How to hydrate skin like a pro, according to dermatologists

The tricks experts use to soothe dry and dehydrated skin.

Harper's Bazaar India

No matter what skin type you have, you’ve probably experienced the feeling of stripped, tight, or scaly skin—the likely culprit being dehydration. There are countless reasons you might be experiencing dehydrated skin, from the harsh effects of cold weather to difficulties adjusting to a new skincare regimen.

Dehydrated skin is more common than you think, and a skin concern dermatologists see just as often as dry skin. (The two are not synonymous, as you’ll see.) But whether your skin is dry or dehydrated, there are simple changes you can make to your skincare routine and lifestyle to boost its hydration levels. Not quite as simple as just slapping on a rich cream, though.

So, what do dermatologists do when their skin is feeling dry? We tapped experts to share the ways to hydrate skin like a pro, both with moisturising topical solutions and everyday habits.

Is your skin dry or dehydrated?
Before adding a slew of new products to your shopping cart, it’s important to determine whether your skin is dry or dehydrated. While the terms are often used interchangeably, they are different conditions. “Dry skin is a genetic skin type that is naturally occurring—different from dehydrated skin, which is caused by external factors,” Jeannette Graf, a dermatologist and assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, tells Bazaar. These external factors can include anything from excessive exfoliation to setting the heat in your apartment too high.

As for the differences in what to look for, “dry skin doesn’t always appear unhealthy,” Graf explains. “It’s simply a skin type that lacks oil production, so that the skin may be more matte and dull and, at times, flaky. Similarly, dehydrated skin can also be dull and flaky, but it is different because it results from a compromised skin barrier, which causes skin to be red and irritated. The texture of dehydrated skin is usually rough, and it may feel tight.”

Choose your ingredients wisely
When shopping for skincare products, focus on ingredients that align with your specific skin needs. If you’re dealing with dehydrated skin, hyaluronic acid and glycerin (otherwise known as humectants) should become integral components of your routine. Humectants help attract moisture to the skin, making them particularly ideal for dehydrated skin, because they help restore your skin’s water content.

Ceramides are another dry-skin saviour ingredient. These are lipids that help soften the skin’s texture and help repair your skin barrier, which prevents moisture from escaping and irritants from harming your skin. Often, ceramides are paired with squalane, an emollient that mimics your skin’s natural oil production to keep the skin hydrated and nourish its moisture barrier—or with other emollients, such as shea butter, lanolin, or petrolatum.

Be mindful of harsh ingredients
Common culprits for moisture loss include exposure to cold or hot weather (this includes blasting the air-conditioning during the summer or the heat during the winter), and frequent bathing or swimming, says Mona A. Gohara, associate clinical professor of dermatology at the Yale School of Medicine. Another thing to consider is that underlying skin conditions can contribute to dry skin. Consulting a dermatologist for a diagnosis is best if you’re unsure of the cause of chronic dryness. Karan Lal, a dermatologist in Scottsdale, Arizona, cites eczema as one of the skin conditions that leads most frequently to dehydration and dryness, noting that flaky, itchy skin is a telltale sign of the condition.

Use potent ingredients cautiously
Retinoids and exfoliating acids, like glycolic acid, can be transformational for the skin, but they can also cause irritation and thus “potentially compromise the skin barrier, which can ultimately contribute to dehydration,” says Whitney Bowe, a dermatologist in New York City and the founder of Dr. Whitney Bowe Beauty. She warns against using too high of a concentration of acids or retinoids, or using powerful ingredients too frequently. “Even aggressive cleansing routines can ultimately disrupt the skin barrier and dehydrate the skin if the cleansers are too aggressive for sensitive skin, or if hydrating or moisturising products do not follow the cleansing ritual,” she cautions. Rest assured, we outline a hydrating routine for you, below.

Stick to a routine
Consistency is key when it comes to hydrating your skin. Gohara recommends a simple morning and evening routine to reap results. In the morning, start by rinsing your face with a gentle cleanser. Gohara suggests using one free of irritating ingredients like alcohol, fragrances, and exfoliants. Scan the ingredient list for hydrating ingredients like hyaluronic acid, glycerin, ceramides, and fatty oils.

Next, consider adding a hydrating serum to your routine, particularly one containing hyaluronic acid or ceramides. Alternatively, if you’re worried about dark spots or hyperpigmentation, Gohara suggests using a vitamin C serum with hydrating ingredients.

Following your serum, it is time to seal in the hydration with a moisturiser. Look for a product containing hyaluronic acid and glycerin to ensure thorough hydration. Gohara notes that these ingredients are gentle and typically found in comfortable, lightweight formulas. Wrap up your morning routine with your go-to sunscreen of at least SPF 30. If it’s been some time since you’ve prioritised sunscreen, you’ll be pleased to discover many modern formulations feel as comfortable as a regular moisturiser.

In the evening, remove your makeup with micellar water or cleansing oil. (Gohara recommends the former if you have sensitive skin or are acne-prone, as oil formulations may be “too harsh” or “clog pores.”) Double-cleanse for a thorough cleaning with a water-based cleanser, such as the La Roche-Posay Toleriane Hydrating Gentle Face Cleanser recommended earlier. You can then consider incorporating an optional treatment step. Once your skin feels less dry or dehydrated and more balanced, Gohara suggests adding a retinol treatment enriched with hydrating ingredients.

Just as in your morning routine, wrap it up with a moisturiser. While the moisturiser you use in the morning will suffice, Gohara urges you to opt for a thicker one at night. Thicker moisturisers tend to contain a higher concentration of emollients and occlusives, which can provide extra nourishment to your skin while you’re asleep.

“Eat” your water
One small but effective method of hydrating your skin is making minor adjustments to your diet. “A portion of our water intake comes from our food,” explains Bowe. “The fluid is trapped inside the food’s cells and slowly released during the digestive process for a steady source of hydration.” She recommends fiber-rich veggies such as spinach, berries, melons, and bell peppers. “This approach will help boost your water intake and keep your gut microbiome healthy and diverse, which benefits your skin’s health.”

Drink your water, too
“Drinking water alone doesn’t work hard enough for our skin,” says Bowe. In a 2018 study that looked at the effect of drinking water on skin hydration, it was found that “adequate water intake can increase both superficial (in the uppermost layer, the stratum corneum) and deep skin hydration, particularly in individuals with lower prior water consumption,” Bowe explains. Likewise, she adds, the studies observed that “clinical signs of dryness and roughness were improved, and even skin elasticity increased slightly with added water consumption.”

This analysis should be taken with a grain of salt, though. Bowe acknowledges that the reviewed studies don’t constitute “large, powerful, placebo-controlled clinical studies.” As shown in the report, “drinking more water didn’t seem to improve something called transepidermal water loss, which is an important measure of skin barrier function.” Nonetheless, sticking to the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s fluid intake recommendations—2.7 liters daily for women and 3.7 liters for men—could still offer skin benefits when combined with the right regimen and hydrating products.

Feature Image credits: CAVAN IMAGES//GETTY IMAGES

This article originally appeared in in march 2024

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