Is Your Skin Dry or Just Dehydrated? Here’s How to Tell


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Source: @summerfridays
Source: @summerfridays

If you think you’re using all the right products and staying consistent but your skin just doesn’t seem to budge, dehydrated skin might be your culprit. A breakthrough moment in my own personal skincare journey came with the discovery of Korean skincare. Korean skincare places a huge emphasis on deeply hydrating the skin. Once I started layering essences, hydrating toners, and serums twice a day, my skin did a complete 180. I realized that while I suffered from extremely oily skin, it was basically dying of thirst. 

Just because your skin is oily doesn’t mean it can’t be dehydrated, and just because you have dry skin doesn’t mean it’s dehydrated. So, what’s the difference? We got to the bottom of one of the most confusing aspects of skincare so you can finally get your routine on lock. 

Meet the expert
Maegan Griffin, MSN, NP-C
Maegan is a nurse practioner and the founder and CEO of Skin Pharm, an in-office skincare clinic and line of at-home skincare.


The difference between dry and dehydrated skin

First, you need to understand what dry and dehydrated actually entails. Skin that is dry lacks oil, and it’ll often feel tight and could have dry patches. Dehydrated skin lacks water and presents in a lot of ways, such as feeling tight and dry, breakouts, dullness, irritation, and more. Dehydration usually comes about when your moisture barrier is compromised and your skin isn’t taking in the hydration it needs. 

It’s important to understand one basic principle of skincare: There is skin type and there is skin condition. Skin type is the product of genetics. You are born with your skin type: oily, dry, combination, or normal.  Skin conditions are problems that arise from either your skin type or improper care of your skin, meaning that skin conditions can be corrected when properly treated. Acne, dehydration, inflammation, redness, dullness, and fine lines are all skin conditions. 

“The best way to think about it is that dehydrated skin is a condition that comes and goes, while dry skin is a skin type that persists year-round,” said Maegan Griffin, MSN, NP-C, founder and CEO of Skin Pharm

Dehydration can cause a lot of skin conditions. If you have any complaints about your complexion as it is right now, a good place to start the rehabilitation process is to increase hydration and see how your skin reacts.



What causes dehydrated skin?

While dryness is caused by genetics, dehydration can appear for a host of reasons, many of which come down to environmental stressors. According to Griffin, the main culprits ar sun exposure, heat, chlorine, consumption of alcohol, and not drinking enough water. But there are a few other reasons you might experience dehydration. Using products that disrupt your skin’s pH can “disrupt your skin’s microbiome,” Griffin explained. She also warned against over-exfoliation with acids and physical exfoliators, as these can lead to a compromised moisture barrier.

You can largely blame genetics for your dry skin. “Your skin just doesn’t produce enough oil to preserve adequate moisture levels,” Griffin said.


Can you have oily skin and be dehydrated? 

Dehydration is often a result of an impaired moisture barrier, Griffin explained, which can cause your skin to feel dry and irritated when it’s otherwise oily. In fact, your oily skin is probably more oily than it otherwise would be because it is dehydrated. Dehydrated skin lacks water, so when oily skin is dry, it produces more oil in an attempt to self-correct. This can, of course, lead to breakouts and inflamed blemishes but also to enlarged pores and a greasy complexion that is hard to mattify, even with makeup and a million blotting papers.



Can dry skin get dehydrated? 

While dry skin is a skin type, it is entirely possible for dry skin to be dehydrated. I know you’re probably thinking, yeah, duh. All too often, dry skin sufferers have heavy creams marketed to their skin type and shy away from things like acid exfoliation because they fear drying out their skin further. The problem with “dry skin” skincare is that it’s often thickened with silicones (like dimethicone), which don’t actually hydrate the skin at all.


How to treat dry skin 

“Treating dry skin is all about being on the proper skincare routine,” Griffin said. The first essential is exfoliation, as all those layers of dead skin building up on your skin can lead to dullness. Acid exfoliation is not about stripping and degreasing; the acids in skincare are actually humectants, meaning they hold moisture in the skin. So in addition to eating away at the dead skin cells, acids help our skin retain hydration. Griffin recommended starting slow with active ingredients, especially if you’re sensitive. If you’re new to acids in skincare, introduce them into your routine once a week and work up from there.

Obviously, you’ll want to add extra moisture wherever you can get it, likely through serums and moisturizers. “Treating dry skin could be as simple as adding a hyaluronic acid serum, like Skin Pharm’s Youth Serum, to boost hydration and help your daily moisturizer retain water in the skin,” Griffin said. 

How to treat dehydrated skin

Dehydration, however, requires a little more TLC to get it back on track. The good thing about dehydration is that it can be reversed, so don’t fret. The best thing to do is go simple with your routine and focus on replenishing and nourishing ingredients while your skin sorts itself out. 

“Since dehydrated skin stems from an impaired skin barrier, using a barrier repair moisturizer is a great place to start,” Griffin said.  She also recommended adding moisturizing and soothing ingredients to your routine, like hyaluronic acid and ceramides. “Keeping your skin protected from the sun is imperative when managing and preventing dry, irritated skin too.” 


What you apply topically to your skin is important, but we all know that is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to a healthy complexion. If you feel like you’re up against dehydrated skin, make sure you’re eating enough leafy greens and good fats and avoiding sugar when you can. Take in a bare minimum of two liters of water a day and try to keep your caffeine consumption in check. 

Consider buying a humidifier for your bedroom, especially if you heavily rely on central air conditioning and heating to manipulate the environment of your home or live in a dry climate. These steps will ensure that what you’re putting on your face is being well received and supported by your whole system.

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