Do You Have Dry Skin? Or Dehydrated Skin? The Difference Is Crucial

In hindsight, the difference between dry skin and dehydrated skin seems obvious. But I would never have guessed it. Now that I know this seemingly small but crucial difference, my skin (and the products that actually work for it) makes wayyyy more sense. I bet it could help your skincare journey, too.

Fact: Skin can both be oily and dehydrated. Also a fact? Dehydrated skin is not the same thing as dry skin. It might sound like we’re splitting hairs here but knowing how to spot the difference between the two can make (or break) your skincare routine, not too mention your skin. The terms dry and dehydrated are as interchangeable as dinner and supper, even in the scientific skin literature, but the difference between the two is as big as the difference between water and oil. Here’s how to tell if your skin is actually dry or just dehydrated — and, in either case, what to do about it.

What is Dry Skin?

Dry skin is a lifelong skin-state you’re born with. It’s hereditary and can’t be “fixed” per se, but it can be improved by consistently giving your skin what it’s short on: Oil. Those of us with dry skin have fewer oil-producing glands than normal, which means less natural lipids that build a strong moisture barrier. If you have dry skin, it’s going to surface on your body in more places than your face. (1, 2)

Your Skin is Dry If…

It feels uncomfortably itchy, looks red or ashy (especially on darker skin tones) and is particularly flaky around the eyebrows, nose and mouth. Dry skin actually occurs deep between the skin’s layers, but on the surface, it shows up as rough, cracked and even a bit leathery because dry skin low on oils lacks suppleness and elasticity.

What Dry Skin Needs to Feel Quenched

First, ditch the foaming cleanser and only use pH balanced cleansers. Your best bet is an oil-based cleanser, like a cleansing balm. In general, you should be stacking your skincare regimen with cream or oil-based products rich in the lipids your skin lacks. Amp up the antioxidants and take it easy on the acids, no matter how gentle, in your routine. Oh, stack your diet (yes, your diet can affect your skin) with fatty lipids, too — salmon, avocado and olive oil are all on the dry skin menu. (3, 4)

What is Dehydrated Skin?

Dehydrated skin, on the other hand, doesn’t have enough water. You can have plenty of oil-producing glands working overtime (maybe more than you’d like) and still have dehydrated skin. Unlike dry skin, which is a skin type, dehydrated skin is a condition — usually temporary, subject to changing environmental factors and, yes, fixable. (5)

Your Skin is Dehydrated If….

It feels tight, quickly wrinkles when pinched or poked, and is scaley or rough — especially during cold, low-humidity seasons. Dehydrated skin is rooted in environmental factors that damage the skin barrier. Not getting enough H2O? You’re dehydrated. Getting too much sun? Also dehydrated. Stuck indoors all day with heat or AC running? Yep. Dehydrated. The thing about dehydrated skin that can trip so many of us up is that it’s actually prone to producing more oil to make up for the missing water...which 1) doesn’t outwardly seem like dehydration at all and 2) can lead to other skin conditions like breakouts and inflammation. (6)

What Dehydrated Skin Needs to Get its Bounce Back

Hydrated skin with plenty of water on reserve translates to plump skin. Load up on water-rich foods like cucumbers and watermelon (yes, please), and make sure you’re drinking enough water, not just for your skin’s sake but for every organ in your body. Since your skin is the last organ to reap the rewards of your nutrient intake, though, drinking the recommended eight cups a day might not be enough to rehydrate your skin. (7)

You’ll want to back it up with the right topical skin goop. Look for products with moisture-binding ingredients like collagen and hyaluronic acid, which acts as a moisture magnet drawing water back into the skin and binding to it to keep it there. Don’t skip the exfoliation step —  dead skin cell buildup can inhibit the absorption of your moisturizer — but do ditch the harsh face scrubs. Use a heavy-duty moisturizer at night that’s oil-free and non-comedogenic to replenish what you lost over the day. (8, 9)

Skin Changes with the Changing Seasons

Remember, dehydrated skin is often at the mercy of environmental whims. Changes in temperature and humidity affect the skin’s behavior. Winter’s cold, low-humidity air, for example, can actually reduce sebum production, making dry skin even drier. The hot showers and central heat that get us through those cold winters, on the other hand, can intensify dehydration. Dry skin or dehydrated, tailor your skincare choices to the changing seasons. (10, 11)



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