Note: I made a related video, with some updates!
What’s the difference between dry and dehydrated skin?
Now that winter is coming to Australia, be prepared for flaky skin that makes you feel prickly at night and itchy all day. But what sort of flaky skin do you have? Dry and dehydrated skin are similar conditions, but with different causes, and hence different treatments. Both:
- are worse in cold and dry weather
- can cause flaky skin
- can be treated with moisturisers and other skincare products
The big difference is:
Dry skin lacks oil
Dry skin is a skin type that appears in almost all skin typing systems, and it means that your skin doesn’t produce enough oil. It’s the opposite of oily skin.
How much oil your skin produces mostly depends on your genes, but can also be mildly affected by your diet and the weather. This means that, if you have dry skin, you’re likely to have dry skin for a long time, unless you make drastic, permanent changes to your diet. The same applies to oily skin. Skin does get drier as you age though! The best level of oiliness is somewhere in the middle, which is often called “normal skin”.
Dehydrated skin lacks water
Dehydrated skin is a temporary condition that can happen to anyone: dry and oily skin can both lose too much water and become dehydrated! Usually, dehydration is a result of a weakened skin barrier – that is, the top layers of your skin are having a hard time slowing down the evaporation of water (technically known as transepidermal water loss or TEWL). This can be caused by cold dry weather, overwashing, overexfoliating, and sun exposure.
Is my skin dry or dehydrated?
Firstly, you need to work out your skin type – is it oily or dry?
Signs of oily skin:
- large pores and blackheads, especially in the T-zone (forehead, nose and chin area)
- visible oil on skin (shiny) or greasy spots on pillowcase
- moisturisers often make the oil worse
- prone to acne and breakouts
- make-up slides off during the day
Signs of dry skin:
- prone to cracking, rough patches and visible flakes
- moisturiser sinks in easily
- no visible shiny oil on skin
- small pores
- make-up settles into fine lines or around skin flakes
If you’re not sure from the descriptions, you can also try testing for oil using skin blotting paper or a layer of tissue or serviette. A few hours after washing, press the tissue or paper on your nose. If it sticks to your skin or shows a large grease spot, your skin is likely to be oily. If it doesn’t stick and there’s no grease spot, your skin is likely to be dry.
Now – is your skin dehydrated? In general, dehydrated skin feels tight and inflexible, instead of soft and plump.
If your skin is oily but still feels tight and paradoxically dry, like there’s a pool of grease sitting on brittle plastic, then there’s a good chance your skin is dehydrated.
If your skin is dry, you’ll actually be more prone to skin dehydration than someone who produces a lot of oil, as the oil helps keep the skin moist.
How to treat dry or dehydrated skin
Now that you know whether your skin lacks oil (dry) or water (dehydrated) or both (dry AND dehydrated, lucky you!), here’s how to fix it! The answer is… to put oil and/or water back into your skin. (Pretty obvious, right?)
To fix dry skin, use products containing oil in your skincare routine. There are 2 types of oil ingredients in skincare:
- Emollients sink into skin, making it supple
- Occlusives seal in water
Both of these are suitable for dry skin. Products with a heavier texture will generally be suitable for dry skin. As well as moisturisers containing oil, you’ll also want to look into face and body cleansers that contain oil to replace any oil you wash away. These are often marketed as cream cleansers and cleansing milks.
To fix dehydrated skin:
- Use products containing humectant moisturiser ingredients. These are good at holding onto water, slowing down evaporation from your skin. Ingredients to look out for include glycerin, sorbitol, hyaluronic acid and urea.
- Apply your moisturiser while your skin is still damp from washing to seal in the moisture.
- Consider using an overnight mask – even something as simple as a thin layer of Vaseline over your usual night time skin products will help hydrate your skin overnight.
Things to avoid for both dry and dehydrated skin
- Exposure to the elements (sun, heat and wind)
- Long hot showers and strong cleansers and soaps which quickly strip away your skin’s natural oils and humectant moisturisers (the natural moisturising factor or NMF)
- Air conditioning which dries out skin
- Alcohol-containing toners which speed up water evaporation and wipe away oils
- Harsh physical exfoliants that leave your skin stripped and more permeable
- Overuse of drying active ingredients such as retinoids and benzoyl peroxide