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Why your skin might not actually be dry—even if you think it is

dry dehydrated skin Pin It
Photo: Stocksy/Susana Ramirez

If your skin’s not oily, there’s a high probability you’d say that your skin is dry (at least some of the time—hello, moisture-sapping radiators in the winter and sun damage in the summer). There’s also a high probability that you’re slathering on an uber-thick moisturizer or spritzing a face mist around the clock for quick relief.

But—and prepare to have your mind blown—most people don’t have dry skin.

A large chunk of those who think their complexion is dry are actually showing signs of dehydration—which is a different issue altogether. Yep, your face can get thirsty, too. (And when it is, it can mean pimples, headaches, and a long list of other annoying issues.)

How can you tell the difference? And what does dehydrated skin really need? Keep reading for the lowdown.

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dry skin
Photo: Stocksy/Studio Firma

The truth about dry skin

Believe it or not, dry skin is actually something that’s passed down through genetics. “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 have from when you’re born, not something you get.”

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 overall, you probably have true dry skin. If, however, 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 passed down through genetics.

New York-based dermatologist Samer Jaber, MD, agrees: Dehydrated skin “feels tight, rough, or sensitive,” he says. Rather than being habitually sans oil (and remember: you want a bit of that moisture), it’s more like an occasional sense of dry.

Still aren’t sure what the state of your complexion is, even after the cleansing test? “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.

dry skin
Photo: Stocksy/Jojo Jovanovic

How your skin gets dehydrated

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.”

Another culprit? “You could be using products the wrong way,” she adds. That includes over-exfoliating, applying too-harsh acne treatments, and using sulfate cleansers, all of which can dry out your complexion. And of course, not getting enough sleep could be taking its toll. (Everyone who’s received that dreaded “are you tired” question can understand the visible affects of that one.)

“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.

dry skin
Photo: Stocksy/Lumina

Quenching your complexion’s thirst

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.” 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:

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.”

Strengthen the skin barrier. Look for natural and nourishing vitamins and extracts in your skin-care regimen, and avoid mineral oils, alcohols, and surfactants—a common ingredient in cleansers that creates a lathering effect. “There are a lot of powerful surfactants that don’t foam at all, so it’s not just about staying away from foam,” says LeRoux. You’ll know it’s a surfactant if you see a sulfate (sodium laurel sulfate, for instance) or cocoamidopropyl betaine.

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). Good ol’ water’s the foundation of hydration, after all.

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.