What’s the difference between dry and dehydrated skin? A dermatologist weighs in

If a bouncy, hydrated, and youthful glow is the goal, why do so many of us suffer from dull, flaky, and downright dry complexions? When it comes to skin care, knowledge is power and knowing your skin type is key to achieving those sought-after results. So with mysterious dry patches or consistent flaking, you could be wondering: Do I have dry skin or is it just straight-up dehydrated?

Turns out, there are major differences between the two, and knowing which kind of skin you have could be the key to nourishing it the right way. We talked to a dermatologist who broke down the difference between dry skin and dehydrated skin because the more you know, the more you glow.

What’s the difference between dry and dehydrated skin?

Though the words “dry” and “dehydrated” are often used interchangeably, the two actually indicate very different underlying issues when it comes to your skin. While dry skin lacks oil (also known as sebum), dehydrated skin lacks water. To put it simply, Fran Cook-Bolden, M.D., FAAD, a board-certified dermatologist tells us: “Dehydration is a skin condition that can happen to anyone, and dry skin is a specific skin type that you’re likely born with.”

What is dry skin?

Dry skin is often categorized by being rough, cracked, itchy, and flaky, and not just on your face but your hands, scalp, and legs, too. Dr. Cook-Bolden explains that people with dry skin are usually genetically predisposed to it, meaning their bodies produce less moisture in the form of sebum and that oil-based moisture needs to be replenished thoughtfully.

How to treat dry skin:

“Dry skin needs balance,” explains Dr. Cook-Bolden.

According to her, those with this skin type shouldn’t try too many skincare products at once or change their routine suddenly, since this can easily throw off the skin’s natural barrier and strip it of its natural oil balance. Instead, treating dry skin can start with a gentle cleansing oil or cleansing balm (Dr. Cook-Bolden says to avoid harsh face washes if you can), anti-oxidants, and hyaluronic acid serum. Adding a humidifier to your home might help, too.


Shop it Available at Dermstore

And when it comes to exfoliating, people with dry skin should stick to using physical exfoliants—like a gentle facial cleansing brush or naturally textured product—instead of chemical ones like AHA or BHA. The goal with dry skin is to get rid of rough, flaky spots by adding oils back to the skin. Remember, oil-based cleansers, creams, and face mists are your friends.

What is dehydrated skin?

Like a desert, dehydrated skin has been depleted of water. And while typically dehydrated skin is characterized by tightness, dullness, and fine lines, don’t write off dehydration if your skin is oily or acne-prone.

Our expert explains that dehydrated skin often makes up for missing water by producing more oil, which can lead to combination skin that shows signs of being both dry (rough patches), and oily (a greasy T-zone).

“One easy way to test if your skin is dehydrated is to gently pinch the skin and note if it wrinkles easily or forms a tent,” says Dr. Cook-Bolden. “If it does not resist and is slow to return to normal, then your skin (and probably your body) is likely desperately in need of water.”

How to treat dehydrated skin:

Our skin is indeed a living organism, but it’s the last organ in our bodies to receive the nutrients we consume, so drinking a glass of water (or 10) is not enough to replenish dehydrated skin on its own. Of course, you should still be striving to drink the recommended 2.7 liters (or 0.7 gallons) of water a day to stay hydrated on the whole, but adding hydrating products to your skin care regimen will improve your skin’s elasticity and bounce.


Shop it Available at Sephora

Dr. Cook-Bolden recommends a skin mist (like this Youth to the Peoplesoothing and hydrating mist, a 2020 Beauty Crush Award winner)  followed by a protective, light humectant and of course, a hyaluronic acid serum, which can hold up to 1000 times its weight in water. These products help draw and retain water to the skin’s surface, allowing for a dewy, radiant glow.