How to Deal With Ashy Skin

Mild products that moisturize are your friend

Close up of woman's hands applying moisturizer
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If you’re African-American or of African descent, you’ve probably heard the term “ashy skin.” There are a lot of fancy scientific terms to describe this skin condition: keratinized dehydrated disorder, xerosis, or asteatosis, but ashy skin is simply very dry skin. This dry skin takes on a whitish or grayish coloring, much like ashes left after something has been burned.

All skin tones can experience “ashiness.” Caucasian and pale Asian skin can look chalky from dead cells on its surface, but these dead skin cells are more noticeable on darker skin.

Some dermatologists also suggest that black skin sheds and flakes more easily than other skin tones.

Ashy skin is commonly found on arms, elbows, lower legs, knees, and heels. It's not a serious condition, but like dandruff, it can be embarrassing. No one wants those noticeable flakes that whiten the skin, giving it a dull, unhealthy appearance.  Also like dandruff, it can get onto clothing.

Causes of Ashy Skin

As dead skin cells are shed from the surface of the skin, the body produces new skin cells below the surface. These cells travel up through the epidermis until they reach the top layer, the stratum corneum. The new skin cells push the older cells off. Sometimes these dead skin cells accumulate, forming dry scales that don’t properly go through the skin’s natural exfoliation process and form a barrier that makes the skin look dull and unable to absorb moisturizers.

This condition also occurs when the skin doesn’t have enough hydration to keep it smooth and supple and when the outer layer of the skin loses a lot of moisture.

This can especially occur in dry, arid climates or during the winter when the cold, dry air strips the skin of water, leaving it rough and flaky.

How to Handle Ashy Skin

The two most important characteristics of products for ashy skin: They should be mild and moisturizing.

Use gentle products and avoid products with alcohol or those that can be drying and irritating to the skin like deodorant soaps and harsh scrubs.

Use mild body washes rather than soap. Many body washes are detergent-based, and they include a long list of chemicals that can cause dryness and damage to the skin. Try a product that contains lactic acid like Amlactin, which will exfoliate the skin while also hydrating and improving skin texture. In severe cases, you might need a prescription-strength product with salicylic acid to slough and smooth out ashy skin.

Don't take long, hot showers and baths. This strips the skin of its natural oils. Use lukewarm water when showering and bathing and avoid soaking for too long in the tub, especially during the dry, winter months. When you are finished bathing or showering, pat your skin dry with a towel, leaving it a little damp, and then immediately apply moisturizer. Use body cream rather than lotion in the winter because creams have stronger emollients that will hold moisture in longer. It's fine to use body lotion in warmer seasons when the weather isn't as dry and your skin naturally retains more moisture. If you are still getting ashy skin, apply body oil first, when your skin is still slightly damp, and then layer on body cream. It's a good idea to exfoliate once or twice a week with a gentle exfoliating cleanser or just your regular shower gel and a loofah.

Move the loofah in circular motions to remove dry and flaky skin.

Seasonal changes in temperature and humidity can be a trigger for ashiness. Dry, indoor heat also robs the skin of moisture. Use a humidifier during winter months or year-round if you live in a dry climate and drink plenty of water to stay hydrated from the inside.

Oily and Ashy Skin Solutions

If you have oily skin but are noticing ashy patches on your face or other areas of the body, try using a gentle exfoliant three times a week to get rid of dead skin cells on the surface of the skin. Use a lightweight, oil-free moisturizer to treat the dry areas and patches. Use a facial moisturizer formulated for oily skin that has glycerin or other humectants that draw moisture to the skin without clogging the pores or giving skin a greasy feel.

But don’t over-moisturize, which will only aggravate oily skin.

If Nothing Helps

If you are still suffering from dry, itchy skin in spite of following this regimen, see a dermatologist to make sure the condition is not related to allergies or a skin condition like psoriasis or eczema. If that's the case, the dermatologist can prescribe medications to deal with the problem.