Do you have dry skin or dehydrated skin?
Here's how to tell—and what to do about it
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Fall is among us, which means, apart from swapping sandals with boots, our skincare needs to shift as well. Sky-high temps are synonymous with blotting paper and lightweight creams, but cooler weather typically requires a moisturizing routine to cope with parched skin. During this transition of warm to cool weather, you may experience a whole host of skincare issues including an onslaught of dry patches and flakiness. But on the quest for smooth, radiant skin, many people either treat their skin as if it's dry when in reality it's dehydrated, which can leave them feeling like their skincare products aren't working.
If you didn’t know there was a difference between dry and dehydrated, you’re not alone. According to Dr. Brendan Camp, a New York City-based dermatologist with Medical Dermatology and Cosmetic Surgery, “dry” refers to skin that lacks oil whereas “dehydrated” refers to a lack of water. Knowing where your skin falls on the spectrum of dryness versus dehydration could make all the difference when it comes to prevention, treatment, and maintenance of issues. To help us break it all down, we called on Dr. Camp for some answers. Keep scrolling to learn how to decipher between the two, as well as how to manage each.
What is dry skin?
Dry skin refers to skin that lacks oil, and is a skin type—the others are “oily,” “combination” or oily in some place and dry in others, and “normal” or balanced. Dr. Camp explains: "Our bodies normally make oil (i.e., sebum) through oil glands. The oil excreted through the hair follicles functions to trap water or moisture in the skin. Dry skin results when there is too little oil production, or when too much oil is removed from the skin." Though our skin type is inherited from our genetics, dry skin can be exacerbated by other things, such as over-exfoliation, lack of sun protection, and piping hot showers. Your skin is likely dry if you have a rough, flaky texture or if your skin is itchy.
What is dehydrated skin?
Tightness? Check. Fine lines? Too many! Both signs of dry skin, right? Well ... not necessarily. These could be signs that your skin lacks water and therefore is dehydrated. Just like our bodies require us to drink an adequate amount of water each day, our skin requires a hefty dose of hydration to stay healthy, too. "Dehydrated skin can occur when too much water evaporates off the skin or when the body is not well hydrated," says Dr. Camp. He adds that environmental and lifestyle factors such as weather, humidity, diet, as well as alcohol and caffeine consumption can all cause water to evaporate off the skin. This means that no matter your skin type—yes, even if it’s oily—your skin can be dehydrated. "A day without enough water consumption, such as after vigorous exercise or a sunny day at the beach, may lead to dehydration," explains Dr. Camp. So, what does dehydrated skin look like? Dr. Camp says that you'll know if you have dehydrated skin if your skin "lacks luster, feels tight, tents when pinched, and accentuates features of aging such as fine lines and wrinkles."
Bottom line: Dry skin is a skin type and dehydration is a skin condition. While dry skin requires moisture because it lacks oil, appears flaky, and feels itchy, dehydrated skin requires hydration because it lacks water, feels tight, and has pronounced lines.
How to treat dry skin
1. Use moisturizing creams
Dr. Camp recommends using products with ingredients that help restore the skin's natural barrier function, namely ceramides, or lipids found in the top layer of the skin. "They help preserve the integrity of the skin barrier by protecting the body from noxious external elements," says Camp. For dry skin, creams are better than lotions, as they contain more oil and are better able to moisturize dry patches. They're also a better option for preserving soft, smooth skin during the winter when the air is dry. Try the tried-and-true CeraVe Moisturizing Cream—it's made with three ceramides to protect the skin barrier and hyaluronic acid to retain moisture.
2. Exfoliate regularly
Exfoliation is another way to combat a dull complexion and improve the appearance of the skin, as it helps the natural process of skin shedding and reveals healthier skin cells. Just beware of over-exfoliation (stick to once or twice a week) and make sure to use a chemical exfoliant versus a physical exfoliant, as they are gentler and prevent the user error of scrubbing too hard and causing micro tears in the skin. Look for products that contain beta hydroxy acids (BHAs), like salicylic or citric acid, or alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), like lactic, glycolic, malic, citric, tartaric, or mandelic acids. The benefit to exfoliation is that skin appears more radiant and smooth, and your other skincare products will be able to penetrate the skin more effectively, rather than rest atop dead skin cells. For gentle chemical exfoliation, try The Ordinary’s Lactic Acid 10% + HA, which claims to target textured skin (a common side effect of dryness) and brighten the skin using Tasmanian pepperberry.
3. Avoid hot showers
A long, hot shower may feel cozy and relaxing, but it can strip the skin of oil and lead to dryness and dehydration. "Without enough oil to help seal in moisture, water molecules evaporate from skin leading to dehydration, a process called transepidermal water loss (TEWL)," explains Dr. Camp. "The effects can be more pronounced in the fall and winter when there is less humidity in the air, and, in extreme cases, it can lead to eczema."
How to treat dehydrated skin
1. Use “hydrating” lotions
To bring water back to your skin after, say, a night of alcohol consumption, Dr. Camp says to use skincare products that are made up of humectants, which attract and retain water. To make sure your products include humectants, look for ingredients like glycerin, hyaluronic acid, propylene glycol, sodium lactate, and urea. "Hyaluronic acid, in particular, is a humectant and a sugar molecule that can hold one thousand times its weight in water,” he says. “As a skincare ingredient, it can help restore hydration and keep skin plump and healthy." Also, be sure to use a lotion versus a cream, as Camp says lotions contain the highest percentage of water, are the thinnest, lightest type of moisturizer, and absorb quickly. For a good lotion, look to the highly-rated Cetaphil Daily Oil-Free Hydrating Lotion, which uses hyaluronic acid to hydrate and has a lightweight formula designed not to clog pores.
2. Eat your water
Dehydrated skin could be your body's way of telling you it's lacking hydration overall. If you have trouble drinking enough water throughout the day, try eating water-rich foods like cucumber, strawberries, watermelon, peaches, and lettuce. Better yet, throw them all in a blender for a refreshing morning smoothie and watch how glowy your skin becomes over time.
3. Avoid retinols
Even though they're touted in the beauty world as being anti-aging saviors, Dr. Camp warns against using retinols if you have dehydrated skin. "Someone with dehydrated skin should be careful using products with retinol because the skin is more vulnerable to the potential side effects of these products, namely redness, irritation, and stinging," he explains. If you’ve been using one and feel any of those effects, take a break and see if your skin improves overall.
Choosing the right treatment
Air conditioners and sources of dry heat can contribute to skin that's both dry and dehydrated at the same time. Dr. Camp recommends running a humidifier if you're experiencing eczema, dryness, and dehydration, especially in the winter months. Also, if you have dry skin and are unknowingly using a treatment method that's for dehydrated skin, you may find that you're not seeing an improvement in your dryness. Similarly, if you're using products geared toward dry skin when you really have dehydrated skin, your skin will likely still be experiencing the side effects of dehydration. To help eliminate any confusion, it may be worth switching up your products or visiting a dermatologist if you feel like your routine isn't working.
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