Reasons you have scaly skin—and how to get rid of it

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If your skin is dry, rough, and scaly, psoriasis, eczema, athlete’s foot, or other skin conditions could be to blame. Our guide to the many causes of scaly skin will help you pinpoint your problem–and identify the steps you can take to fix it.
Call it the scales of injustice! From unlucky genes to fungal infections, there are lots of explanations for why your skin is rough, crusty, flaking, and peeling. The good news: Scaly skin is hardly ever contagious (phew!). But it can be super annoying and, occasionally, even a sign of something serious. Here are 13 of the most common reasons you have scaly skin.
If you develop raised red patches with a silvery-white coating over your knees, elbows, lower back, or scalp, you probably have plaque psoriasis. It’s the most common form of psoriasis, a chronic disease that seriously speeds the process by which skin cells mature and reach the skin’s surface. Because the rate at which old cells are shed remains unchanged, the new cells stack up and become thickened patches covered by the dead, flaking skin.
The precise cause of psoriasis isn’t known. “Something is happening at the level of the T-cell, one of the immune cells in our body, that signals the skin to overproduce,” explains Mona Gohara, MD, associate clinical professor of dermatology at Yale School of Medicine. Heredity is definitely a factor—about one-third of sufferers have a close family member who’s also affected, according to the National Psoriasis Foundation. Psoriasis can begin at any age—“You can come out of the womb with it or develop it late in life,” says Dr. Gohara—but most people get it between ages 15 and 30. Three-quarters of people who are going to develop psoriasis have it by age 40.
Psoriasis can come and go with varying degrees of severity, and attacks may be triggered by emotional stress, skin injury, and physical illness. There’s no cure for the condition, but many treatments are available, and your dermatologist will chose the right one based on the degree of your psoriasis and where on the body it occurs.
Red, scaly, or even oozing crusty patches that itch a lot usually signal eczema, which is often called “the itch that rashes.” An umbrella term for a group of conditions, eczema is very common, affecting more than 30 million Americans. It’s not known what causes eczema, but researchers believe a combination of environmental factors and genetics are involved. People with eczema tend to have very dry skin, possibly the result of a mutation of the gene that controls creation of filaggrin, a protein that helps create a healthy barrier on the top layer of skin to keep moisture from escaping and bacteria from entering, according to the National Eczema Association. The immune systems of people with eczema also tend to overreact to allergens or irritants, attacking their bodies instead of protecting them.