Scaling skin is dry, cracked, or flaky skin. Also known as desquamation, scaling skin happens when the outer layer of the skin, called the epidermis, begins to flake off.

Scaling skin may arise when an injury or a medical condition damages the outer layer of skin. Some conditions interfere with the structure and moisture content of the skin or cause the body to produce extra skin, which can lead to dry or flaky skin.

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Scaling skin is a symptom of many medical conditions, including psoriasis, contact dermatitis, eczema, and fungal skin infections. Some causes can lead to health complications if left untreated. Commonly affected areas include the face, legs, and hands.

Continue reading to find out what causes scaling skin, how to identify the condition with our picture guide, treatment options, and when to see a doctor.

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Pictures of scaling skin

Causes of scaling skin

Scaling skin is a symptom of many different skin conditions, including:

Contact dermatitis

Contact dermatitis is a form of eczema that develops after someone has come into contact with an allergen, irritant, or toxic substance.

People can develop contact dermatitis anywhere on the body, but it typically appears on exposed body parts, such as:

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  • hands
  • face
  • arms
  • legs
  • neck
  • feet

Possible allergens or irritants that can cause contact dermatitis include:

  • poison ivy
  • wool
  • soap
  • cosmetics
  • chlorine
  • cigarette smoke
  • latex

Symptoms of contact dermatitis include:

  • dry, flaky, or scaly patches of skin
  • redness and swelling of the skin
  • blisters that ooze or weep
  • burning or itching sensation of the affected area
  • hives
  • stiff or tight feeling skin

Psoriasis

Psoriasis is a common autoimmune disorder that causes patches of thick, scaly skin to develop. Psoriasis usually affects the following body parts:

  • elbows
  • knees
  • scalp
  • palms
  • soles of feet
  • lower back

Symptoms of psoriasis include:

  • thick, scaly patches of skin
  • red or silvery patches of skin
  • itching

People with psoriatic arthritis, a condition related to psoriasis, often experience swelling, stiffness, or pain in the joints.

Eczema

Woman sitting in waiting room itching arm.
Eczema can cause itchy, dry patches of skin.

Eczema is a common skin condition that affects 30 percent of people in the United States. It is most common in children and adolescents.

Some types of eczema that cause scaling skin include:

Atopic dermatitis

  • Location: elbows, knees, cheeks, neck, legs, and arms
  • Symptoms: dry, flaky patches of skin that can ooze a clear fluid

Dyshidrotic eczema

  • Location: fingers, toes, palms, and soles of the feet
  • Symptoms: small blisters that can turn into skin cracks or cause the skin to thicken

Seborrheic dermatitis

  • Location: areas where the skin is oily, such as the scalp, ears, face, and armpits
  • Symptoms: yellowish or white crusty rash

Varicose eczema

  • Location: lower legs
  • Symptoms: dry, scaly skin and hot, leaking blisters

Asteatotic eczema

  • Location: lower legs
  • Symptoms: dry, scaly skin with red cracks

Ichthyosis

Ichthyosis is a family of rare skin disorders characterized by thick, scaling patches of skin.

Ichthyosis can appear on many parts of the body, including:

  • legs
  • hands
  • arms
  • torso
  • elbows
  • scalp

Symptoms of ichthyosis include:

  • extremely dry skin
  • thick, scaly skin
  • flaky skin
  • cracks in the skin

Actinic keratosis

Actinic keratosis, also known as solar keratosis, is a thick, crusty bump that forms on the skin. People can develop actinic keratosis after exposure to ultraviolet light from the sun or artificial tanning.

People should keep an eye on actinic keratoses as they can be the first sign of skin cancer. According to the American Osteopathic College of Dermatology, active lesions that are redder and more tender than others may develop into a skin cancer called squamous cell carcinoma.

Actinic keratoses appear on areas of the body that get a lot of sun exposure, such as:

  • face
  • ears
  • neck
  • hands
  • scalp
  • arms

Symptoms of actinic keratosis include:

  • light, dark, pink, or red colored bumps
  • horn-like scale or crust on the bump
  • bumps are tender or itchy

Lichen planus

Lichen planus is an inflammatory skin condition in which many small bumps develop on various parts of the body.

Lichen planus can appear anywhere on the body, but it usually develops on the

  • mouth
  • nails
  • scalp
  • wrists
  • ankles
  • lower back
  • legs

Symptoms of lichen planus depend on where it appears on the body. Some symptoms include

  • shiny, red or white bumps
  • thick patches of scaly skin
  • itching or pain of the affected area
  • blisters

Ringworm

Ringworm, or tinea, is a fungal infection that affects the top layer of the skin. Ringworm causes red, scaly rashes that can spread to other parts of the body.

Ringworm appears on the following body parts:

  • feet
  • groin
  • nail bed
  • beard area
  • body
  • face
  • neck

Symptoms of ringworm include:

  • small patches of red, scaly skin
  • a ring-shaped rash
  • margining or raised rings
  • itchiness under the rash
  • pus-filled bumps

Treatments for scaling skin

Ointment tube.
Ointments and creams may help treat the cause of scaling skin.

Treatments depend on the severity of the symptoms and the cause of scaling.

People can treat mild forms of scaling skin with ointments or creams that contain urea, petrolatum, or lactic acid.

If using creams and ointment regularly does not reduce the scaling, people can talk to their doctor about the best treatment options.

Doctors may recommend prescription-strength ointments to reduce swelling and itching, such as hydrocortisone. For more severe cases, healthcare providers may recommend oral steroids, antibiotics, or antihistamines.

People can find creams and ointments in drugstores and online stores:

Complications

Scaling leaves the skin broken and vulnerable to bacterial, viral, and fungal infections, which can lead to other health complications if left untreated.

Some of the medical conditions mentioned above may lead to other health complications. For example, people with psoriasis may develop psoriatic arthritis, a condition characterized by pain and inflammation of the joints.

Actinic keratosis requires extra attention as some bumps may be precancerous.

When to see a doctor

Scaling skin is not a medical emergency. However, people should seek medical attention if they experience any of the following:

  • scaling skin that does not improve even after regular skin care
  • the rash or area of affected skin begins spreading
  • an allergic reaction, which includes hives, fever, or difficulty breathing

Outlook

Scaling skin is a symptom of many different medical conditions, such as psoriasis, contact dermatitis, eczema, and fungal skin infections. Scaling skin is not a medical emergency.

People who experience persistent scaling may want to contact their healthcare provider to discuss treatment options.

Treatment depends on the severity of the symptoms and the cause of the scaling. People can treat mild forms of scaling with thick ointments or creams. More severe forms of scaling may require medical attention. Doctors may prescribe antifungals to treat ringworm or antihistamines to treat allergic reactions.