How to Tell If Your Skin Is Dry or Dehydrated, According to Experts

During a recent facial, I listed my main skin concern as breakouts, and after a skin analysis, the aesthetician kindly let me know I'm not actually suffering from acne. And although I was pretty sure about the congestion (it is my face, after all), I was open to her explanation. Turns out, my skin is severely dehydrated, which came as a surprise, as I'd generally considered my skin to be oily or, at the very least, combination. But don't be fooled: The skin can be both oily and dehydrated — a new type of combination skin, if you will.

"Dry skin is characterized by fewer oil-producing glands on the face and body," says Ross C. Radusky, a board-certified dermatologist at SoHo Skin & Laser Dermatology. "Dehydrated skin, on the other hand, is a lack of water, not oil. So you can actually have an oily complexion but still have dehydrated skin."

Most of us understand the negative impacts of dehydration on our overall health, but who knew it had the potential to wreak such visible havoc on our faces? In order to understand the difference between overall dryness and dehydration, I consulted a few experts, who share the three steps to healthy, hydrated skin.

Step 1: Diagnosis

Basically, dryness refers to a skin type, and dehydration refers to a skin condition. "Dry skin lacks oil because it produces less sebum than normal skin, and the lack of sebum means the skin is without the lipids it needs to retain moisture and to build a strong barrier to protect against external aggressors," says Tata Harper, organic skin-care mogul and founder of Tata Harper Skincare. "Dehydrated skin does not have enough water. Dehydration is caused by many external factors, but the most common are weather, environment, diet, and caffeine consumption, all of which can result in diminished water content within the skin."

A good test, says Radusky, is to pinch your cheek. If it's wrinkling with gentle pressure instead of holding its shape, your skin cells are desperate for water. He also notes that dehydrated skin will feel tight, look dull in the mirror, and you may notice more exaggerated wrinkles, or ones in places you don't remember having them, along with more exaggerated dark circles beneath your eyes.

"Common signs of dehydrated skin include redness, lots of congestion, and inflammation," adds Kate Somerville, paramedical aesthetician and founder of Kate Somerville Skincare.

Dry skin, on the other hand, tends to be uncomfortable, flaky, and itchy. The worst areas are typically near the eyebrows and around the corners of the nose and mouth. On the body, common trouble areas include the neck, the inside of the arms, and the thighs. "When things are at their worst, rubbing the skin might sound like grinding fine sandpaper," explains Radusky. "And it isn't snowing in your bathroom, but rather dried flakes of skin are falling."

Step 2: Treatment

For dry skin, there are a number of ways to soothe parched complexions (i.e. amping up your antioxidant intake and reducing the number of acids in your routine). Dehydration, on the other hand, is a different story. While hydration is key if you're suffering from dehydrated skin, there are a few other at-home treatment options to consider, too.


"My favorite tip is exfoliating," says Francesca Fusco, an assistant clinical professor of dermatology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. "As dead skin builds up, it can diminish the absorption of moisturizers." She recommends exfoliating at least once a week to remove dead skin cells, which "allows your moisturizer to work better."

Add a Serum to Your Routine

"To hydrate the skin, aim for serums and apply these before any moisturizer," says Radusky. "Serums are not moisturizers and vice-versa." He recommends finding a serum with hyaluronic acid, which is the same ingredient used in many fillers.

Your skin naturally produces hyaluronic acid, but supplementing via skin care is key for addressing dehydration, says Radusky. He recommends products that contain hyaluronic acid stimulators, like The Ordinary. Hyaluronic Acid 2% + B5 or products containing avocado peptides, which boost your skin's ability to produce its own hyaluronic acid.

Use a Heavier Moisturizer at Night

"Even though we're shielded from the harsh outdoor climate, heated dry air causes us to naturally lose moisture while we sleep," says Radusky. "Use a heavier oil-free and non-comedogenic moisturizer at night to counteract this." We like Sunday Riley's Tidal Brightening Enzyme Water Cream, which is formulated with hydrating hyaluronic acid and exfoliating papaya enzymes to pump moisture back into the skin — all while you sleep.

Pay Attention to the Seasons

Temperature and humidity changes can really affect the way your skin looks and behaves, says Radusky. "Winter is particularly harsh as cold, low humidity air can cause skin to dry out and become itchy, cracked and irritated," he says. "Cold air also tightens pores, reduces circulation, and reduces sebum production." Low humidity, hot showers, and central heat also contribute to skin dehydration, which is why it's so important to create a winter-specific regimen to soothe weather-worn skin.

Fortunately, Radusky adds, the atmosphere holds more water in the spring and summer, providing that extra boost of water to our skin. But too much direct sunlight can cause dehydration, so be extra vigilant with sunscreen. (We recommend these new summer launches for the most UV protection.)

Drink Water

It might seem obvious, but it's important to mention that drinking water is important. "Internal hydration is vital," says Radusky. "Drink plenty of fluids, and eat water-rich fruits and vegetables and essential fatty acids." He recommends starting the day off with a green juice made of celery, spinach, and cucumber, for example.

Radusky recommends eight glasses of water per day, but to remember eight is just an average. "That Pilates and spinning class will cause you to burn through much more water, especially on the skin where sweating will worsen dehydrated skin," he says.

Consider a Humidifier

"Consider putting a humidifier in your office or home to keep the air adequately humid so your skin doesn't release moisture to the air," says Fusco.

Step 3: Maintenance

Dry skin is an inherent skin condition that will sustain for most of your life, explains Somerville, whereas dehydration is more of a state your skin is in that you can fix. "When we think of water weight elsewhere on the body, we think of bloating and swelling," says Radusky. "It's the same thing on our skin. When hydrated, our skin cells swell, and this can be a great thing. It minimizes the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, and generally makes us look less tired."

A dehydrated state can be corrected relatively quickly by drinking fluids, says Fusco. But for a quick pick-me-up, keep a facial mist (like the Herbivore Botanicals Rose Hibiscus Coconut Water Hydrating Face Mist) handy throughout the day, and use a moisturizing mask (try the Paula's Choice Rehydrating Moisture Mask) weekly to replenish skin's moisture.

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