Scaling skin happens when the outer layer of the skin begins to flake off, causing drying, cracking, or flaking. Ointments containing urea, petrolatum, or lactic acid may help, but some underlying causes may need medical treatment.

The process of scaling, known as desquamation, may arise when an injury or a medical condition damages the outer layer of skin, or epidermis. 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.

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

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


Psoriasis is an autoimmune disorder that causes patches of thick, scaly skin to develop. This occurs due to an overproduction of skin cells, causing buildups. Psoriasis can affect any part of the skin but usually affects the elbows, knees, and scalp.

On light skin tones, psoriasis can present as silver-white scales on red or pink skin. On dark skin tones, these scales are often gray, with the surrounding skin appearing purple or dark brown.

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

Contact dermatitis

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

Symptoms of contact dermatitis include:

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

People can develop contact dermatitis anywhere, but it typically appears on exposed body parts, such as the hands, face, and arms.

Possible allergens or irritants that can cause contact dermatitis include:

Learn more about the common triggers of contact dermatitis here.

Other types of eczema

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

Some types of eczema that cause scaly skin include:

Atopic dermatitis

Atopic dermatitis commonly occurs on elbows, knees, cheeks, neck, legs, and arms. It causes dry, flaky patches of skin that can ooze a clear fluid.

Dyshidrotic eczema

Dyshidrotic eczema often occurs on the fingers, toes, palms, and soles of the feet. It causes small blisters that can turn into skin cracks or cause the skin to thicken

Seborrheic dermatitis

Seborrheic dermatitis commonly occurs in areas where the skin is oily, such as the scalp, ears, face, and armpits. It can lead to white, yellow, or dark crusty patches.

Varicose eczema

Varicose eczema is a form of eczema that affects the lower legs and causes dry, scaly skin and hot, leaking blisters.

Asteatotic eczema

Asteatotic eczema also often occurs on the lower legs and causes dry, scaly skin with discolored cracks.


Ichthyosis is a family of rare skin disorders characterized by thick, scaly 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, or 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 watch actinic keratoses as they can be the first sign of skin cancer. Active lesions that are discolored and tender than others may develop into a skin cancer called squamous cell carcinoma.

Symptoms of actinic keratosis include:

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

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

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

Lichen planus

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

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


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

Ringworm appears on the following body parts:

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

Symptoms of ringworm include:

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

Treatments depend on the severity of the symptoms and the cause of scaling. People can treat mild forms of scaly 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 with their doctor about the best treatment options.

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

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

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.

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

  • scaly 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

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

People who experience persistent scaling may want to contact their healthcare professional 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.