Back in college, I woke up one winter morning with dry eyelids for the first time. It was the year we started using the term polar vortex (meaning it was suuuper cold), and throughout the winter, the skin around my eyes got progressively dryer and flakier.
The flaking made all my eye makeup look cracked and messy, so I stopped wearing it. Eventually, I developed tiny, bleeding cracks in my eyelid creases, which were sensitive and painful. My eyes stung all the time; the skin was raw from trying to gently exfoliate.
I was able to calm it down when the weather got warmer, but still, every December or January, like clockwork, my eyelids erode into flakes right around the time we’re seeing flakes for the first time of the year.
Dry skin on eyelids may be the result of contact dermatitis. This condition occurs when your skin encounters an irritating substance. This can result in dry, red, irritated, and flaky skin.
Irritants that can cause contact dermatitis include:
Products that contain fragrances, metals (like nickel), and certain chemicals may cause contact dermatitis. You may even spread contact dermatitis to your eye unknowingly. This can occur when your hands touch your eyelid after they’ve come into contact with an irritating substance, or when you brush your face against a towel or pillowcase that has an irritant on it. Even polished fingernails or jewelry brushed against the eyelid may cause contact dermatitis.
Contact dermatitis can appear at any time in your life. You may suddenly develop an allergy to a certain substance, even if you’ve never reacted to it before. Keep in mind that the products you use may change ingredients without your knowledge. Avoid any known triggers to keep dry, irritated skin on your eyelid at bay.
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Causes of Dry Eyelids
The skin around your eyes is very thin and more sensitive than the skin on the other parts of your body. So, itâs more prone to irritation. Everything from aging to allergens in the environment can make it dry and flaky.
Some common culprits include:
Aging. As you get older, your skin loses moisture and becomes drier. You also lose fat below your skin thats around your eyes. That makes that area extra fragile and more likely to flake and be irritated.
Contact dermatitis. The skin around your eyelids can become dry, red, and itchy when something triggers a reaction. It might be an irritating substance that comes in contact with your skin or an allergic reaction. Some common irritants include:
You can spread the irritant to your eyelids by accident when you touch the trigger, then rub or touch near your eyes. For example, you may get dry, itchy skin after touching your eyes with painted nails. The trigger could be nail polish or polish remover.
Lifestyle choices. Your skin could be dry because of the weather where you live. Skin is usually driest in cold weather. Itâs also dry when theres little humidity — either in the climate or in the air your home. Skin also can dry out when you use a lot of hot water.
Your eyelids can also be dry and flaky because of more serious causes. They can include:
Atopic dermatitis. Also known as eczema, this is a long-lasting condition that gives you red, itchy skin. Itâs common in children, but it can happen at any age. You might notice patches of flaky, crusty skin all over your body, especially on your eyelids, as well as your hands, feet, and upper chest.
Eczema usually happens in flares. Skin can return to normal between episodes.
Blepharitis. Usually with this condition, both eyelids get inflamed. Tiny oil glands at the base of your eyelashes clog up. That causes redness, irritation, crustiness, and dryness. Your eyes can be watery and red. The skin around your eyes can be flaky. The specific cause of blepharitis isnât clear, but it has ties to several conditions including:
Atopic dermatitis is the most common type of eczema. The AAD notes that it can often affect the eyes in adults. It can develop on the eyelids and around the eyes, causing the skin to become itchy and swollen. The skin around the eyes may also become thickened and darker.
Atopic dermatitis around the eyes may lead to eye conditions, such as conjunctivitis and keratitis, which is an inflamed cornea.
If a person develops atopic dermatitis around the eyes, they should contact a doctor, especially if they are experiencing eye problems that last longer than a few days.
Treatment for atopic dermatitis includes a skin care routine, such as applying moisturizer, and topical medications, such as corticosteroids and topical immunomodulators.
What causes dry, flaking lids?
Everyone gets dry skin from time to time. But if your dry, flaking eyelids are especially severe and triggered by certain things, they might be considered a type of eczema, like atopic dermatitis or contact dermatitis. These conditions often cause patches of dry, red, itchy, flaky skin in response to triggers like allergens, changes in temperature, or humidity.
Eczema is a general term that’s used to refer to several different types of rashes “caused by disruption of the outer skin layer, loss of hydration, and inflammation,” Joshua Zeichner, M.D., Director of Cosmetic and Clinical Research in the Department of Dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital, tells SELF. These rashes can really happen anywhere on your skin, but eyelid skin is thinner than the skin on other parts of your body and face. That means “the skin barrier [on the eyelids] is more easily disrupted than in other parts of the body,” which makes the eye area especially vulnerable to eczema, Dr. Zeichner says.
Allergens and irritants are some of the most common triggers for eczema and often affect the delicate skin of our eyelids before causing trouble anywhere else on the skin, Amy Kassouf, M.D., a dermatologist at the Cleveland Clinic, tells SELF. “There are many airborne allergens in our environment—think of the perfume droplets at the mall after someone has used a tester, or the pollen in the air in spring—and they often react with the very sensitive eyelid skin first, causing redness, itching, flaking, and even swelling,” she says. “Many things that we touch get transferred to our eyelid skin, like the nickel from handling money or touching doorknobs, the acrylates or formaldehyde in our nail polish.”
And, as is the case with my own lid issue, Dr. Zeichner, changing weather is also a very common trigger for dry eyelids. “Cold, dry weather during the winter strips the skin of oils, which ultimately leads to dryness,” he says. Other potential irritants that may bring on flakes are eye makeup (the pigments in eyeshadow can be a trigger), hairspray, chemicals, and rubbing your eyes.
Occasionally, dry, flaking eyelids signal a larger health problem, which is why it’s important to seek the advice of a dermatologist should your skin condition last more than a few weeks. Dry, flaky eyelids can be a symptom of many systemic health conditions, Dr. Kassouf says, including thyroid disorders and psoriasis.
If the flaking is accompanied by red, puffy, or purple discoloration around the eyes, Dr. Zeichner says this “may rarely signify an underlying medical condition,” particularly autoimmune conditions like lupus or dermatomyositis,” which also usually comes with muscle weakness and pain. These are rare but serious. So if you’re not sure what’s causing your dry eyelids or you have other symptoms along with the dryness, check in with your doctor or dermatologist.