Here’s the deal: our skin needs to be both hydrated and moisturized in order to stay healthy and fight the signs of aging and environmental damage. But there’s a lot of confusion about the difference between the two terms and the best way to achieve the look we’re all after. [We’re talking about facial skin today — although many of the same principles apply to the rest of your skin, too.]
It’s no wonder we’re confused…beauty brands often use the terms, “hydrating” and “moisturizing” interchangably. And while hydrating and moisturizing products share the same goal: to help our skin get enough moisture — they accomplish this important task in different ways.
Come on in for a chat on how moisturizing and hydrating products work. There are also some tips on how to boost your skin’s hydration and moisture with simple practices that don’t involve applying more products.
Keep in mind…I’m not a dermatologist or an aesthetician, so this is a beginner’s guide. I’ve done a lot of basic research, but I’d love to hear from you if you have more expertise on this. Don’t be shy about leaving a comment!
First…What’s the Difference Between “Hydrating” and “Moisturizing?”
Our skin cells, like the rest of our body, need water in order to stay healthy. Hydrating products work to increase water in our skin cells. They do this primarily through humectants, which are ingredients that draw water from the air and from the deeper layers of our skin.
Moisturizing products, on the other hand, help to prevent water loss. In simple terms, they lock in the moisture captured by a hydrating product. Moisturizers rely on emollients and/or occlusives to do the job. We’ll talk more about those in a minute.
For now, it’s easy to see that hydrating our skin (drawing water to it) and then moisturizing it (locking that water in) can work together to protect our skin’s all-important lipid barrier and keep it healthy. [Learn more about your skin’s protective barrier here.]
Is Your Skin Dehydrated or Dry?
Now that we have a basic understanding of how hydrators and moisturizers work…how can you tell what your skin needs most?
Dehydrated skin (which is lacking water) is like a plump grape that has dried out: it becomes a wrinkly little raisin. It also tends to have a dull, thin, lifeless look — in part, because it doesn’t reflect light very well.
Dehydrated skin isn’t a skin type that you’re born with. It’s something that can happen to all of us from time to time — even if we have oily skin.
Just as an example — I notice that the furrow lines between my brows get much deeper when I’m dehydrated. If I drink more water, those deep lines almost disappear. It’s encouraging to know there’s an easy way to improve this!
Dehydrated skin is a temporary condition caused by external factors — like how much water you drink, the humidity in the air around you, the foods you eat and how much alcohol you consume, etc.
Dry skin, on the other hand, describes your skin type and is something you’re usually born with. It can occur to some extent in response to aging and a few external factors — but the main cause of dry skin is that you were born with skin that doesn’t produce enough oil (sebum).
If you suffer from dry skin, you’ll notice that it feels rough or tight; you may have flaking, redness and itchiness. In extreme cases, you could even have cracking and bleeding. Ouch!
TLDR: Dehydrated skin lacks water. Dry skin lacks oil.
How to Boost Your Skin’s Hydration
Now let’s look at a few simple ways to boost your skin’s hydration. These are good practices for everyone, regardless of skin type:
- Drink more water throughout the day.
- Use a humidifier if your indoor air is dry.
- Eat more foods, like fruits and vegetables, with a high water content.
- Watch your consumption of alcohol, since it can lead to dehydrated skin and increased wrinkles.
- Exfoliate with facial masks containing oats, honey or aloe, which are all natural humectants. [Check out these DIY facial masks.]
- Indulge in a facial steam (either at home or at the salon). [DIY facial steam recipes.]
- Protect your skin from UV rays.
- Use skincare products with humectants in them.
Tips for Choosing a Hydrating Product
Remember…humectants attract water (both from the air and the deeper layers of our skin) to help keep your top layer of skin hydrated. As mentioned — oats, honey and aloe are natural humectants — so any at-home or store-bought treatment with these ingredients is a good starting point.
If you’re looking for something more, choose a hydrating product with hyaluronic acid or glycerin in it. At the moment, hyaluronic acid seems to be the superstar ingredient everyone is reaching for! It’s listed as just that on the ingredient label, so it’s easy to find.
One caveat: Hydrating products are great in humid environments because they can pull a lot of moisture from the air. If you live in a dry climate with low humidity — you may want to limit your use of hydrators/humectants since they’re likely to pull too much moisture from the deeper layers of your skin.
How to Treat Dry Skin
Now on to a few simple ideas for improving dry skin. Most of these are common sense practices you’re probably already doing:
- Limit long, hot baths or showers. [Hot water can remove oils from your skin.]
- Use a humidifier in dry, indoor settings.
- Stay away from harsh soaps and cleansers that can strip the oils from your skin.
- Use mild soaps with added fats and oils. (Read more about my gentle natural soaps here.)
- Use a moisturizer formulated for your level of dryness.
- Apply moisturizer liberally and often and especially after your skin has been exposed to water.
Tips for Choosing a Moisturizer
It’s obvious that moisturizers are a necessary line of defense if you have dry skin. They contain emollients (which help to soften and soothe skin) and sometimes also contain occlusives — which do the heavier work of coating your skin with a thin oily film to seal in water.
The often-asked question is: do I need a moisturizer if I don’t have dry skin? Most dermatologists agree that nearly everyone should use a moisturizer. Even if you haven’t been genetically “gifted” with dry skin, you’re still facing environmental factors (wind, sun, indoor heating, air pollutants, aging, etc.) that can have a drying effect.
Here are a few tips for choosing a moisturizer based on your skin type:
If your skin is dry: You’re a candidate for a thick ointment-type moisturizer. If your skin is really dry, be sure to choose one with occlusives such as petroleum jelly (Vaseline), mineral oil, silicone, dimethicone, waxes and lanolin.
If your skin is normal: Lucky you! Your skin produces enough oil to keep its lipid barrier healthy. But, as mentioned, you’re still exposed to many external factors that can be drying. You should look for a cream moisturizer (not an ointment) that’s a balance of oil and water.
If your skin is oily: You may need to experiment with different products or talk to a dermatologist for recommendations, especially if you’re prone to breakouts. Generally, people with oily skin should choose a thinner lotion that’s mostly water-based and is non-comedogenic, i.e., doesn’t clog pores. You could also be a good candidate for a serum instead.
When it comes to moisturizers and skin types, the thickness of the product makes a difference! Moisturizers vary from thick ointments to creams to lotions. If your skin is very dry, choose an ointment-type product. On the other end of the spectrum, use a lighter, thinner lotion if your skin is oily.
Let’s Recap the Key Points Briefly
Our skin is a living organ that’s affected by many factors. Once you determine your basic skin type and its level of hydration — it’s easier to know which products and practices will help you achieve healthy, glowing skin.
In simple terms, most of us will benefit from applying a hydrator/humectant first, followed by a moisturizer with emollients and added occlusives, if your skin is really dry. There are products that combine both a hydrator and moisturizer in one — but you’ll need to do some research to see if a combination product contains the right moisturizer for you.
Which Products Are Right for You?
I can’t recommend specific products, but I’ve found thegoodfaceproject.com site helpful in narrowing my own search. They offer a broad range of prices and complete ingredient lists for each product. I can’t vouch for their cosmetics safety ratings, but the website is easy-to-use and informative. [This isn’t an affiliate link; just a resource.]
Have a Question on Serums? Skin serums are everywhere today and you may be wondering if they’re hydrators / moisturizers / neither / or both. The short answer, according to Dr. Abigail Waldman of Harvard Medical School, is that serums are highly-concentrated formulations designed to address specific skin issues. They are easily-absorbed, oil-or-water-based liquids intended to be used in very small amounts. Dr. Waldman recommends serums for anyone concerned with aging skin, since they may offer more benefits than sunscreens or simple moisturizers and hydrators.
I am not a licensed nutritionist, medical professional or cosmetics expert. The information provided on Honest + Simple is for general informational purposes only. The statements on this website have not been evaluated by the Food + Drug Administration and are not intended to treat, prevent or cure any disease. Before making decisions about your health or other concerns, please consult a qualified professional and do not rely on this website for medical advice.
Now I’d love to hear from you! Did you find this information helpful? Let me know if you’d like to see more on this topic. After researching the subject, I’m ready to make some simple changes in my own skincare routine. How about you?