Are you confused about whether you have dry skin or dehydrated skin?
If so, you’re not alone.
A lot of people have the misconception that they’re the same or that their skin is dry when it’s actually dehydrated and vice versa. This is a problem because although they share some common traits, they’re still two different issues that require their own treatments and considerations. If you treat one like the other you could be making things worse rather than better.
Our goal in this guide is to clear up any confusion so you can properly care for your skin.
First we’ll cover what dehydrated skin is and how it’s different than dry or combination skin. Next we’ll talk about some of the most common signs so you can more easily identify whether you have it or not. Finally, we’ll wrap up with some tips on repairing your skin’s natural moisture barrier, why that’s so important, and recommend our favorite skincare ingredients and products for treatment.
So let’s get started!
How Do I Know If My Skin Is Dehydrated?
Dehydrated skin is an issue that plagues many people although they often don’t even know they have it. It can be tricky to describe since its symptoms can vary from person to person but it usually presents itself in the following ways:
- Skin that looks lackluster, tired, and dull in appearance.
- Is very sensitive and often experiences irritation or redness after using certain products.
- Burns or stings after using a cleanser.
- Has itchy or flaky patches.
- Feels tight and inelastic or looks wrinkly when pinched or pulled.
- Looks oily but feels dry at the same time.
If you think at least 3 of the bullet points above accurately describe your skin it could mean that it’s dehydrated.
We say “could” because a lot of the symptoms also apply to dry and combination skin.
So before we begin explaining what causes it and the best methods of treatment, let’s further clarify how it’s different.
How It’s Different Than Dry Skin
There are a number of differences between dry skin and dehydrated skin. Here’s a breakdown of their unique characteristics:
Dry Skin Symptoms
- Is a skin type.
- Is mostly genetic and caused by internal factors such as hormonal imbalances or an under-active thyroid that cause it to produce less sebum (another word for the natural oils your skin secretes).
- Needs more oil.
- Always needs to be kept moisturized regardless of the seasons.
- Is more prone to premature aging, fine lines, and wrinkles.
- Just feels dry all around.
Dehydrated Skin Symptoms
- Is a condition that can happen to any skin type (even dry!)
- Is caused by external factors based on diet, environment, lifestyle choices, and the types of products used on it.
- Needs more water.
- Comes and goes and is not a permanent natural condition.
- Is more prone to clogged pores and breakouts.
- Feels both oily and dry at the same time
Keep in mind that yes your skin can be temporarily dry but when we say it’s a skin “type” we mean how it is naturally without any use of topical skincare products. For this same reason, combination skin is different than dehydrated because it’s also a type and not a condition of the skin.
Note that this means your skin can be both dry and dehydrated at the same time. An unfortunate double whammy. Thankfully there are ways to fix this as you’ll learn in the next section!
Your Skin’s Moisture Barrier And How To Repair It
As the name implies, dehydrated skin is a problem related to water – specifically the skin’s inability to retain it.
The outermost layer of your skin called the stratum corneum is composed of bacteria (both good and bad), sebum, and tightly packed skin cells all of which are responsible for binding and sealing moisture to its surface.
The reason your skin is dehydrated is because this natural barrier has been ruptured. When this happens your skin quickly loses moisture and the oil glands which produce sebum over-compensate by going into overdrive and producing even more oil than before.
That’s why dehydrated skin is both oily and dry and why it’s more prone to breakouts than ordinary dry skin. It’s missing water and it’s producing too much oil. At the same time it becomes more sensitive and prone to irritation because the protective barrier has been damaged.
Once this barrier is compromised it takes about 2 weeks for it to to fully repair itself.
In the meantime, you want to avoid doing or exposing yourself to anything that dehydrates your skin. This can mean certain types of skincare products (as you’ll learn in the next section), extreme heat or cold such as hot showers and cold winds, low-humidity and an arid climate, over-washing your skin, and lifestyle choices like smoking or binge drinking.
All of these aggravate the barrier making it harder for your skin to remain supple with moisture. And while you can’t change the weather or the seasons, there are ways to work around them so your skin can be at its healthiest all year round.
Tips To Heal And Rehydrate Your Skin
Doing each of the following will ensure your moisture barrier will properly heal and you won’t be sabotaging your own efforts.
Use a gentle non-foaming cleanser
This is probably the single biggest culprit for dehydrated skin. Your skin should never feel tight or dry after using a cleanser. If it does it means that it’s too harsh for your skin and has stripped away the protective barrier we talked about before.
Foam based cleansers are typically the harshest and most irritating. They also seem to be the most popular probably because most people see the suds and think that it’s working — big mistake. Sure it works but it works too well. If you see ingredients like SLS or SLES which stand for sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate then it’s best to stay away. Instead look for a pH optimized cleanser that leaves your skin feeling fresh and comfortable.
pH optimized cleansers also have the added benefit of creating an inhospitable environment for the acne causing bacteria p.acnes which favors a pH between 5 and 6 approximately.
For more info on choosing a cleanser we recommend checking out our step by step guide to creating a skincare routine which can be found here.
Moisturize regularly with humectants
A humectant is any skincare ingredient that attracts water to itself. See where we’re going with this? They act as hydrators drawing moisture from the air around you to your epidermis which will be a big help.
Here are two of the best and most common humectants found in skincare products:
This one can be found in creams, lotions, moisturizers, or by itself in high concentration serums. It’s ability to hold 1000x its weight in water makes it one of the most potent hydrating ingredients which has received a lot of attention over the past few years for its anti-aging benefits. Apply to damp skin and seal it again with a moisturizer (if it’s not already one of the ingredients).
Click here to learn more about hyaluronic acid and its skin benefits.
Also known as glycerol, it’s another natural humectant like hyaluronic acid. It’s highly likely your skincare routine already utilizes a product that contains glycerin but if you’d like an extra boost you can add a couple drops of pure glycerin to your lotion or moisturizer if you feel you need to.
An added benefit is that it mimics something known as the “natural moisturizing factor”(NMF) which is a combination of lipids, amino acids, peptides, and other important ingredients which act as your skin’s natural moisturizer. NMF decreases as we age and since glycerin has a similar chemical structure, it’s well-tolerated by practically all skin types.
Layer an occlusive over your moisturizer
An occlusive is any ingredient that creates or acts as a barrier to prevent moisture loss. So while humectants attract water, occlusives prevent it from escaping.
Some examples include mineral oils, squalene, and our favorite, Vaseline aka petroleum jelly. We recommend applying a thin film of Vaseline over your face before bed and after moisturizing to help prevent moisture loss over night. Although it may feel greasy, petroleum jelly won’t clog pores because it’s a non-comedogenic ingredient well-tolerated by most people’s skin.
The most important thing to remember when using occlusives is to make sure you’ve cleansed your skin beforehand. Remember that they will trap whatever is underneath which in addition to moisture can include dirt and grime if you haven’t already washed them off.
If interested, check out this more in-depth guide on humectants and occlusives.
Use a humidifier
Humidifiers can be a skincare life-saver especially in the winter or if you live in a dry environment with little humidity. They are relatively inexpensive products which you can place by your bedside and leave on overnight to fill the air with moisture giving your skin a much needed “drink.”
When you wake up the next morning you will notice your skin feels more plump and in better condition. They also work well with humectants because they will have a source of water to draw to your skin.
Don’t over-wash your skin
Excessively washing your skin, especially with hot water whether you’re standing in the shower or splashing it against your face will definitely do damage to your skin. Your skin is more vulnerable when it’s dehydrated and the heightened sensitivity will make warm water do more damage.
There’s also no need to go through your skincare routine more than twice a day if you’re one of those people who just need to feel like their skin is clear. If you have super oily skin you might not even need to use a cleanser more than once
Avoid these products and ingredients
The following products are all known for drying up skin. While they can be beneficial when used correctly and in the right situations, give your skin the 2 weeks to heal before using these because they can make things a lot worse.
- Tea tree oil
- Benzoyl peroxide
- Salicylic acid
- Retinoids and other acne spot treatments
- Clay masks
- Most types of exfoliators and chemical peels
Stick to the basics: cleanser, moisturizer and sunscreen in addition to any serums or lotions you normally apply.
When it comes to skincare ingredients, our recommendation is the same for those with sensitive skin. In addition to the sulfate family in cleansers, try your best to avoid or at least minimize use of all products with the following:
- Citric acids
- Witch hazel
- Essential oils like lavender that cause problems when undiluted
We recommend your read up on why these ingredients are bad for sensitive skin.
If you follow these tips we are confident you’ll put your skin on the right track to recovery.
It all begins with correctly identifying whether your skin is actually dehydrated or if its just dry. Once you know for sure, you’ll want to maximize the amount of moisture your skin gets while minimizing any damage or the stripping away of your skin’s moisture barrier.
Doing simple things like investing in a humidifier or using a gentle cleanser will go a long way. Moisturize diligently, look for products with a humectant such as hyaluronic acid or glycerin, and avoid over washing or exposing yourself to extremes in temperature.
Here’s a good video summarizing the main points: