Is Your Skin Dry or Dehydrated? Here’s How to Tell the Difference

Is Your Skin Dry or Dehydrated? Here’s How to Tell the Difference featured image
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When seasons change from warm to freezing, parched skin immediately enters the chat like clockwork. Symptoms like flaking, peeling and roughness are all on our list of things to look out for around this time, but doctors say that just because we’re seeing some of the the tell-tale signs of skin dryness doesn’t mean that’s actually what we’re experiencing. Ahead, top dermatologists break down the differences between dry vs. dehydrated skin, how to tell the difference between the two, and what we can do to cure them both.

Featured Experts

  • Tina Alster, MD is a board-certified dermatologist based in Washington, D.C.
  • Ava Shamban, MD is a board-certified dermatologist based in Santa Monica, CA
  • Daniel Schlessinger, MD is a board-certified dermatologist based in Omaha, NE
  • Fredric Haberman, MD is a board-certified dermatologist based in Saddle Brook, NJ
  • Heidi Waldorf, MD is a board-certified dermatologist based in Nanuet, NY

Why Is My Skin So Dry?

Most of us are going to experience dry skin at some point in our lives, be it a result of temporary conditions or a change in our skin type. In the struggle to calm, moisturize and cure dry skin, knowing exactly what you’re dealing with can help you find the best treatment.

“Dry and dehydrated are terms that might seem synonymous, but they really have very different meanings when it comes to the skin,” explains Omaha, NE dermatologist Daniel Schlessinger, MD. “And they can overlap.”

Dry Skin vs. Dehydrated Skin

According to Santa Monica, CA dermatologist Ava Shamban, MD, dry skin is actually a skin type and dehydration is a skin condition. “If you have dry skin, the amount of sebum or oil produced is much less than normal and you are deficient in the natural lipids needed to lubricate, retain moisture and support a strong skin barrier.” Dr. Shamban continues by painting a picture of a brick wall: “Our skin barrier is like a brick wall, the bricks being composed of epidermal cells and the mortar being composed of various types of lipids. If the lipids are compromised or the bricks are shrunken, the skin will dry, crack, peel and flake.”

On the other hand, Saddle Brook, NJ dermatologist Fredric Haberman, MD says unlike dry skin, dehydrated skin has a lack of water, not oil. “Your complexion can be oily, but you can still have dehydrated skin,” he explains.

“The source of dehydrated skin is quite literally a lack of water inside the cells and in the intracellular space, and can show itself when we are lacking water in our diet or when our skin is not absorbing moisture properly,” adds Dr. Shamban.

What Causes Dehydrated Skin?

“When our skin is dehydrated, it is most often due to climate, air conditioning and heating systems, altitude, lack of proper skin care, or excessive caffeine,” says Dr. Shamban. “Dry skin is also exacerbated by climate, but age, hormones and cumulative sun damage are also culprits.”

You can understand dehydrated skin as the temporary condition where your skin lacks moisture. So anything that’s directly impacting the water content in your skin will cause that dehydration to take place.

“Dehydrated skin is very common in people with skin barrier breakdown,” explains Dr. Schlessinger. “The lack of barrier allows the outside environment into your skin, which leads to inflammation.”

What Causes Dry Skin?

Washington, D.C. dermatologist Tina Alster, MD adds that dry skin is often a genetic predisposition. “A lot of the time, people with dry skin notice that their family members are similarly affected,” she says.

Dry skin is one of the major skin types, and it’s not a status that is likely to change.

How to Spot the Difference

When it comes to how dry skin vs. dehydrated skin looks, you may notice flaky patches and cracks that may present with inflammation.

“To determine if skin is dehydrated, a simple pinch test is all that’s needed,” says Dr. Alster, who offers step-by-step instructions on how to perform the test. “Pinch a small area of skin on the back of your hand, hold for three seconds, and release. If the skin immediately snaps back into position, you are probably not dehydrated, only dry. If it takes a few seconds for the skin to return to its original position, dehydration may be the culprit.” Dr. Haberman adds that this test can also be performed on other parts of the body like the abdomen, cheek or chest.

How to Treat Each

To avoid dry skin from the get-go, Nanuet, NY dermatologist Heidi Waldorf, MD offers two essential tips: “Avoid over-washing and always moisturize after cleansing, even on days when you don’t wash. Over-washing includes washing too often or washing with cleansers that strip the skin’s natural moisturizing factors and lipids that make up the skin barrier.”

To treat dehydrated skin, Dr. Alster likes “a lighter moisturizer that contains hyaluronic acid because it serves as a humectant that helps to bind water and retain moisture.”

However, Dr. Haberman says that eating hydrating foods—cucumbers, cabbage, strawberries, tomatoes and zucchini are filled with water—and drinking plenty of water can help cure dehydrated skin from the inside-out.

Products for Dry Skin

1 / 3

iS CLINICAL Reparative Moisture Emulsion ($105)

This moisturizer is powered by hyaluronic acid for a deeply nourishing experience that leaves skin soft. Erase the signs of dry skin with the restoring formula that balances botanicals, peptides and antioxidants to keep skin bouncy and hydrated.

Perfect for a pre-makeup moisturizer and for chronic dry skin, this lightweight emulsion also works to reduce fine lines and wrinkles.



2 / 3

CeraVe Moisturizing Cream ($17)

Developed with dermatologists, this formula provides 24-hours of hydration and works to restore your skin barrier. Perfect for people with dry skin, this moisturizer is powerful enough for the body but sensitive enough for the face.

The formula is non-greasy and fast-absorbing for a deep drink for dry skin.



3 / 3

Dermalogica Intensive Moisture Balance ($48)

Perfect for dry, depleted skin, this moisturizer is focused on restoring the skin’s microbiome to keep hydration locked in. Powered by a bioreplenish complex and hyaluronic acid, this dermatologist favorite has over 3,000 reviews on Amazon and packs a serious punch of moisture for dry skin.


Products for Dehydrated Skin

4 / 6

Peter Thomas Roth Water Drench Hyaluronic Glow Serum ($72)

A super-powerful 75 percent hyaluronic acid complex works to deliver high-intensity moisture to dehydrated skin for a quick rejuvenating drink. Make skin glow instantly with 3 percent HydraFence, a breakthrough ingredient that provides up to 120 hours of improved hydration.



5 / 6

FixMySkin 1% Hydrocortisone Healing Lip Balm ($14)

Ideal for broken skin and dehydrated lips, this medicated balm is backed by hydrocortisone to help repair the skin barrier.



6 / 6

Drunk Elephant B-Hydra Intensive Hydration Serum ($49)

This light water-based gel was designed to provide the critical water and oil that dehydrated and dry skin need to flourish. Powered by pro-vitamin B5 and sodium hyaluronate, this formula draws water in and locks it in to immediately improve skin quality and texture.



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