If your skin’s not oily, there’s a high probability you’d say that it’s dry (at least some of the time—thanks to moisture-sapping radiators in the winter and skin-damaging UV rays in the summer). There’s also a high probability that you’re slathering on uber-thick moisturizers or spritzing face mists around the clock for quick relief.
But prepare to have your mind blown: Most people don’t have dry skin. Instead, what many people experience is dehydration (yep, your face can get thirsty, too). And this can spell trouble for your complexion in the form of pimples, headaches, and a long list of other annoying issues.
Keep scrolling for how to tell the difference between dry and dehydrated skin.
Your skin is dry if…
Believe it or not, dry skin is actually something that’s genetically passed down. “Dry skin is more of a hereditary condition,” says Suzanne LeRoux, founder of One Love Organics (and herbalist and former chemist). “It literally means your body doesn’t produce as much sebum—so it’s something you’re born with, rather than something that develops over time.”
Here’s how to know if you fall under the scientifically dry category: Wash your face with a gentle, sulfate-free cleanser and check on your skin an hour later. If it’s lacking in moisture all over and feels tight throughout your entire complexion you probably truly have dry skin. If, however, only your cheeks feel tight and itchy (and definitely don’t look dewy), then it’s more likely to be an issue of dehydration, according to LeRoux.
Believe it or not, dry skin is actually something that’s genetically passed down.
New York-based dermatologist Samer Jaber, MD, agrees: Dehydrated skin “feels tight, rough, or sensitive” in certain spots, he says. Rather than being habitually without oil, it’s more like an occasional sense of dryness that’s brought on by environmental factors (more on that later).
The best way to understand if your complexion should be categorized as dry is to observe consistency of dryness over spells of it. “You really just have to get to know your skin—it’s a relationship,” she advises. “When you notice your face feels uncomfortable, watch the markers—what you’re eating, how your stress levels are, where you are in your cycle—and note how it changes throughout a 28-day cycle.” If it eventually returns to that normal glow, you were just dehydrated. If not, consider your complexion dry.
Your skin is dehydrated if…
A range of factors could be impacting your complexion—even if you’re slathering on the moisturizer. “Your skin gets dehydrated based on your stress levels,” LeRoux explains. “The environment affects it, too—whenever I’m in New York City, my skin gets wacky because I live in an island in rural Georgia.” So if all of the sudden, your skin starts freaking out in a new locale or during a particular part of your hormonal cycle, it could be chalked up to dehydration (BTW, those long complexion-parching plane rides don’t help).
Another culprit? “You could be using products the wrong way,” she adds. That includes over-exfoliating, applying too-harsh acne treatments, and using harsh cleansers, all of which can dry out your complexion. And of course, not getting enough sleep could be taking its toll. “All of these factors can actually cause your skin to lose water, which is called transepidermal water loss,” says LeRoux. “And that can be experienced by anybody, even those without dry skin.” Gulp.
How to deal if you’re dry or dehydrated
For once, drinking the right amount of water isn’t going to do the trick—not on its own, at least. “[Dealing with it] is like a workout for your skin,” says LeRoux. “You want it to be strong and not over-exfoliated or cleansed.” If your skin’s dry, lean towards moisturizers for support “that contain an occlusive ingredient that forms a protective seal over the surface of the skin,” notes Joshua Zeichner, MD, a New York-based dermatologist. Dehydrated skin types, on the other hand, should look for hydrators like hyaluronic acid-based products. “Hyaluronic acid is like a sponge that binds to water at 1000 times its weight,” he says.
And though you can’t change the amount of sebum your skin produces, both dry and dehydrated complexions can benefit from the following expert-approved skin-care practices:
Strengthen the skin barrier. Look for cleansers that dissolve skin impurities using the like-dissolves-like theory versus cleaning your face with amped-up surfactants (fine for most, but for those dealing with moisture issues, you don’t want to strip anything away). That means that opting for an oil-based, balm, or creamy cleanser could help you to degunk your face without further drying it out.
Look for aqueous skin-care products. LeRoux recommends using water-rich products that have water (coconut counts) or aloe juice as the first ingredient. Some options include Juice Beauty’s Oil-Free Moisturizer ($29), French Girl’s Creme Fraiche Moisturizer ($46), and One Love Organics’ Skin Dew ($58).
Apply moisturizer when skin is wet. “People are missing that water step,” says LeRoux. “When you apply your holy grail facial oil or balm, make sure your skin is very damp—either freshly cleansed without patting dry or freshly sprayed with a mist. That’ll prevent dehydrated skin and also help dry skin not get dehydrated.”
Originally posted June 20, 2017, updated June 6, 2018.
Just like dry skin, “sensitive” skin is another misnomer. And regardless of your moisture status, this is what every woman needs to know about her skin-care routine.
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