We tend to think of our own skin as a monolith—skin is skin is skin, no? Actually, skin can vary greatly depending on where it is on the body and what's influencing it. For example, the skin on your feet tends to be thicker than, say, your chest. Or your face is likely more sensitive to products than your legs—but surprisingly your armpits may be the most sensitive of all. And your skin's microbiome plays a huge role, as there are several echo-niches all over you that influence your skin's appearance.
So, truly, it's no wonder that particular areas of your face and body need more attention than others. Such is the case for dry elbows. Take a moment to feel your own: Are they supple and smooth as your forearms? Or are they a touch rougher and flaky?
If it's the latter, you're not alone. "Dry elbows are a common complaint," assures board-certified dermatologist Raechele Cochran Gathers, M.D. Here, what you need to know and how to fix it.
Why do we get dry elbows?
Dry skin on your elbows comes down to several main factors, some inherent to the skin and area, some caused by skin conditions, and others due to lifestyle influences:
The skin itself.
To start, the skin on the elbows has a thicker dermal layer as well as fewer pores—this is across the board and true for everyone. "The skin on the elbows tends to be thicker, which helps them withstand all of the mechanical forces from the constant movement of the elbow joint," says Cochran Gathers. "The skin of the elbows is also drier and more prone to irritation since it contains fewer oil glands than on some other areas of our bodies."
Certain skin and health conditions.
Additionally, some people may complain about excessively dry skin in the area—like, worse than your general flaking—because of actual skin diseases. Yes, for people who notice severe symptoms, it may be traced back to certain ailments and even health problems.
"There are also other skin conditions, like eczema and psoriasis, that can cause dry, scaling elbows," says Cochran Gathers. "Health conditions like diabetes and thyroid disease can also lead to dry skin, which might be more noticeable on the elbows."
Finally, there are just general wear-and-tear concerns that can contribute to the skin texture and appearance. These come down to the functionality of the area.
"The elbow skin undergoes constant friction from movement, clothing, and even just resting our elbows on desks and tables," says Cochran Gathers. "These external factors, along with culprits like cold weather, exposure to hot water, and chlorine from swimming pools all contribute to dry, flaky elbow skin." Simply put: The skin on the elbow puts up with more than other areas of the body.
6 ways to treat dry elbows.
Don't feel you need to settle for perpetually dry skin in the area:
Switch to gentle cleansers.
One of the main culprits for dry skin on the body—that being dry skin anywhere, elbows included—is harsh cleansers and soaps. They can strip your body of natural oils, disrupt your moisture barrier, mess with your skin pH, and damage your microbiome. Look for washes with easy, plant-derived surfactants that are buffered with hydrating ingredients—some of our favorites, here.
Skip hot water.
Hot water can leave your skin raw and dry. "Being mindful of how much time you spend in a bath or shower is another simple solution, as overexposing your skin to hot water can strip the water from your skin, resulting in more dehydration," says board-certified dermatologist Shereene Idriss, M.D.
Sparingly exfoliate to slough off dead skin cells.
Exfoliation is a useful tool when used correctly and in moderation. Removing excess dead skin cells can relieve flaky, ashy skin—and help hydrators penetrate deeper. However, if done too much, you run the risk of damaging your barrier. Stick to one to three times a week, max.
Hydrate every day, at least once a day.
Don't skip moisturizing your body—the emollients, humectants, and occlusives help trap water in the skin, soothe inflammation, and enhance your barrier. We always recommend applying lotion or cream post-washing, but you can increase as needed. "Rich moisturizers are key for soothing and smoothing dry rough elbows," says Cochran Gathers.
Spot treat with a thicker cream.
Who says hand creams are just for hands! As they tend to be thicker and nutrient-dense, you may consider taking all that hydrating goodness to your elbows. Bonus: The smaller size makes it easy to carry around and apply on-the-go.
We advise selecting a cream with rich hydrators, like aloe vera, as well as nourishing oils to feed the skin barrier with healthy lipids. Shea butter is also a dry skin wonder that can help reduce moisture loss—it also gives hand creams a soft, creamy texture, which is enough of a reason to slather it on rough, cracked elbows. For more recommendations, we love these hand creams.
Visit a derm or doctor.
Given very dry elbows may be an indicator of a more serious skin condition, you may consider visiting your derm or a skin savvy doctor. They can help you identify and treat your issues.
Elbows tend to be one of the most rough, dry patches of the skin anywhere on your body. This can come down to the skin itself (thicker and with fewer pores), skin conditions (such as eczema), and lifestyle factors (just general wear and tear). Luckily, it shouldn't be too hard to treat with diligent hydration.
Alexandra Engler is the beauty director at mindbodygreen and host of the beauty podcast Clean Beauty School. Previously, she's held beauty roles at Harper's Bazaar, Marie Claire, SELF, and Cosmopolitan; her byline has appeared in Esquire, Sports Illustrated, and Allure.com. In her current role, she covers all the latest trends in the clean and natural beauty space, as well as lifestyle topics, such as travel. She received her journalism degree from Marquette University, graduating first in the department. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.