Dry vs. Dehydrated Skin: What’s the Difference?

Woman applying hydrating face mask to treat dehydrated skin

The terms are often used interchangeably, but technically dry skin and dehydrated skin are not the same thing (and this has proved as fuel for countless Reddit threads): dry skin lacks oil, whereas dehydrated skin lacks water. The issues, however, are very much intertwined.

How dehydrated skin and dry skin differ

When our skin’s outermost layer — its barrier — isn’t working properly, it leads to symptoms we’d think of as dryness: itchy, flaky, and dull skin. But sometimes this dysfunction goes so far as to prevent our skin from effectively holding onto water, causing dehydration. Both issues can be tied to genetics (some people are simply prone to barrier imbalance), but they’re usually the result of external factors, says Mona Gohara, M.D., associate clinical professor of dermatology at Yale University. Think of the rough patches that arise from the dry air on a long flight. Dehydration is a little more extreme, however — and it’s typically self-imposed, says Gohara. “I’ve seen so many patients who just overdo with skincare products — over-exfoliating by scrubbing too hard, too frequently, which deteriorates the barrier and just leaves skin raw.”

The surprising side effect of dehydrated skin

Beyond typical dry skin symptoms, dehydrated skin is also oilier (and more breakout-prone). When your skin is strapped for water, it can’t produce it, says Gohara. “So, to overcompensate, the sebaceous glands go into overdrive.” When this happens, our natural inclination may be to strip away every drop of oil and slather on harsh treatments, but this only worsens breakouts and perpetuates the dehydration cycle. “Dumping a bunch of benzoyl peroxide on there essentially burns a hole through your barrier,” says Gohara.

How to fix both issues

Since dehydration and dryness are opposite sides of the same barrier-disrupted coin, the remedy is the same. First, stop whatever aggressive skin behavior landed you here to begin with (check out our best practices for exfoliation). Then, focus hydrating your skin and babying the barrier with gentle, restorative ingredients. Hyaluronic acid, says Gohara, makes for an excellent hydrator, and it works even better when layered with barrier-replenishing fatty acids, found naturally in plant seed oils like hemp seed and pumpkin seed. Undoubtedly, the best time to apply these ingredients is at night: “This is when you’re going to get the most bang for your buck in terms of hydration,” says Gohara. “Skin cells are naturally regenerating at this time, so hydrating ingredients will get more depth.” In addition: “It’s a controlled environment. It’s not like you’re putting on your moisturizer and then going outside into 30 mph winds, which could get in the way of the ingredients doing their job.” Other than that, make sure you’re treating your whole body well. Getting adequate sleep, keeping stress levels in check, and eating a nutrient-rich diet alone can’t fix your skin — but they sure do help.

Quench your skin’s thirst

Ideal for all skin types, but especially helpful for those suffering from any sort of dryness or dehydration — this mask acts as a stand-in for your skin barrier, holding in water and driving hydrators deeper thanks to ingredients like hyaluronic acid and mango seed butter, and eliminating the redness and irritation that often accompanies dry skin with calming Tasmanian pepper extract.

SHOP MOISTURE LOCK OVERNIGHT MASK

To solve the issue of both breakouts and dryness that happen with dehydration, look to linoleic acid — a fatty acid that not only helps rebuild the barrier but has also been shown to keep pores clear, preventing pimples; this oil is linoleic-rich thanks to a high concentration of hemp and pumpkin seed oils.

SHOP CLEAR PURE RADIANCE OIL

Like fatty acids, ceramides, found naturally within skin’s barrier, are incredibly healing — this serum is packed with them, plus bacteria-busting actives like olive leaf and black willow bark extract that help prevent breakouts.

SHOP CLEAR CELLULAR REPAIR SERUM

Exfoliate twice a week max, and stick with chemical formats — not physical scrubs, which can create micro-tears in the skin. This mask resurfaces dead skin cells in just two minutes (which allows hydrating ingredients to better penetrate) with plant-based lactic acid, the gentle giant of alpha hydroxy acids.

SHOP RESURFACING MOISTURE MASK