What Causes Itchy Skin and How to Get Relief
If you have itchy arms, itchy legs or an itchy face, it could be due to several factors. Some of these may only lead to itching in specific areas while others may cause the urge to scratch from head to toe, so identifying the source of your itchiness is critical to helping you get the relief you need.
What you need to know
If you’ve ever experienced itching on your arms, legs or face, you’re not alone. These areas can be affected by itchiness caused by many different factors, including some that are unique to these parts of the body. Itching can be much more than a nuisance—and scratching can make an itch worse, and potentially injure the skin, which could lead to infection or scarring.
Tips for itchy legs, arms or an itchy face1:
- Apply moisturizer regularly, especially immediately after a shower or bath
- Limit time in the shower or bath
- Avoid harsh soaps, detergents with fragrance or dyes
- Use a humidifier
- Wear soft fabrics like cotton and silk
- Drink plenty of water
What Causes Itchy Skin?
In order to know how to relieve itchy skin, it’s important to understand why you have the urge to scratch, and here are a few common reasons why you may experience itchy arms, itchy legs or an itchy face.
Dry skin: In addition to flaking and a feeling of tightness, skin that lacks moisture can lead to itchy legs2 (especially for those who shave).
Runner’s itch: If you've ever experienced itchy legs during or after a jog, runner’s itch may be to blame. Experienced most often on the thighs and calves, this temporary itching is caused by the increase in body temperature3 and release of histamines during exercise.4
Folliculitis: Tight, fitted pants may be your favorite workout wear, but wearing them too often—and not showering immediately after exercise—can lead to folliculitis. This irritation of the hair follicles is often associated with infection that can lead to red bumps and itchy legs.5
Eczema : The redness, scaly skin and severe itching associated with eczema commonly occurs on several areas of the body, including on the face, behind the knees and inside the elbows. Identifying (and avoiding) your eczema triggers, regular use of moisturizers, and eczema treatment products that contain ingredients like hydrocortisone can help keep symptoms—and itchy arms, itchy legs and an itchy face—under control.6
Psoriasis: If you have itching on your knees accompanied by redness and thick patches of scaly skin, psoriasis may be the culprit. This skin condition often affects the elbows and may cause scaly patches of skin (and itching) on the eyebrows, between the nose and upper lip, the upper forehead and along the hairline as well. Similar to eczema, psoriasis requires preventative measures, addressing the itch and ongoing care to keep symptoms such as itchy arms, itchy legs and an itchy face under control.7
Diabetes : Those with diabetes frequently experience itchy lower legs due to dry skin and poor circulation.8 Targeted anti-itch products can be useful for soothing the skin. It is also a good idea to moisturize dry skin. Moisturizers with ceramides can help replenish your skin’s barrier and help it retain moisture.
Keratosis pilaris (KP): A harmless skin condition commonly seen on the backs of the arms, keratosis pilaris is caused by the build-up of a skin protein called keratin that blocks the opening of the hair follicle—and it may be associated with itchy arms.9
When at-home care is unable to control itching, you are experiencing additional skin symptoms or if you need help identifying the cause of your itchy skin, it’s best to seek the help of a dermatologist.
Itchy Skin Treatment and Relief
In addition to avoiding triggers, one itchy skin treatment option is a cream or lotion that contains hydrocortisone or pramoxine hydrochloride. These ingredients provide temporary itch relief that helps prevent the scratching that can break the skin and lead to infection.10 Applying moisturizer (especially after the shower when skin is still damp) is helpful for hydration, and can help you avoid the itching associated with dry skin.
- Baumann, L. (2009) Cosmetic Dermatology: Principles and Practice (pp.83-91). New York: McGraw-Hill Medical
- T. Ruzicka, B. Przybilla, J. Ring (2006) Handbook of Atopic Eczema; 2nd edition; Springer