Why Your Skin Is Still Parched, Even When You Moisturize

moisturizing dry skin and dehydrated skin

One of the best things about moisturizer is that you can usually tell if it’s working. The benefits are obvious to the eye — think smoother, softer skin with less noticeable lines and wrinkles. And, if your moisturizer isn’t quite cutting it, the requisite flakiness, tightness, rough texture, and visible lines are a pretty clear tip-off. It’s not so uncommon for a moisturizer to not properly moisturize your skin: Depending on your skin type, genetics, and lifestyle, you may need a certain type — or several — to adequately balance your skin.

While the term “dry skin” has typically been used as a catchall for the apparent signs of dryness, it’s kind of a misnomer. Because skin that seems dry can actually be caused by two separate things: dryness and dehydration. Dehydration means that the body (and therefore your skin) lacks water, which can affect the integrity of your skin from the inside out. One reason for this is that over time, our bodies lose one of the molecules that's responsible for maintaining hydration: hyaluronic acid, a humectant. This molecule is found naturally in our bodies and is responsible for plumpness. 

Dry skin refers to a lack of moisture in skin, such as from a dry external environment or stripping of natural oils,” says Daniel Belkin, MD, a board-certified dermatologist at the Laser & Skin Surgery Center of New York®. That leads to increased moisture loss and ultimately leaves skin vulnerable to environmental aggressors.

It’s surprisingly easy to tell the difference between the two — so long as you know what to look for. “Dry skin [can be] rough, scaly, and cracked,” Dr. Belkin says. “Dehydrated skin might appear smooth, but wrinkles [may] appear more prominent, the skin does not bounce back when it's pinched, and thinner areas of the face might appear hollow, such as around the eyes.” 

A healthy moisturizing routine should be used for both dryness and dehydration, which means you need a two-pronged approach to make sure your skin’s needs are fully being met. “To address dehydration, actives that boost or stimulate moisture can be used,” says cosmetic chemist Al-Nisa Ward. “To address dryness, emollients or active ingredients that stimulate lipid production and improve barrier function can be used.”

To that end, the first step is to supply moisture to the skin. “Moisturizers may be humectants, such as hyaluronic acid, which draw water into the skin,” says Dr. Belkin. While hyaluronic acid may be the gold standard, glycerin, lactic acid, and some proteins are also popular options for this. SkinMedica® HA⁵® Rejuvenating Hydrator ($120) features five different forms of hyaluronic acid (“The sensation is similar to water droplets bursting on your skin,” says one editor in her review). Eighteen B® Revitalizing Hydrogel Moisturizer ($75) pairs hyaluronic acid with glycerin for a one-two punch of hydration in a formula so lightweight, it feels like a primer. However, although these ingredients do deliver moisture, there’s no guarantee that it’ll remain within skin.

That’s where step two comes in: apply ingredients that fortify the skin’s moisture barrier and boost its lipids, which help serve as the caulk between skin cells that make up the outer layer. This creates a seal of sorts that keeps moisture in and prevents it from seeping out into the environment. Your best bets are ceramides and essential fatty acids, according to Ward. 

If you’re looking at the ingredient list, “Essential fatty acids can be listed as linoleic acid or linolenic acid,” she says. You’ll often find them in heavier creams and oils. CeraVe® Moisturizing Cream ($17) is brimming with time-released ceramides for all-day barrier support, while Peach & Lily® Pure Beam Luxe OilTM ($27) offers a blend of fatty acid-rich oils, such as camellia seed and sea buckthorn oil (which provides four omega fatty acids). Finally, don’t forget your neck and chest, which need just as much (if not more) protection than your face. Elemis® Pro-Collagen Neck & Décolleté ($72) delivers sea buckthorn oil in a rich, velvety formula.

In addition to topical products, Dr. Belkin also recommends staying hydrated the old-fashioned way — that is, “by replenishing fluids via liquids, and fresh vegetables and fruits, and reducing diuretics such as caffeine and alcohol.” Consider it yet another reason to refill your water bottle. By boosting both your internal and external sources of moisture, you’ll ensure that your skin’s hydrations needs are completely covered — keeping it radiant, soft, and healthy.

Dr. Daniel Belkin is a paid Allergan® consultant.

SkinMedica® is an Allergan®-owned skincare line.

Allergan® may receive commissions for purchases made through links in this article.