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The 11 Best—and Worst—Ingredients to Use If You Have Dry Skin

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If your complexion is on the dry side, you know that cold weather can exacerbate the already uncomfortable condition. With winter settling in, it’s vital to be extra careful about the ingredients you’re putting on our skin as some can lock in moisture while others can further dehydrate it. We got the inside scoop from dermatologists on which ingredients you should seek out and which to avoid if you have dry skin.

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Use: Ceramides

You’ve probably seen ceramides listed on many of your moisturizing products, and that’s a good thing. “Ceramides are lipids that naturally occur in our skin to aid in moisture retention but often become depleted, resulting in dry, flaky skin,” explained Southlake, TX dermatologist Janine Hopkins, MD.

These lipids are an essential part of the upper-most part of the skin, which serves as the natural barrier and helps retain moisture, according to Campbell, CA dermatologist Amelia K. Hausauer, MD. “They seal the skin cells together like mortar between bricks so irritants are kept out and hydration in,” she added. Eagan, MN dermatologist Charles Crutchfield III, MD said if you have dry skin, you should stay away from any lotions that don’t contain ceramides or lipids.

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Use: Hyaluronic Acid

Products that contain the humectant hyaluronic acid boost hydration by “binding water in the skin,” said Dr. Hopkins. “Think of these products as giving your thirsty, dehydrated skin a big drink of water!” Dr. Hausauer noted that hyaluronic acid can bind up to 1,000 times its weight in water.

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Avoid: Retinoids

Dr. Hopkins suggested that if you have dry, sensitive skin, you may want to consider pausing your retinoid regimen for the winter to avoid side effects caused by increased sensitivity. Retinoids already run the risk of causing peeling, stinging and irritation during humid summers, so the ingredient is even riskier in the bitter winter.

“This is controversial because the right formulation and application technique can make retinoids tolerable to even those with sensitive or dry skin, but irritation is a well-known side effect as they bind to skin receptors,” said Dr. Hausauer. She suggested that if you want to use a retinol with dry skin, talk with your dermatologist first. “I often recommend a moisturizer sandwich: hydrating product, then retinoid, then hydrating product,” and starting slow with gentler products and small doses.

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Use: Niacinamide

According to Dr. Hopkins, niacinamide, or vitamin B3, is “a vital ingredient for skin health.” She explained that the nutrient cares for the health and appearance of your skin, which is crucial for those with dry skin.

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Use: Lactic Acid

Lactic acid exfoliates and acts as a humectant, making it perfect for those with dry skin. “Often dry skin is a function of over-stripped skin from too many harsh ingredients, so this is a way to help with dullness and dryness as well as hydration,” said Dr. Hausauer. “It’s the most hydrating of all acids.”

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Avoid: Harsher Acids

Some acids are beneficial, such as the ones listed above, but harsher acids can do damage to your dry skin, said Dr. Hausera. Acids like salicylic acid, which is great for acne-prone skin, can lead to more dryness on skin that’s already lacking in moisture.

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Use: Panthenol

Another form of vitamin B, this one provitamin B5, is both a humectant and emollient. “This means it binds and holds onto water in the skin (humectant) while leaving it more pliable, soft and supple (emollient),” explained Dr. Hausauer. Additionally, anti-inflammatory properties in this nutrient help activate cell turnover, which is great for wound healing and restoring the skin barrier, she added.

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Use: Fatty Acids and Fatty Alcohols

These ingredients work as emollients to help make your skin healthier and more pliable, says Dr. Hausauer. Fatty acids and fatty alcohols can be found in jojoba and avocado oils.

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Avoid: Denatured Alcohols

Different than fatty alcohols, Dr. Hausera pointed out, denatured alcohols dehydrate the skin by pulling water from within to break down the skin barrier. She added that they’re also irritating, especially for those with sensitive or rosacea-prone skin, so keep an eye out for these, mainly in cosmetics.

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Use: Urea

Dr. Hausauer noted that urea is commonly used by dermatologists but overlooked by consumers as a good humectant. Urea can be found in a variety of products, namely moisturizers and body lotions.

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Avoid: Benzoyl Peroxide

While it’s a “superstar” for acne, it’s also “notorious for causing itching, peeling, irritation,” said Dr. Hausauer. So if you have dry skin, stay away from benzoyl peroxide, commonly found in skin-clearing formulas.

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