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

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, four top dermatologists break down the differences between dry and dehydrated skin, how to tell the difference between the two, and what we can do to cure them both.

The Biological Differences

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.

The Causes for Each

“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.”

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.

How to Spot the Difference

“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.

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