Is Your Skin Dry Or Are You Just Dehydrated? Here’s How To Spot The Difference

By Ashleigh Cometti
Skincare experts share their tips on how to quench thirsty skin. Photo / Guy Coombes

Dust off your hairbrush, clean up your brushes and crack open that special lipstick — it’s Viva Beauty Week. Consider this your definitive guide to a plump, dewy complexion post-summer.

There’s an ongoing joke in the Viva office about the state of our skin.

We have a few adjectives

It’s slang for something dried-up or worthless, and while we’re just teasing, it often seems the best word to describe the dusty, dehydrated sense we get from spending day in and day out sitting under an air conditioning unit.

But it’s not just air conditioning that’s to blame for feeling flaky, and it’s common to notice the effects of dryness or dehydration in the wake of a summer spent outdoors.

“During summer your skin has a greater exposure to UV, which can weaken skin cell bonds making the skin barrier more permeable, with an increased loss of moisture,” says Selina Mithen, product innovation lead at Advanced Skin Technology. “UV can also trigger inflammation within the skin, causing moisture loss and barrier disruption.”

But how is one meant to know the difference between dryness and dehydration? Are they one and the same? Or should we be treating each one differently?

To explain, we spoke to two skincare experts for their tips on how to quench thirsty skin. Soak up all their knowledge, below.

Why is hydration so important?

When it comes to skin, “hydration” means maintaining a level of moisture in the skin to ensure it functions properly, Selina says. It’s cyclic, too, the better the skin functions (or the stronger the skin barrier), the less water loss occurs, and so it continues.

To better explain this process, Selina adds: “The skin needs available water to be able to process lipids to make up the skin barrier, to activate enzymes necessary for dissolving bonds that hold dead cells together, and to support the natural cell turnover process, which keeps our skin looking healthy and vibrant.”

According to Elizabeth Barbalich, founder and CEO of Antipodes, skin that’s well-hydrated indicates a healthy skin microbiome (or the millions of bacteria that live on the surface of our skin) and appears clear and blemish-free, without signs of redness, inflammation or irritation.

Dry versus dehydrated skin

Regardless of your skin type or tone, everyone is at risk of dehydration. Put simply, dehydration means low water content of the skin — it’s a state your skin is that’s fixable, rather than a skin condition that isn’t.

Before those of us with oily complexions start feeling smug, no one is immune from a dehydrated complexion. In fact, those with oily skin types may need even more hydration because many acne treatments contain ingredients like benzoyl peroxide which can further dehydrate skin.

“Don’t make the mistake of thinking oily skin types do not need moisturising,” Selina warns. “Moisture in the skin is referring to water content and oily skin types can become dehydrated, especially if using astringents or lipid-stripping cleansers.”

“Dry” is the term used to describe skin types that produce less sebum than a normal skin type, and as a result lacks the amount of lipids needed to hold moisture and protect against environmental aggressors. The result? An impaired skin barrier function.

How to treat dryness and dehydration

Feeling parched? Prioritising constant hydration will keep both dryness and dehydration at bay.

Look out for products that defend against trans-epidermal water loss, which can even further exacerbate your Sahara-level dryness. A little bit of water loss is normal, as water evaporates through the living layers of the epidermis, but excessive water loss is what you’re aiming to avoid.

Skin-soothing products that aim to replenish the skin’s natural lipid barrier are your best bet, including emollients to soften skin, humectants to attract and bind moisture, ceramides to support skin function, and occlusives, which seal in moisture.

Still unsure if you’re faced with dehydration or a dry skin type? The good news is the treatment for both is very similar — with a flurry of topical treatments geared towards replenishing moisture levels and restoring a healthy skin barrier.

Moisturise often

At the risk of sounding obvious, dry and dehydrated skin can benefit most from regular moisturising — which looks like polishing off your twice-daily skincare routine with a moisturiser which contains emollients, humectants and ceramides.

Of course, there’s the gold standard humectant hyaluronic acid, which Selina says comes in various molecular weights to achieve hydration at multiple levels.

“High molecular weight supports the skin structure and function at the dermal level, whereas high molecular weight hyaluronic acid creates a protective mesh on the skin surface keeping it supple and moist,” she says.

Glycerin, panthenol, polysaccharides (plant-based sugars) and niacinamide are also top of Selina’s list for optimum hydration, due to their ability to boost ceramide synthesis, which in turn strengthens the skin barrier.

Try Aspect Sheer Hydration Moisturiser, $99, an excellent option for dehydrated oily skin types, that supports the skin’s moisture levels while addressing the appearance of enlarged pores and blemishes, or Aesop B Triple C Facial Balancing Gel, $185, a lightweight hydrator that delivers vitamins B and C to balance skin.

Incorporate serums

After cleansing but before moisturising, smoothing on a hydrating serum is a targeted way to restore moisture deep within the layers of the skin.

The newest product to be added to Antipodes’ range of natural, New Zealand-made skincare claims to do just that, with Elizabeth spending 14 months nailing the formula. The new Maya Hyaluronic 72-Hour Hydration Serum, $56, highlights hyaluronic acid alongside a suite of ingredients that act like a magnet to draw water not only into the epidermal layer, but skin cells, too.

“Hyaluronic acid is a trending ingredient, and when we were looking to create something, we wanted to use a completely natural alternative to synthetics,” Elizabeth says, adding the plant-based hyaluronic acid used here is sourced from fermented soil.

Elizabeth recommends natural serum-based formulations that harness the humectant properties of mānuka honey. She’s familiar with the ingredient after blending it into countless Antipodes skincare products for its ability to hold moisture in the skin for long periods.

“New Zealand is home to ingredients with amazing health-giving properties which can mimic the skin benefits of synthetic molecules made in a lab. It’s really impressive what we’ve got right in our backyard,” she says.

Try Wild Ferns Manuka Honey Radiance Renewal Facial Serum, $35, which sees mānuka honey combine with antioxidants and plant-based oils to rejuvenate skin.

Exfoliate regularly

An essential step for both dry and dehydrated skin alike, exfoliating once a week can help rid skin of the dead skin cells sitting on the skin’s surface, impacting its ability to absorb all the goodness from your topical skincare.

Exfoliating more often than this can do more harm than good (and serve to dry your skin out even further), so pick one evening per week to get sloughing.

There are two formats to select from: chemical exfoliants formulated with hydroxy acids or enzymes, or physical exfoliants which look to granular particles to dislodge layers of dead skin cells.

Selina recommends chemical exfoliants to dissolve the bonds that hold dead skin cells together, and render them a must-have for maintaining healthy, radiant skin. “This process is very effective in removing dull, dry skin revealing a smoother and more even complexion,” she says.

Try Medik8 Press & Glow, $75, which contains a blend of poly hydroxy acids (PHAs) to exfoliate the surface layers of skin.

Adapt your skincare to the seasons

Fluctuations in temperature and humidity can impact how skin looks and reacts, something to keep in mind as we move towards the cooler months.

Selina says winter is particularly harsh to skin, with its cold temperatures, low humidity and indoor heating impacting the skin’s production of lipids, leading to a weaker skin barrier and dehydrated skin.

“Low temperatures put additional stress on the skin causing inflammation, increased mast cell activity (causing itchy skin), and higher rate of skin cell turnover leading to thickened dull skin,” she says.

Combat the cold with a moisture-laden skincare routine to fend off winter’s drying effects — switch out gel cleansers for creamy formulations, and add in oils over top of moisturisers to seal in their hydrating benefits.

Consider the new Dr LeWinn’s Cleanser Series Daily Cleansing Balm, $60, to gently remove makeup and impurities as your first cleanse, followed by the Dermalogica Intensive Moisture Cleanser, $88, as your second cleanse to protect and nourish.

Account for your age

“Ageing is a major factor,” Elizabeth says when it comes to experiencing dryness or dehydration in the skin.

“As women get older, their skin barrier becomes a lot thinner, meaning they lose water through the skin that much easier. You’re constantly having to replace that water into the skin,” she explains.

Hormonal imbalances caused by menopause can speed up this process, but Elizabeth says a few lifestyle tweaks can help improve water retention in the skin.

“Diet is key. Maintaining a good, healthy diet and incorporating lots of raw juices and antioxidant-rich foods will help. As will drinking plenty of water. Your skin is a massive organ and you’re losing water all the time. It’s important to make it a priority that your skin is completely hydrated both internally and externally,” she says.

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