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The Difference Between Hydrating and Moisturizing Your Skin

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The Difference Between Hydrating and Moisturizing Your Skin featured image
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Though they sound like the same thing, there’s a significant difference between hydrating and moisturizing your skin. Both share the goal of quenching parched areas, but how they achieve that goal varies. Depending on your skin type, you may prefer something more hydrating than moisturizing, or vice versa. However, all of the dermatologists I interviewed agreed that the best overall moisturizers offer both benefits.

Here, we take a closer look at the unique ingredients that fall in the hydrating category (humectants) and the moisturizing category (emollients and occlusives). We also share which skin types can benefit most from each category, and expert product picks. “Moisturizer is one of the most important products you can use in your skin-care regimen,” says New York dermatologist Marina Peredo, MD. “It not only helps keeps skin healthy, but also youthful. When skin is dry, it exacerbates signs of aging.”

Featured Experts:

  • Joel Schlessinger, MD, a board-certified dermatologist based in Omaha, NE
  • Marina Peredo, MD, a board-certified dermatologist based in New York
  • Amelia Hausauer, MD, a board-certified dermatologist based in San Francisco
  • Marianna Blyumin-Karasik, MD, a board-certified dermatologist based in Davie, FL

First, Is Your Skin Dry or Dehydrated?

“It’s important to first understand the difference between ‘dry’ skin and ‘dehydrated’ skin, because there is a difference,” says Omaha, NE dermatologist Joel Schlessinger, MD. “Dehydrated skin is a temporary state, where skin simply lacks water content. Dry skin is a condition, wherein skin makes an insufficient amount of lipids and oils to stay properly moisturized. Interestingly, skin can be dry and experience dehydration simultaneously.”

“If your skin is dehydrated, it is lacking water. If your skin is dry, it is lacking oil,” explains Dr. Peredo. “Hydration is the process of water absorption. Hydration equals water, and moisture equals oil.” To this point, Dr. Schlessinger adds that “dehydrated skin benefits from hydrating ingredients. These help boost the water content in the skin’s surface cells by pulling in moisture from either the air or deeper layers of skin. Dry skin, however, benefits from moisturizing ingredients. These form an occlusive barrier on dry skin, helping it to hold onto more of its own natural oils and moisture.”

If You Need Hydration, Here’s What to Look For

To hydrate your skin, Dr. Peredo suggests looking for products with ingredients known as humectants. These ingredients help collect moisture in the environment (air) and bind it to the skin. This allows the skin cells to absorb the water and stay hydrated. “Hyaluronic acid is a great hydrator,” she says, explaining that it holds 1,000 times its weight in water. “Other examples of humectants are aloe vera, glycerin, urea and propylene glycol.” Dr. Schlessinger notes that honey and some forms of marine extracts/algaes also have humectant properties.

San Francisco dermatologist Amelia Hausauer, MD adds that not all humectants work the same way. “Some supply moisture, like glycerin, sorbitol, aloe vera, honey, and hyaluronic acid. Others, such as lactic acid and urea, help shed dead skin cells first and then help even out moisture levels.

Because humectants are typically lighter-weight, Davie, FL dermatologist Marianna Blyumin-Karasik, MD says they are usually found in gels, serums and lotions. “These hydrating products are great if you have dehydrated, oily or combination skin. In these cases, it’s ideal to use hydrators with lighter, water-replenishing ingredients. If you have dry skin, look for products that combine hydrating humectants with moisturizing emollients and occlusives.” More on this below.

Hydrating Products to Try

1 / 3

goop Beauty 72-Hour Hydrating Supercharged Water-Cream ($68)

This new water-based cream from Gwyneth Paltrow’s goop Beauty sinks into the skin and hydrates it from the inside out for a plump, satin-matte finish without an oily feeling. If you have oily skin, it helps keep shine under control and minimizes the appearance of large pores. 

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2 / 3

Neutrogena Hydro Boost Water Gel with Hyaluronic Acid for Dry Skin ($28)

Dr. Karasik says this is one of her favorite hydrating skin-care products to recommend to patients. The formula is oil-free and chock-full of hyaluronic acid, making it a great pick for those with oily skin who need hydration.

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3 / 3

Glow Recipe Watermelon Glow Pink Juice Oil-Free Refillable Moisturizer ($40)

Another recommendation from Dr. Karasik, this moisturizer is oil-free and has the added bonus of being refillable (refills are $34). Watermelon is the key ingredient and offers hydrating and soothing benefits, and hyaluronic acid adds another dose of hydration. Plus, the yummy watermelon scent is 100-percent naturally derived—no synthetics!

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If You Need Moisturization, Here’s What to Look For

On the other hand, moisturizing skin-care ingredients come from two categories: emollients and occlusives. “These ingredients form a seal on the skin to keep water content inside your cells from escaping,” says Dr. Peredo. “Examples of these types of moisturizers include coconut oil, almond oil, shea butter, cocoa butter and jojoba oil. But if you have acne-prone skin, some of these plant-based oils, like coconut oil, are comedogenic and may clog pores.”

Dr. Schlessinger describes emollients as moisturizing agents that soften and smooth by filling in the cracks between dead skin cells. “These cracks are signs of a damaged skin barrier,” he explains. “For this reason, emollients are particularly good for irritated, sensitive, inflamed, or reactive skin. But, all skin types can use them.” Ceramides, squalane and dimethicone are also emollients, Dr. Karasik adds.

“Occlusive ingredients are great for those with dry skin because they create a physical barrier on the skin to keep water inside it,” says Dr. Karasik. “Common occlusives include mineral oil, lanolin, castor oil, beeswax, olive oil, and certain silicones.” Dr. Hausauer adds that these ingredients are much heavier than humectants, and are commonly found in balms and ointments. Because they form a seal on the skin, occlusives should always be the last step in a skin-care routine. They are also recommended after certain in-office treatments, or when the skin barrier is fragile.”

Moisturizing Products to Try

4 / 6

CeraVe Moisturizing Cream ($17)

Developed with dermatologists, this cult-classic moisturizer can be used on both the face and body. Not only does it provide 24-hour hydration with hyaluronic acid, but it’s also deeply moisturizing thanks to three essential ceramides. It’s great for all skin types, but Dr. Peredo says that because it’s fragrance-free and accepted by the National Eczema Association, it’s often recommended for those with sensitivities.

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5 / 6

Amethyst Skincare Daily Nutrition Facial Treatment Oil ($68)

Dr. Karasik likes this lightweight face oil, which targets dryness and dehydration. It’s also great for those with sensitive skin. You can wear it at night to help repair damage done by environmental aggressors like pollution, and also internal aggressors like stress. Or, you can wear it during the day to help combat free-radical damage and create a barrier to prevent water loss.

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6 / 6

Vanicream Moisturizing Lotion ($19)

Another derm-favorite that tops Dr. Karasik’s list of recommendations for patients with sensitive skin, this fragrance-free lotion has the National Eczema Association Seal of Approval. It contains petrolatum, which is an occlusive ingredient that helps trap water in the skin and enhance moisturization.

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