Dehydrated vs. Dry Skin: Yes They're Different; Here's What You Need To Know

mbg Editorial Assistant By Jamie Schneider
mbg Editorial Assistant
Jamie Schneider is the Editorial Assistant at mindbodygreen with a B.A. in Organizational Studies and English from the University of Michigan. She's previously written for Coveteur, The Chill Times, and Wyld Skincare.
Moisturizer on Water Background

A particular point of confusion when it comes to beauty is the issue of skin type. While most products are marketed toward a specific complexion (be it normal, oily, dry, or combination skin), it can be difficult to know your natural complexion—your skin's extra-oily appearance could simply be reacting to a too-heavy cream, for example.

To add to your growing vocab list, there's another slight nuance you should be mindful of: "dry" versus "dehydrated" skin. The two might sound similar, but they actually have different symptoms and require totally different treatments. Here, we break down the binary (with the help of our favorite experts, of course).

What is dehydrated skin?

To put it simply, if your skin is dehydrated, it lacks water. Just as an ice-cold glass of water can provide relief for a scratchy throat, consider your skin similarly parched. It's important to know that dehydrated skin isn't necessarily a skin type but a skin condition, meaning it's a state that isn't fixed. You should also know that this skin condition can happen to anyone.

"Dehydrated skin may look dull, lack radiance, and may appear ashy if you have darker skin tones," board-certified dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, M.D., says. Marmur agrees, as she adds that individuals with dehydrated skin may experience darker under-eye circles and a tired appearance. 

"People with oily or combination skin can still experience dehydration," board-certified dermatologist and founder of MMSkincare, Ellen Marmur, M.D., adds. Actually, if you have a naturally oily or combination complexion, the flakes you're noticing are probably due to a lack of hydration (water), not a lack of oil (moisture).     

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How should you treat dehydrated skin?

If your skin lacks water, the best thing you can do is, you know, add more water. Zeichner recommends looking for humectant-rich products (such as formulas with hyaluronic acid or glycerin) to hydrate parched skin cells. "Humectants act like sponges. They bind to 1,000 times their weight in water to attract hydration to the outer skin layer," he explains.  

So, if you're trying to combat dehydrated skin, make a hydrating serum your go-to product in your skin care routine. Just be sure to seal in the hydration with an occlusive moisturizer or oil. Water evaporates into the air, which can leave your skin even more dehydrated

What is dry skin?

The best way to describe dry skin is to characterize it as a skin type rather than a skin condition. If you have truly dry skin, your skin lacks oil content and most likely has a tight, rough exterior. "Dry skin lacks actual oil on the skin. It lacks sebum, which gives skin that youthful luster," Linda Thompson, founder of Olie biologique explains, which is why this skin type is typically seen in older individuals (and why their skin woes might usually consist of scaliness and fine lines rather than a bout of inflamed breakouts).  

Some people are also genetically predisposed to the skin type. "There actually is data suggesting that people with dry skin may have defective proteins in the outer skin layer," Zeichner says. It makes sense, as dry skin is usually one of the markers of chronic skin conditions like eczema.  

This complexion takes on a more flaky appearance due to the lack of oil and lipids. "Dry skin includes flaking or scaling of skin, roughness, and often itchiness. In fact, dry skin is one of the most common causes of itchy skin," board-certified dermatologist Jaimie Glick, M.D., adds. This flakiness and itchiness can result in a rash in some severe cases, which is why individuals with dry skin may have an increased incidence of psoriasis, eczema, or dermatitis. Some other less severe signs include fine lines or cracks, redness, and scaling or peeling, according to Marmur.

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How should you treat dry skin?

That said, if your skin lacks oil, the next step is to apply oil-based products. "Oils are the perfect solution for dry skin. They're anhydrous (meaning they carry zero water), and they penetrate and moisturize the skin," Thompson says. According to Zeichner, you also want to use products that form a protective but breathable seal over the skin to lock in moisture.

Here's the bottom line.

Dehydrated skin lacks water, while dry skin lacks oil. That said, if you're experiencing some run-of-the-mill "dryness" this winter, you'll want to look for products that are hydrating rather than just moisturizing. On the other hand, locking in moisture and preventing fine lines as we age is key—and that's where oils and other occlusives come in. So the next time you note how "dry" your skin is in the winter, you might want to take a closer look at your skin type and symptoms—your skin might just be, shall we say, thirsty.

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