What Causes Dehydrated Skin [and How to Fix It]

Dehydrated skin is hard to self-diagnose. And chances are, if you have it, you probably won’t know you have it.

Follow the article below to get a grip on the ins-and-outs of the dehydrated skin. 

What is dehydrated skin?

Your skin’s outermost layer is called the stratum corneum. This layer, also known as the moisture barrier, has a brick-and-mortar structure made up of corneocytes (i.e. keratin) and lipids (i.e. cholesterol, fatty acids, and ceramides).

When the stratum corneum is healthy, it protects your skin from the yucky stuff in the environment like bacteria and pollutants. Beyond that, it preserves your skin’s hydration levels (i.e. moisture) and your skin’s moisturizing factors (i.e. natural oils). Which keeps your skin supple and fresh.

When the brick-and-mortar structure is compromised, however, things start to get ugly. In this case, it’s not able to keep the bad stuff out and the good stuff in. So, your skin will likely become dehydrated. Among other things.

What Causes Dehydrated Skin?

Sadly, there isn’t one specific answer to this question. You have to evaluate a ton of your life choices before you can get to the root cause.

Cause #1: Weather & Environment

Sometimes, it’s just not fair. You can do everything right but still succumb to skin injustices! And this usually happens when something is “off” with your environment.

You probably know this already, but I’m going to say it anyway—the elements aren’t so great for your skin. Cold temperatures, high winds, sun exposure, and low humidity can leech moisture from your skin.

But, if you think that staying indoors will protect your skin, think again. Air conditioning units, heaters, and long hot showers are also moisture-grubbing culprits. 

Quick tip: Heaters are especially drying. Since they’re a necessary evil during brutal winters, use a humidifier in conjunction with your heater to protect your skin’s moisture levels.

Cause #2: Harsh products

via GIPHY

It’s no surprise that using harsh products can wreak havoc on your skin.

Sometimes, it’s easy to fall into the trap. Especially when it comes to my oily-faced brethren.

Let me explain.

If your skin is super greasy, you may think harsher products are better equipped at managing your grease. When that doesn’t work, you reach for even harsher products. And when that doesn’t work, you start using those products more frequently.

As it turns out, you’re not doing your skin any favors by maxing-out your skincare routine. What you’re actually doing is stripping your natural oils, weakening your skin’s barrier, and depleting your skin’s moisture. The more you overwash and over-exfoliate, the worse your skin will get (and look).

So, whatever you do, please lay low on harsh products. Don’t overwash. Don’t over-exfoliate. And, when your skin is recovering from dehydration, refrain from using retinoids, BHA’s, AHA’s, and the like.

Cause #3: Diet & Lifestyle

What you eat and drink undoubtedly has a bearing on your skin health.

When trying to combat dehydrated skin, the least you could do is fix your fluid intake. As it turns out, coffee and alcohol are both diuretics. Drinking them will increase your body’s urine production, causing dehydration.

I know that coffee and alcohol are super popular. Trust me, I’ve been known to drink three cups of coffee a day and end my night with a glass of wine. But, making the switch to water will make a world of difference. Particularly when you’ve haven’t been drinking the recommended 8 glasses per day.

You can’t fix skin dehydration overnight. And please remember not to overdo it—water poisoning is real.

Dry Skin vs. Dehydrated Skin

I know that they sound alike. And, sure, they share similar characteristics. But, when it comes down to it, dry skin and dehydrated skin aren’t actually the same thing. You can have dry skin without having dehydrated skin. Likewise, you can have dehydrated skin without having dry skin.

Dry skin is a skin type. Meaning that it’s genetic. And it’s permanent. Since, you’re born with it, it’s never going to change. Then, there’s dehydrated skin, a skin condition. Having a skin condition means that it’s temporary. One day, you might suffer from it. But, when you take measures to correct it, it’ll go away. On top of that, because it’s a condition, dehydrated skin can coexist with any skin type (i.e. oily, combination, normal, dry).

Another big difference is that dry skin lacks oil (i.e. sebum), while dehydrated skin lacks water (i.e. moisture). In treating your skin it’s important to know the difference between the two. You can’t add an oil-based moisturizer to dehydrated skin and expect magic—it just doesn’t work that way.

If you have dry skin, you might be interested in reading my dry skin guide. Check it out here.

Do I have dehydrated skin?

I’m going to say it again—dehydrated skin is hard to self-diagnose. It’s not surprising that a lot of people find out about their condition through a professional, whether it be an esthetician or a dermatologist.

The problem is that it looks different for everyone. And it usually amplifies your existing skin type. So, when you do have it, oily skin tends to look oilier and dry skin tends to look drier.

That being said, here are a few symptoms that you can look out for.

  • Sudden breakouts
  • Sunken skin
  • Dull complexion
  • Fine lines
  • Scaly skin
  • Itchiness
  • Feeling oily on top, but dry underneath

But, the truth is, even when you know the symptoms, it still can be hard to self-diagnose.

So, there’s one more thing you can do, the pinch test. Softly pinch a two-inch section of your skin. If your skin starts to look like crepe paper, then you’re likely dehydrated. It might be difficult to visualize, so here’s a video of the pinch test from Renée Rouleau Skin Care.

Choosing a Moisturizer: Humectants, Emollients, Occlusives, Oh My

As it turns out, there are three classes of skin care ingredients that help treat dehydrated skin—humectants, emollients, and occlusives.

Humectants

These increase your skin’s moisture content by attracting and holding onto water. In humid climates, humectants draw moisture from the air. And, in dry climates, they draw moisture from your dermis (i.e. inner layer).

Examples include:

  • Hyaluronic acid (HA)
  • Glycerin
  • Aloe
  • Panthenol
  • Honey

Emollients

These are oils and lipids that help smooth your skin’s barrier. You see, to hold moisture in, you need a healthy a healthy lipid matrix—it’s part of the brick-and-mortar structure mentioned above. And emollients help restore that lipid matrix, preventing moisture loss in the long run.

Examples include:

  • Almond oil, rosehip oil, and pretty much any other natural oil
  • Lanolin
  • Ceramides
  • Peptides
  • Shea Butter
  • Squalene

Occlusives

These act as a protective barrier. When they’re paired with humectants, occlusives prevent evaporation by locking-in moisture.

Examples include:

  • Petroleum jelly
  • Dimethicone
  • Squalene
  • Lanolin

You might have noticed some overlap among these three classes. That’s because ingredients can have more than one function. That is, humectants can have emollient properties, emollients can have occlusive properties, and so on.

How to treat dehydrated skin

Okay, so you found out that your skin is dehydrated. Now what?

Well, to treat it, first regulate your environment. Try limiting the time you spend in harsh outdoor climates. And when you’re indoors, try adding a humidifier to the mix. Increasing the air moisture content with a humidifier can give your skin a boost, particularly in drier climates.

Next, assess your water intake. Ask yourself, “Have I been drinking 8 glasses of water a day?” If you answered yes, you’re already on the right track. If not, you know what you have to do.

And, finally, choose the right skin care products. That means switching out your harsh products (goodbye sulfate rich foaming cleansers!) in lieu of hydration boosting ones.

Generally, you’ll want to keep your routine simple. That way you can avoid stripping your skin’s natural oils.

Of course, when you’re introducing your skin to new products, there’s going to be some trial and error involved. What works for one person might not work for another.

Below is a supercharged routine that might come in handy for some of you.

AM Routine

1. Splash Your Face with Cold Water

If you’re used to a hearty skin care routine, letting go of your morning cleanser might make you cringe a little. But, when you use a cleanser, you run the risk of over-washing and drying out your skin. I can honestly say that, from my experience, splashing water instead of using cleanser was the number one thing that helped spring my skin back to its normal state.

2. Apply a Serum

Okay, now it’s time for the next step. Apply a humectant-based serum to your skin while it’s slightly damp. This will allow you to really lock-in moisture.

3. Moisturize

Use a moisturizer that has emollient and/or occlusive properties. Piling these types of products on top of humectants will help keep hydration “in” and environmental stressors “out”. For oily skin, I recommend CeraVe PM, but for dry skin, you might want to look into a richer formula like Avene Skin Recovery Cream.

4. Don’t Forget to Wear Sunscreen

It comes as no surprise that UV rays can wreck your skin. Now that you’re skin is dehydrated, you want to be extra careful with things. So, please use a decent SPF to finish off your routine.

PM Routine

1. Remove Makeup

I’ve been known to be really rough on my skin when removing makeup. But then, I discovered cold creams. You pretty much just slather it on, wait a little bit, and wipe off your makeup. It’s great because I don’t feel like I’m stripping my skin.

2. Cleanse

So, you didn’t cleanse in the morning. Now’s your chance to wash away the day. Try choosing a hydrating or milky cleanser, so that you’re gentle on your skin. Cerave Hydrating Cleanser (this is actually my daily cleanser —read my review here) or Avene Gentle Milk Cleanser.

3. Serum

Use the same humectant-based serum from your morning routine.

4. Moisturize

Since you’re using a daytime moisturizer that’s a bit thicker than what you’re probably used to, I’d suggest doubling it up as your nighttime moisturizer.

5. (Optional) Sleep Mask

Alright, so here’s a curveball for you. If you want to truly lock-in some moisture, use a sleep mask to prevent any moisture loss during the nighttime. Either slather on some Vaseline or go fancy with Laneige’s Water Sleeping Mask.

What Not To Do

So, if you’ve been reading through this article up until this point, you probably already know what not to do. But, in case you need a skim-through, here’s a breakdown.

  1. Don’t wash your face too often.
  2. Stop exfoliating.
  3. Don’t use hot water on your face.
  4. Don’t use clay face masks. Or any other drying face mask.

Once your skin goes back to normal, you can start re-incorporating some of these things back into your routine. Just make sure that the products/methods you re-incorporate aren’t too harsh.

Wrapping It Up

To be honest, your skin might not look so hot when you’re in the recovery phase. Especially because you have to lay low on the whole exfoliation thing for a while. But, once you get your stratum corneum in check, you should be back to normal (or noticeably better) within the month.

After reading this, if you think you’re dry (rather than dehydrated), check out my dry skin guide here.