The Difference Between Dry and Dehydrated Skin—and How to Treat Each

Updated: Mar. 30, 2020

Your skin might be dry from the harsh winter weather, but is it dehydrated, too? Here's what dermatologists want you to know

They’re the same, you might think—and yes, there are similarities between dry skin and dehydrated skin. But they’re different issues and dealing with each demand different approaches. To find a solution that works you’ll need to figure out which type of skin you have.

What’s the difference between dry and dehydrated skin?

Dry skin is a skin type, according to Ramya Kollipara, MD, board-certified dermatologist and fellowship-trained cosmetic dermatologic surgeon, Westlake Dermatology, Dallas, Texas. “In patients with a dry skin type, their skin has a decreased density of sebaceous glands, glands that make sebum or oil, compared to normal skin,” Dr. Kollipara says. Dehydrated skin is a lack of water in the skin, and any skin type—dry, oily, or combination—can experience this, she says. Since dehydrated skin lacks water and isn’t related to sebum or oil, you can have oily skin and still have dehydrated skin. The same is true for people with dry skin.

In general, dry and dehydrated skin go together, according to John Zampella, MD, assistant professor of dermatology at NYU Langone Health. “Replenishing the barrier fatty components of the skin help seal in moisture and water,” he says. Fats and cholesterol make up the barrier that helps seal off your skin and keep it intact. Under this barrier, your skin has big molecules of hyaluronic acid which help to retain water and moisture in the skin, according to Dr. Zampella. “Some moisturizer’s help to seal in the moisture that you already have,” he says. “Other types impart moisture by allowing the skin to retain water.”

What are the signs of dry skin vs. dehydrated skin

Dry skin is usually rough, flaky, and it can look red or irritated, too. People with dry facial skin typically have dry skin elsewhere on their hands, back, or legs, as well, Dr. Kollipara notes. Dehydrated skin is often tight and looks dull. You might also have dark circles under your eyes or have sagging skin, adds Raman Madan, MD, the director of cosmetic dermatology at Northwell Health and assistant clinical professor at Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra. If your skin is dehydrated, fine lines are more prominent, too. Keep an eye out for these other signs of dehydration.

There’s no official test for dry skin, but Dr. Madan says you can try using an oil blotting-pad. If nothing comes up, your skin is dry. If you think you think have dehydrated skin, however, you can do something called the pinch test. “You can pinch a small amount on your cheek or arm and hold it for a few seconds,” Dr. Madan says. “If it snaps back quickly you are not dehydrated; If it takes a little while to bounce back then you may be dehydrated.” Dr. Zampella isn’t a huge fan of the pinch test as it might not be the most accurate way to tell if your skin is dehydrated. “If you are so dehydrated that your skin is drying out, you likely have bigger problems going on,” he says. So skin is most likely not truly dehydrated unless you’re suffering from an extreme lack of water.

How to avoid and treat dehydrated skin

Hot weather, diet, certain medications, and following the wrong skincare routine all contribute to dehydrated skin, according to Dr. Madan. Make sure to avoid things like hot showers, excessive washing, and turning up the heater in the wintertime—all lead to moisture loss, according to Dr. Kollipara. These are just some of the everyday habits that are wrecking your skin.

Although it’s important to drink enough water for your overall health, a common misconception is that drinking water will increase skin hydration, according to Dr. Zampella. “That’s not really the case for most people,” Dr. Zampella says. “In fact, there are many studies showing that the amount of water you drink does not correlate to your skin hydration.” Most skin dehydration comes from external factors.

Both Dr. Kollipara and Dr. Madan, however, still recommend staying hydrated. “Everyone should be drinking at least eight glasses of water a day,” Dr. Kollipara says. Also, look for skincare products that contain water-attracting substances known as humectants, including hyaluronic acid, glycerin, and urea, all of which reduce water loss from your skin, Dr. Madan says. Hyaluronic acid is especially great for people with oily skin, per Dr. Zampella.

How to avoid and treat dry skin

If you’re dealing with dry skin, Dr. Kollipara and Dr. Madan recommend using thick moisturizing creams that contain ceramides and lipids to repair the skin’s natural barrier, decrease inflammation, and protect against environmental stresses. “Having a proper barrier allows the skin to retain moisture and not become dry,” Dr. Madan explains. Even thick products like petroleum help the barrier for dry skin, per Dr. Zampella. And instead of exfoliating treatments, you’ll want to opt for gentle cleansers that don’t strip the skin of natural oils, along with these other dry skin home remedies.

Bottom line: Using the right products is key

Everyone should use a moisturizer regardless of their skin type, according to Dr. Zampella. “If you have oily skin, you can still have flaky skin that can benefit from improvement in the barrier function of your skin,” he says. “Similarly, if your skin is dry or combination, you can improve the barrier of your skin as well.” If you think you’re dealing with either, or a combination of, dry or dehydrated skin, the important thing is to choose appropriate products, which is why you should how to find the best facial moisturizers for your skin type.