How to Tell if Your Skin is Dry or Dehydrated... and Why It Matters

Dr. Janet Zand

December 18, 2020

Lots of people use the terms “dry skin” and “dehydrated skin” interchangeably — but they are not the same thing!

And not only are they different, but they require two different treatments.

That’s why it’s so important to know the signs of dry skin versus dehydrated skin. Otherwise, you might spend time and money treating the wrong problem.

Fortunately, this is pretty simple to figure out...

Step 1: Diagnosis

Let’s start with dry skin...

Dryness actually refers to a skin type, like oily skin or combination skin. It’s characterized by a lack of oil, because dry skin produces less sebum than normal skin. And a lack of sebum means the skin can’t retain moisture or build a strong barrier to protect against dry air and other external aggressors.

If you have dry skin, you may also experience flaking, redness, irritation, or a skin condition like psoriasis, eczema, or dermatitis.

Meanwhile, dehydration refers to a skin condition. The skin doesn’t have enough water. This can happen for lots of reasons, but the most common are weather, environment, and diet, all of which can reduce the water content in your skin.

A good way to tell if your skin is dehydrated is the “pinch test.” Stand in front of a mirror and pinch your cheek gently. If it's wrinkling instead of holding its shape, your skin cells need more water.

Other signs of dehydrated skin include a tight feeling, dullness, more exaggerated wrinkles, and darker under eye circles.

And by the way, it’s possible to have dry skin that’s also dehydrated! That’s what happens when someone with dry skin is also not getting enough water to their skin.

So let’s talk about skin treatments for both...

Step 2: Treatment

If you have dry skin, start by gently exfoliating once per week. This will remove dead skin cells, which allows your moisturizer to work better.

Next, skip the cleanser in the morning, and just use water instead. Your skin shouldn’t be dirty right when you wake up, and skipping the cleaner will help keep your moisture barrier intact.

Finally, hydrate and moisturize. And yes, there’s a difference between these two terms, too!

Hydrators hold water in place on your skin. For dry skin, hyaluronic acid is a good choice.

Then follow with a moisturizer, which creates a “seal” on the surface of your skin, preventing the water from escaping. Ingredients to look for include shea butter, jojoba oil, rosehip seed oil, coconut oil, and ceramide.

(By the way, Système 41 Day Crème and Night Treatment contain all of the ingredients above — including hyaluronic acid for hydration. We developed them because we wanted around-the-clock moisturizing treatment that also could repair and reduce the visible signs of aging.)

Okay, so let’s talk about what to do about dehydrated skin. Remember, anyone can get dehydrated skin — whether your skin type is dry, oily, normal, or combination.

First, buy yourself a humidifier and leave it on all winter. A humidifier will keep the air adequately humid so your skin doesn't release moisture to the air.

Just make sure you clean your humidifier! So many people forget to do that, so put it on your calendar and do it at least once a week.

To clean your humidifier, use a vinegar solution (or another solution if suggested by the manufacturer), and rinse with several changes of water afterward.

Also be sure to check your filters or cartridges, and change them according to the manufacturer's instructions.

Along with a humidifier, consider getting a hygrometer. Hygrometers measure the amount of humidity in the air, and they’re really cheap! (Only $5-$10 at hardware stores or on Amazon.) You want to aim for a humidity level of 30% to 50%. This will keep moisture in your skin without encouraging bacteria or mold growth in your room.

When you’re on-the-go and can’t be near a humidifier, you can use a facial mist (like rose water or even plain spring water) as a quick way to boost hydration. Just follow it with a small drop of moisturizer to lock in the water. If you’re wearing makeup, you can gently pat the moisturizer on top.

Finally, here’s the #1 solution for dehydrated skin:

Drink water. Yes, I know it’s probably not a surprise, and I say it all the time. But for dehydrated skin, oral hydration is a must because it’s adding water into skin cells from the inside. And it will make a huge difference for you — it may even fix the problem entirely so long as you keep your water levels up.

If you struggle to drink enough water, try to incorporate more water-rich foods into your diet. These foods include cucumber, lettuce, avocado, broccoli, celery, and watermelon. You can also try herbal tea, which comes in a variety of flavors.

As for your skincare routine, you can actually follow the same routine outlined for dry skin. Why? Because gentle exfoliation, reduced cleansing, hydrating, and moisturizing are important for dehydrated skin, too! And lots of people — especially those with oily or combination skin — are using products that are far too harsh. Or they’re cleansing too much and stripping their skin.

Those things will gradually damage your moisture barrier, and you need to protect your moisture barrier to keep water in your skin and prevent dehydration.

So the solution for dehydrated skin is two-fold: increase your water levels overall, and then keep that water in your skin by maintaining the moisture barrier.

Try these tips out, and let me know how it goes. Here’s to happy, healthy, and hydrated skin this winter!

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