyone. Common environmental triggers include:

  • stress
  • prolonged exposure to dry air, heat, or cold
  • certain types of shampoo, soaps, or facial cleansers
  • certain types of laundry detergents and softeners
  • certain fabrics, such as wool and polyester
  • cleaners and disinfectants
  • juice from fruits, vegetables, and meats
  • certain metals

One of the best ways to help avoid flare-ups and prevent your eczema from worsening is to know your triggers. If you are aware of what your triggers are, you can avoid them as much as possible.

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Ichthyosis

Ichthyosis causes persistent dry, thick, and fish-like scales that are widespread across your body.

There are around 20 different types of ichthyosis. People typically either inherit the condition at birth or develop it later on in life.

The majority of people who experience ichthyosis have a faulty gene that they inherit from their parents. This gene affects how their skin regenerates.

Typically, this is either that the rate they shed old skin is too slow or that they generate new skin faster than they can shed the old skin. This causes rough scaly skin to build up.

The most common type of ichthyosis is known as ichthyosis vulgaris. It affects around 1 in 250 people.

Other inherited types of ichthyosis include:

  • X-linked
  • congenital ichthyosiform erythroderma 
  • Harlequin

Conditions that are linked to acquired ichthyosis include:

Actinic keratosis

Actinic keratosis is the most common type of precancer in skin that has been overly exposed to UV rays. It affects approximately 58 million people in the U.S. in some form.

Actinic keratosis is the result of chronic sun exposure or exposure to UV rays from indoor tanning beds. It puts you at a higher risk of skin cancer as it can become squamous cell carcinoma (SCC).

SCC is a common form of skin cancer that is also highly invasive and potentially life threatening.

Typically, actinic keratosis appears as scaly, dry, or crusty patches of skin. They are generally found in areas that have been highly exposed to the sun, such as:

  • lips
  • shoulders
  • scalp
  • ears
  • neck
  • back of hands or forearms

The spots that actinic keratosis causes are typically:

  • red
  • light or dark tan
  • pink
  • flesh-toned
  • a combination of colors

These spots are also typically raised. Due to their distinct texture, it is often easier to feel the spots than to see them.

Around 5–10% of actinic keratosis becomes SCC. However, the majority of cases of SCC begin as actinic keratosis. Because of this, if you believe you may have actinic keratosis, contact your doctor.

Whether or not you believe you may have actinic keratosis, you should always protect yourself from UV rays even on cloudy days. This includes:

  • seeking shade
  • using broad-spectrum sunscreen
  • wearing a hat, sunglasses, and sun-safe clothing
  • avoiding indoor tanning beds

Lichen planus

Lichen planus is an itchy rash that can appear on various areas of your body. It is not contagious.

The exact cause of lichen planus is unknown. It does not appear to run in families, and it cannot be transferred to others through contact.

It only affects around 1–2% of the population of the world. Lichen planus also affects both males and females equally.

Typical areas of the body where lichen planus appears are:

  • arms, legs, and torso
  • mouth
  • vulva, vagina, and penis
  • nails
  • scalp

Ringworm

Ringworm is a common skin infection. It is the result of a fungus.

Ringworm can affect anyone. The fungus that causes the rash can live on:

  • surfaces
  • towels
  • bedding
  • clothing
  • skin

Common places where ringworm can appear include:

  • feet, also called athlete’s foot
  • groin, inner thighs, and buttocks, also called jock itch
  • hands
  • beard
  • scalp
  • toenails and fingernails
  • arms and legs

Symptoms of ringworm typically depend on where on your body it appears. However, generally symptoms will include:

Ringworm is preventable. Here are a few suggestions to help avoid developing ringworm:

  • Wear shoes that allow air to circulate.
  • Keep your skin clean and dry.
  • Never walk barefoot in places such as public showers and locker rooms.
  • Change your socks and underwear at least once per day.
  • Never share clothing, towels, sheets, or personal items with someone who has ringworm.
  • Wash your hands with soap and water after playing with your pets.
  • Never share sports equipment with others.

Bowen’s disease

Bowen’s disease is a slow-growing scaly skin patch that doctors typically consider to be skin cancer in an early form.

With Bowen’s disease, the cancer is only in the top layer of the skin, or the epidermis. Typically, it does not spread to other layers of the dermis. However, in rare cases, this does happen.

If cancer spreads, doctors then call it invasive SCC. SCC is one of the only types that are invasive enough to metastasize into other areas of your body and become life threatening.

It is possible for Bowen’s disease to appear anywhere on your body. However, it is most commonly seen on the lower legs and is often mistaken for psoriasis.

The biggest risk factors for developing Bowen’s disease are having fair skin and having exposure to sunlight. It is also more commonly seen in females, especially those who are over the age of 40 years.

Symptoms of Bowen’s disease include:

  • scaly, red, flat, and slightly raised patches that are persistent
  • a single patch or multiple patches
  • edges of the patch that are irregular and distinctive from the rest of your skin
  • a patch or patches that grow slowly

Generally, Bowen’s disease is asymptomatic aside from these patches on your skin. In rare cases, the patches are sore or irritated.

What treatments are available for scaly skin?

Treatment for scaly skin depends on the cause of it.

Psoriasis

There is no cure for psoriasis. However, there are treatments available to help manage the symptoms. Treatment for psoriasis is different for everyone. What works for one person may not work for another.

Your doctor will talk through your options to find the right treatment for you.

Typical treatments options include:

  • Topical treatments: These are treatments that are applied directly to your skin. Topicals are often the first treatment recommended when you receive a psoriasis diagnosis.
  • Phototherapy: This is also called light therapy. The treatment involves the exposure of your skin to UV light under the supervision of a healthcare professional.
  • Systemics: These are treatments that are taken orally, by injection, or through infusion. They work throughout your body. Doctors typically only prescribe this type of treatment for those with moderate to severe psoriasis.

Eczema

As with psoriasis, there is no cure for eczema. There are treatment options available to help manage your symptoms.

Talk with your doctor to find out which treatment might be most effective for your individual symptoms.

Treatments for eczema typically include:

  • moisturizing creams and over-the-counter treatments
  • prescription topical treatments
  • phototherapy
  • immunosuppressants
  • injectable biologics

Ichthyosis

Ichthyosis is another condition with no cure. Talk with your doctor about treatment options to find the right one for you.

Typical treatments for ichthyosis include:

  • moisturizing and exfoliating your skin
  • applying prescription emollients to wet skin
  • gently rubbing wet skin with a pumice stone
  • brushing washed hair to remove any scales from your scalp
  • using prescribed peeling creams

Actinic keratosis

Since actinic keratosis increases your risk of developing SCC, it is important to receive a diagnosis and start treatment as quickly as possible.

Treatment will depend on where the lesions are and how many of them you have. Speak with your doctor to find the right treatment for you.

Treatment for actinic keratosis includes:

  • surgical options
  • topical treatments
  • phototherapy
  • a combination of treatments

Lichen planus

There is no cure for lichen planus. Treatment depends on where you develop the condition. Mild forms of lichen planus rarely require treatment.

Typical treatments are mostly self-care options and include the following:

  • Avoid washing your skin with soaps or bubble bath.
  • Use emollients to moisturize your skin.
  • For oral lichen planus, avoid spicy, sharp, and acidic foods.
  • For oral lichen planus, avoid alcohol and mouthwash with alcohol in it.
  • Apply corticosteroid creams and ointments.
  • Take corticosteroid tablets.

Discuss all treatment options, including self-care steps, with your doctor.

Ringworm

Treatment for ringworm depends on where on your body the rash appears and how severe the infection is.

Typically, ringworm is treatable with nonprescription antifungal creams, lotions, or powders. Always follow the instructions on the package. Contact your doctor if the infection does not go away with these treatments or gets worse.

For ringworm on the scalp, you will typically need a prescription oral antifungal medication. Nonprescription treatments are not effective for ringworm on your scalp.

Bowen’s disease

Treatment for Bowen’s disease is generally successful.

The options for treating the condition include:

  • cryosurgery
  • curettage
  • photodynamic therapy
  • topical creams
  • surgery

Discuss all the treatment options with your doctor to find the right one for you.

Dry skin

Scaly skin is often simply the result of dry skin that is a natural occurrence. Follow these tips to help manage your dry skin:

  • Use warm, not hot, water when you shower or bathe.
  • Use gentle fragrance-free cleansers and skin products.
  • Apply moisturizer right after washing and drying your skin.
  • Use ointment or cream rather than a lotion.
  • Use a humidifier if the air is dry.

If you have persistent dry skin that does not improve with self-care treatments, contact your doctor.

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Summary

There are many possible causes of scaly skin.

It is often the result of natural aging or dry skin. However, it is also common for scaly skin to be due to an underlying medical condition.

If you experience symptoms such as skin plaques or lesions, redness, itching, rash, or cracking, or if you have persistent dry skin, contact your doctor.

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Medical Reviewer: Bukky Aremu, APRN
Last Review Date: 2022 May 31
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