How to tell whether you have dry or dehydrated skin because they’re totally different things

Identifying what sort of skin we have should be fairly easy, shouldn’t it? Oily, dry or a combination of the two. But where does dehydrated skin fit into things? And isn’t it the same as dry skin?

Ask dermatologists and it’s a firm no from them. Whilst there’s a lot of cross over between the two (so you’d be forgiven for getting them confused), they’re fundamentally different things.

The problem is, dry skin can masquerade as dehydration and vice versa. Both can leave skin feeling rough, tight and irritated, so how can you tell which is which?

What is dry skin?

Dry skin is a skin type, which doesn’t change and fluctuate depending on the seasons, your diet and the environment. It’s caused by a lack of sebum (or oils) in your skin as well as a weak skin barrier, which can mean your skin struggles to keep the protective oils it produces in.

What is dehydrated skin?

Dehydrated skin is a skin condition which can change and fluctuate depending on the seasons, your diet and the environment. It’s caused by a lack of water and can affect any skin type, so even if you’re oily, your skin can also be dehydrated. One of the main causes of dehydration is not drinking enough water, but it can also be caused by hot showers, UVA from sunlight, weather changes, central heating and your diet (too much caffeine and salt for instance).

What’s the difference between them?

“With dry skin you may notice a scaly appearance, white flakes, redness or irritation and increased incidence of psoriasis, eczema or dermatitis,” explains Dr Dianni Dai, skin specialist the Pulse Light Clinic. “With dehydrated skin, on the other hand, you might notice, darker under eyes, itchiness, dullness or more sensitive fine lines and wrinkles,” he adds. You might also experience more congestion and breakouts.

How can you tell what sort of skin you have?

To work out what sort of skin you have, pinch your skin, if it bounces back immediately, it’s unlikely to be dehydrated, if it takes a few seconds to regain its shape, your skin is probably dehydrated. Likewise, watch how quickly your moisturiser absorbs when you apply it to your skin. If your skin guzzles it up immediately, it’s likely to be thirsty and dehydrated. If flakiness and a build-up of dead skin cells make it difficult for your skin to mop the moisturiser up, it’s likely that your skin is dry.

What would you recommend for people with dry skin?

The first step is to introduce a gentle exfoliator into your routine to buff away flakes and dead skin cells. But keep this step light and occasional (around once a week) as using overly harsh acids and scrubs too often can make dry skin even drier. Next look for products that contain oils and lipid-building ingredients like shea butter and ceramides.

“Simple prevention and treatment measures are very effective in the treatment of dry skin,” assures Dr Dai. To stop avoid dry skin becoming extra dry, “avoid harsh soaps and chemical cleansers,” he says, while treatments (such as bland, fragrance-free emollients and moisturisers) “generally require more frequent and regular applications.” The good news is, “dry skin is usually mild and can be easily remedied,” he says.

What would you recommend for people with dehydrated skin?

Again, light, gentle exfoliation is a good idea. Next, look for ingredients that hydrate such as hyaluronic acid, glycerin and aloe vera. One of the best things you can do is make sure you drink plenty of water. You should also protect your skin from UVA with an SPF, swap roasting showers for warm ones and be wary of overdoing the central heating.


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