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The Difference Between Hydrating and Moisturizing, According to a Dermatologist

Yup, they're not the same!
The Difference Between Hydrating and Moisturizing, According to a Dermatologist
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Yup, they're not the same!

Before taking an interest in skincare, I always thought that hydration and moisturization meant the exact same thing. I used the two terms interchangeably until a few years ago, when I found out that I, someone who has oily skin, also had dehydrated skin because of all the harsh cleansers I was using and the water I was not drinking. It was then that I learned that having enough moisture (read: oil) didn't necessarily mean that my skin was hydrated enough. And trust me, once I learned the difference, it became so much easier to give my skin what it needed. Read on to find out more!

What is hydration?

Hydration is all about water, and how much of it is in our bodies. When there isn't enough, a.k.a. when we're dehydrated, our skin tends to feel tight and look dull and lackluster. "Anyone, regardless of his or her skin type, can have dehydrated skin," says board-certified dermatologist Dr. Gaile Robredo-Vitas of DermHQ. "This is commonly observed when individuals are exposed to dry or cold environments, do not drink enough fluids, are undernourished, or consume a lot of caffeine in their diets."

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The solution to avoid the effects of dehydration is, obviously, to bring back all that lost water. Drinking enough (or a lot of) water every day, for one, may sounds cliché, but it does do the trick and is always the first step. And then, there's skincare. To rehydrate, dermatologist recommends using products formulated with humectants, which hold water in the skin, such as hyaluronic acid.

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What is moisturization?

If hydrating is about water, moisturizing is about the oils, fatty acids, and lipids that compose our skin's moisture barrier. "Moisturizers were developed to put back what was removed from the surface of the skin unnecessarily after cleansing," the derm explains. It's meant to address dry skin as well, since this skin type naturally doesn't produce enough sebum to retain moisture and protect itself from irritation. "Dry skin is usually rough, itchy, flaky, irritated or sensitive and shows signs of an impaired barrier function. It lacks fatty acids, lipids, and therefore needs moisturizers," Dr. Gaile adds. 

In short, moisturization means replenishing the natural oils, fatty acids, and lipids of our skin with that we either lost from cleansing or never had at all. You can do this by—you guessed it—applying moisturizer right after washing your face to minimize moisture loss and doing so every time you feel that your skin is dry.

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How do we know if we need to hydrate or moisturize?

"Dehydrated skin needs hydration, while dry and disrupted skin needs moisturization," says the doctor. Still confused? Here's how to tell them apart:

Dehydrated skin

  • Dull
  • Lackluster with visible or exaggerated lines
  • Feels tight or stiff
  • Caused by lack of fluids or a cold or dry environment
  • Can occur on any skin type (oily, combination, etc.)

Dry skin

  • Is a skin type
  • Feels rough and itchy
  • Flaky, irritated or sensitive
  • Shows signs of an impaired barrier function (irritation, eczema, psoriasis)

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    How can we hydrate our skin? Moisturize it?

    Despite being different from each other, we can address both skin dehydration and dryness using similar methods. Below, Dr. Gaile lists her best tips:

    1. Use a good moisturizer.

    According to the dermatologist, a good moisturizer is a combination of three types of ingredients: humectants, occlusives, and emollients. The emollient (ceramides, butters, and some oils like jojoba oil) makes the skin smooth and soft, the humectant (hyaluronic acid, glycolic acid, urea) draws in moisture, while the occlusive (petroleum jelly, silicones) seals that moisture in.

    That said, always take note of your skin type in choosing a moisturizer. If you have oily skin, for example, go for lightweight formulas such as gel moisturizers or emulsions that don't contain too much occlusive ingredients and oils that could overwhelm it. On the other hand, those with dry skin should go for more emollient creams and lotions.

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    2. Drink enough water and maintain a balanced diet.

    "Drinking adequate amounts of water and fluids and eating food high in good fat and containing essential nutrients and antioxidants [help hydrate and moisturize the skin, as well as] avoiding those that are high in salt and sugar."

    3. Exfoliate regularly.

    "Exfoliating regularly, at least twice a month, removes dead skin cells and encourages formation of new ones. It not only regulates skin turnover, it also makes for better absorption and penetration of ingredients that we apply onto our skin."

    4. Use products with high concentrations of hydrating and moisturizing ingredients.

    The derm recommends serums containing hyaluronic acids, peptides and antioxidants such as vitamin C and E.

    5. Adjust your skincare routine with the weather or climate you're in.

    "Be prepared when exposing yourself to extremes of temperature—cold or hot, dry or humid. I personally have a different set of skin care regimen specific to the type of weather or environment I will be exposed to."

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    6. Limit prolonged and direct sun exposure.

    "Especially between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m., and use sun protection ALL THE TIME."

    7. Limit consumption of caffeine, alcoholic beverages, and cigarretes.

    All of these lead to dehydration, and are best avoided when suffering from dehydrated or dry skin.

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