Dry, scaly skin can be a sign of many common skin conditions, such as eczema and psoriasis. It could also be a sign that you’re dehydrated or just need some high-quality moisturizing cream.
But can dry, scaly skin ever be a symptom of cancer?
We checked with dermatologist Saira George, M.D. She told us which cancers might appear as dry, scaly patches or growths on the skin, what qualities distinguish them from benign conditions, and when to see a doctor.
Paraneoplastic skin disorders: these uncommon rashes result when an internal cancer forms or secretes a substance that leads to a skin change or rash. They aren’t cancerous themselves, but they’re an indicator of an underlying cancer.
It’s important to note that most dry, scaly areas of skin aren’t due to cancer. They can include everything from callouses to warts to the common waxy or scaly “age spots” known as seborrheic keratoses.
What other conditions could dry, scaly skin be?
Actinic keratoses: These are very small scaly spots that appear on sun-exposed skin and feel like fine and gritty dry areas. They are considered precancerous and a sign of chronic sun damage, but are not cancerous themselves.
Cutaneous horns: These are hard columns of keratin — the same substance that hair and fingernails are made of — that can build up, stick out vertically and resemble horns.
Eczema: This inflammatory response to environmental irritants can make skin feel dry and itchy. Nipple eczema in particular is very common, but you usually see it on both breasts.
Psoriasis: This autoimmune disorder can cause an itchy, scaly rash.
Are there particular qualities to look for in a dry, scaly growth that point to cancer?
Yes. There are three qualities we look for:
Appearance: Is the scaly growth an outlier that looks different from all your other spots?
Behavior: Is it bleeding, crusting over, or not responding to treatments?
Change: Is it a new spot that is growing and not healing over time?
When should you see a doctor about dry, scaly skin?
Dry skin patches or rashes that aren’t getting better with treatment, are causing a lot of symptoms, or are occurring in unusual sites on the body where you haven’t had scaly patches before might be signs of something more than run-of-the-mill dry skin.
But dry, scaly skin is a common presentation for many things and most dry, scaly skin is not skin cancer.