We’re used to understanding our skin as falling into one of four types: oily, dry, combination and normal. Based on the fact that my forehead can saturate an entire blotting sheet in seconds but my cheeks mostly behave, I’ve come to accept that I have combination oily and normal skin.
However, just last year, a facialist informed me of another skin condition I had—dehydration.
My initial reaction was skeptical. I’ve always understood dehydration to be a synonym for dry, and my skin rarely flakes, so when she told me I needed to moisturize much more, I didn’t think much of it.
However, now that it’s getting colder (and my skin does change a bit in the winter), I feel like it’s the best time to address my skin concerns. That’s why I decided to contact experts with my most pressing dehydrated skin questions: Joanna Vargas, celebrity facialist and founder of Joanna Vargas Salon and Skincare Collection; Dr. Elizabeth Tanzi, founder and director of Capital Laser & Skin Care and clinical professor of dermatology at the George Washington Medical Center; Dr. Debra Jaliman, board-certified dermatologist and author of Skin Rules: Trade Secrets from a Top New York Dermatologist; and Dr. Michael Lin, board-certified dermatologist who runs drlinskincare.com.
Here’s what they had to say.
Having dehydrated skin has to do with water/moisture loss, but it’s NOT the same thing as having dry skin.
All but one of the experts (Dr. Tanzi) agreed that there was, indeed, a difference between dehydration and dryness.
“Dehydrated skin is determined by the water you have in the skin,” Vargas wrote. “I think people confuse oil production with hydration. Hydration should not be determined by your blackheads or by the amount of breakouts you have.”
An even simpler way of understanding it is by categorizing dry skin as a type, while categorizing dehydration as a temporary condition.
“Dry skin is the type of skin people have at baseline. It’s kind of the way your skin generally behaves. Dehydrated skin is more of a skin condition. It means somehow the skin has been altered and affected and has lost its ability to retain moisture,” Dr. Lin said in a phone interview.
Since dehydration is a skin condition as opposed to a type, “any skin type can become dehydrated,” Dr. Jaliman said.
Environmental factors and the types of products you use can cause your skin to be dehydrated.
All the experts I spoke with pointed to using harsh products as one of the main causes of dehydrated skin, since they strip the skin of moisture. These include not just drying cleansers and alcohol-based toners, but some exfoliating and anti-aging products, too.
“It's best to avoid over-washing the skin and to avoid overusing retinols or glycolic or salicylic acids,” Dr. Jaliman wrote.
Environmental factors can also cause your skin to lose water. “Cold, low humidity and wind are the main issues. In the winter, the heater dries out the air,” Dr. Lin says.
This also explains why my skin goes crazy when I’m on an airplane. I guess I'll just pack a moisturizer in my carryon next time.
There are several ways of determining if you have dehydrated skin.
My facialist identified that I had dehydrated skin when she saw that she had to pile a lot of product onto my face. I’m not sure that’s an accurate way of determining skin dehydration, but I will say that none of the experts mentioned that as a way of determining if your skin lacks moisture.
Instead, Vargas recommends doing the pinch test: “Gently pinch the skin on the cheek. If it looks like you have fine lines, you are dehydrated.” Also, she suggests looking for fine lines around your eyes and flakes on your forehead—additional signs that your skin could use some more water. You may not have all of these, but “just one can mean dehydration,” she wrote. However, it’s worth noting flakiness is also typically associated with dry skin.
Dr. Jaliman suggests looking at your face overall. “When your skin is dehydrated, it can look parched and weathered,” she wrote.
As for Dr. Lin, he says dehydrated skin will look flaky and a little sunken in. “People who are dehydrated in general, not just in their skin, may also have a hollow look to their face and have dark circles,” he says.
Based on their tips, my skin actually does actually fall into the dehydrated category, particularly in the eye area, since I do have fine lines around my eyes (and I’m not even talking about crow’s-feet).
You can improve dehydrated skin by using AND avoiding certain products.
Since the products you use can dehydrate your skin, the biggest, most obvious suggestion is to stop using them and to focus, instead, on products with ingredients that will introduce moisture or lock it into your skin.
The experts mentioned ingredients such as hyaluronic acid and glycerin, both of which help the skin retain moisture. Vargas added jojoba oil, since it “will not cause breakouts because it closely mimics the skin’s natural oils.”
In case you’re thinking, Hey, these are the same ingredients people with dry skin look for, well, you’re right. After you’ve figured out what’s causing your skin to be dehydrated, “then the treatment of dehydrated skin and dry skin is very similar, which is to retain the maximum amount of moisture in the skin,” Dr. Lin says.
Since I’ve finally stocked up on my favorite glycerin-based Sulwhasoo Balancing Water for fall, I felt very happy when I read the glycerin recommendation. I’ve been using the Eve Lom Intense Hydration Serum, too, which also contains glycerin. It’s a tad thicker than the Balancing Water, but it absorbs into the skin just as quickly.
If environmental factors are dehydrating your skin, aim to protect your skin all the time—and not just with skincare.
“I recommend sunscreen because the sun can cause irritation and dehydrate the skin. Maybe you can wear a scarf to protect your face from the wind. Then, when you come home and you’re sitting in front of the heater, get a humidifier going so your skin doesn’t dry out from being in front of the fireplace or the heater,” Dr. Lin says.
Drinking water is good for keeping your body hydrated, but it may not prevent your skin from getting dehydrated.
According to Dr. Tanzi, drinking water won’t hydrate your skin: “You cannot 'drink' your way to hydrated skin—doesn’t work like that at all,” she said.
Even though my facialist had me mentally freaking out about skin dehydration, it’s good to know it’s a condition I can keep under control. I’m in the process of testing out more products containing glycerin and hyaluronic acid, so stay tuned.
- What’s the latest thing you’ve learned about your skin?
- Did you know there was a difference between dry and dehydrated skin?
- How are you switching up your skincare routine for the colder months?