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Is Your Skin Dry or Dehydrated?

Skin that feels dry is a common concern that affects everyone at some point in their lives. Often, dryness is temporary and results from environmental aggressors, like extreme temperatures or spending a few too many minutes in a steamy shower. But unless you have a naturally dry skin type, there’s a good chance that what you take to be "dry skin" is actually dehydrated skin.

Dryness and dehydration may look (and even) feel similar, but they’re two very different things: Dry skin results from too little oil, while dehydrated skin is due to a lack of water. Learning how to identify the difference between them is crucial for taking proper care of your skin. Ahead, we’re breaking down the differences between dry and dehydrated skin. You’ll learn what causes dry vs. dehydrated skin, plus tips for managing each. Read on for the official Kiehl’s guide to dry and dehydrated skin.

Dry vs. Dehydrated Skin: How Do They Differ?

Though the terms "dry" and "dehydrated" are often used interchangeably, they’re not the same. Dry skin is a skin type characterized by a chronic underproduction of sebum, or oil. It’s usually persistent and may be accompanied by uncomfortable symptoms like itching or tightness. The severity of these symptoms can be affected by environmental factors, like weather, and are often worse in the winter.

Dehydrated skin, meanwhile, refers to the amount of water in the skin. Healthy skin contains around 30% water, which is essential for maintaining the skin’s structure, strength, and resiliency. When the skin loses too much water, it becomes dehydrated. The symptoms of dehydrated and dry skin are often similar and may include roughness or a loss of elasticity. However, while dry skin is a specific skin type, dehydrated skin can affect anyone—even those with naturally oily skin. That said, those with dry skin types may be more likely to also have dehydrated skin, as the skin’s natural oils play an important role in retaining water and minimizing water loss.

What Causes Dry Skin?

As stated above, dry skin results from a lack of oil in the skin. This is often due to genetics but can be worsened by internal and external factors. Extreme temperatures, both hot and cold, can exacerbate dryness. Similarly, harsh skincare products that strip the skin can remove too much oil, leading to dry skin. Other factors that may contribute to dryness include medical conditions, lifestyle, hormones, and the natural aging process.

Managing dry skin requires minimizing exposure to environmental influences, like hot water, and restoring the skin’s surface lipids. You can do this with moisturizers, particularly emollients (which typically contain oils to smooth and soften the skin) and occlusives (which create a barrier to prevent water loss).

For daily management of dryness, we recommend reaching for a lightweight yet nourishing moisturizer, like our cult-classic Ultra Facial Cream. This best-selling formula stars squalane, an non-comedogenic emollient derived from olives. Squalane is structurally very similar to sebum and boasts antibacterial properties, making it ideal for those prone to clogged pores or other blemishes. In our formula, squalane combines with rich avocado oil and glacial glycoprotein to help soften the skin. The unique moisturizer provides non-greasy 24-hour hydration, more than doubling hydration in the skin’s driest areas. It’s suitable for all skin types and can be used daily for smoother, visibly healthier skin.

What Causes Dehydrated Skin?

Dehydrated skin results from excessive water loss. This can be due to a damaged skin barrier, a lack of water in the diet, or extreme weather conditions (cold, arid climates, in particular, are associated with dehydration). One of the most obvious signs of dehydration is a lack of elasticity in the skin: You’ll notice more prominent fine lines and wrinkles, and skin may appear dull or begin to sag.

As such, skin hydration is often mistaken for dryness or premature aging. According to Kiehl’s consulting esthetician Shamara Bondaroff, "A lot of the time, fine lines [aren’t due to] premature aging—it’s actually dehydration." She advises those with dehydrated skin to follow healthy habits, like drinking water and getting sleep, which can help minimize water loss and strengthen the skin.

To minimize the appearance of dehydration-related skin concerns (such as fine lines or wrinkles), reach for hydrating skincare products, like Hydro-Plumping Re-Texturizing Serum Concentrate. This intensely moisturizing formula contains 15% glycerin to revive dull, tired skin and reduce the appearance of fine lines. You can use this plumping serum daily to help smooth the skin and promote a more hydrated, healthy appearance.

How Do You Care For Dry and Dehydrated Skin?

Dryness and dehydration can both be managed with healthy skincare habits and a proper skincare routine. Keep reading for four expert-approved tips for combating dryness and dehydration for smoother, more radiant-looking skin.

Tip #1: Nourish and Protect Your Skin Barrier

If the skin barrier is damaged, it’ll be less able to do its job properly. This can result in excessive water loss, leading to dehydrated skin, increased sensitivity, and frequent irritation. You can help protect your skin barrier with antioxidant-rich treatments designed to strengthen and nourish the skin, like Vital Skin-Strengthening Hyaluronic Acid Super Serum.

This effective formula stars hyaluronic acid, one of the best moisturizers for dehydrated skin. Our 11kDa version is specially engineered to penetrate skin’s deeper layers for lasting hydration. It also contains a blend of adaptogenic herbs, including red ginseng root, which help protect the skin barrier from damaging environmental aggressors. This best-selling serum is clinically-demonstrated to double skin’s strength and improve the appearance of a range of concerns, including fine lines, dullness, and uneven skin texture.* Despite its potency, this serum is suitable for all skin types and gentle enough for daily use. We recommend applying it to the face and neck morning and night to promote a more youthful, radiant appearance.

Tip #2: Don’t Skip Eye Cream

The skin around your eyes is thinner and drier than the rest of your facial skin. The lack of oil in this area makes under-eye skin uniquely susceptible to age-related concerns, like under-eye wrinkles, fine lines, and dark circles.

To keep under-eye dryness at bay, using a moisturizing eye cream is vital. We recommend our iconic Avocado Eye Cream, which is formulated with emollient avocado oil, rich shea butter, and antioxidant beta-carotene. The creamy formula provides deep hydration to instantly improve the texture of under-eye skin. With regular use, it also helps minimize puffiness for brighter, smoother-looking eyes.**

Tip #3: Choose Your Cleanser Carefully

If you’re prone to dry or dehydrated skin, using the right cleanser can make a huge difference in how your skin looks and feels. Cleansers with harsh ingredients, like strong acids or aggressive physical exfoliants, can damage the skin barrier, making you more prone to losing natural oils and water. Instead, reach for non-stripping formulas, like our iconic Ultra Facial Cleanser.

This gentle foaming cleanser contains olive-derived squalane, vitamin E, and crushed apricot kernels to remove dirt and excess oil without over-drying the skin. It’s pH-balanced and gentle enough for all skin types, even sensitive skin. Use it to cleanse your face morning and night and rinse with lukewarm (not hot!) water for clean, balanced skin.

Tip #4: Address Signs of Dehydration With Anti-Aging Formulas

As we mentioned earlier, some of the most prominent signs of dehydrated skin are also associated with premature aging. This is because dehydrated skin is less elastic and therefore less able to retain its shape after repeated movements, like squinting. Anti-aging moisturizers can help minimize the appearance of some of these concerns for a more youthful appearance.

We recommend Super Multi-Corrective Anti-Aging Face and Neck Cream, which is formulated with a potent blend of hyaluronic acid, chaga mushroom, and phytomimetic vitamin A. These powerful ingredients work together to help address the most common signs of aging, including fine lines, wrinkles, and uneven skin texture. It’s clinically-demonstrated to visibly reduce wrinkles in just four weeks, while continued use will help promote smoother, more even-looking skin.*** The fast-absorbing formula is suitable for all skin types and can be used day and night for more radiant, firmer-looking skin.

Now that you know the difference between dry skin and dehydrated skin, check out our article 11 Dry Skin Treatments and Ingredients to learn more ways to care for dry skin.

*Based on a 4-week clinical study on 58 subjects tested in urban and polluted environments, using the Skin Strength Index = Composite average score of skin suppleness, plumpness, and resiliency.
**Results based upon expert grading evaluated with the product in a 4-week clinical test.
***Results based on a 12-week clinical study of 53 panelists in the US.

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