Tight, itchy, dry skin is a common occurrence during the winter months, but now that summer is on the verge, why hasn’t your skin sprung back to a dewier, more moisturized state? (Oily-skinned friends, feel free to stop rolling your eyes now.)
It’s time to take a long, hard look at what might actually be going on with your flaky skin. Experts agree there are important differences in the causes of your dryness that can help you identify the correct ways of treating the issue. It may be that you have been treating dry skin instead of dehydrated skin (or vice versa) and using products that won't tackle the underlying problem.
Dry skin vs. dehydrated skin
First, some basic skin science. There are numerous layers of water-based cells that make up our skin. An acidic mix of oily lipids and waxes, mostly sebum and sweat, protects the top layer of skin. Dry or dehydrated skin becomes an issue when the top layer, the stratum corneum, is damaged. How this top layer is left vulnerable is what differentiates dry skin from dehydrated skin.
Dry skin is a skin type. According to the Global Director of Education for Dermalogica, Annet King, “Dry skin is caused by a lack of skin lipids and sebum, due in part to underactive and smaller sebaceous glands.” Less protective oil in the skin cells leaves a tight, scaly and sensitive sensation. A common problem among mature skin, dryness can be caused by an underactive thyroid, a hormone imbalance or untreated dehydrated skin, all of which inhibit the production of the essential oils that protect the skin. Or, it could just be your genetic luck of the draw.
Dehydrated skin is a skin condition, meaning it is temporary and more easily treatable than dry skin. Often caused by external elements, such as weather or harsh soaps, dehydrated skin is simply moisture-deficient skin with low, depleted water content. Alina Roytberg, co-founder of skincare brand Fresh, whose latest skincare launch was formulated to address dehydrated skin, explains, “Dehydrated skin means there is a loss or reduction of bodily fluids. All of the cellular processes that occur in our bodies depend on water. If we don’t have enough water in our body, we starve our skin of moisture, which makes it vulnerable to the outside aggressors.”
Dehydrated skin commonly feels flaky, less supple, taught and itchy and can be caused by over exfoliating, poor diet (i.e. not eating enough water-rich vegetables, or too much caffeine and alcohol intake), stripping cleansers, cold weather, sun exposure and other environmental factors.
How to treat dry skin
Since the issue with dry skin is based on a lack of protective oils, replenishing and substituting for that layer is the best way to treat and relieve dryness. King recommends nourishing dry skin with oil-based products and explains that for drier skin issues, regular oil massages are key to stimulating dermal activity. “It’s really about the percentage of emollients and oils one uses, and going for a water-in-oil emulsion (heavier cream) rather than an oil-in-water emulsion (lotion).”
Rich creams, masques, butters and essential oils will help replenish that layer, but you also need to eliminate harsh, stripping cleansers and give your skin the opportunity to produce and use that sebum and sweat layer. Wash your face with cold water and a mild cleanser at night instead of in the morning to allow your skin to absorb a cream and replenish its own oils overnight.
Argan oil, shea butter, avocado sterols, vitamin E and sunflower oil are all key ingredients in dry skin treatments. Products like Decleor Life Radiance Double Cream with plant oils work to replenish the skin, and Dermalogica Intensive Moisture Balance with Vitamin E strengthen the skin's outer barrier. Also, try a soap-free cleanser like Purpose Gentle Cleansing Wash to wash your face without stripping your skin of its natural protective barrier.
How to treat dehydrated skin
The key to treating dehydrated skin lies in replenishing moisture. Whether topical or a change in diet, the goal is to re-hydrate the cells and prevent further water evaporation. “Drink plenty of water and apply a lotion to skin when the skin is still moist after a shower to lock in the extra moisture,” Roytberg recommends. Simple diet and lifestyle changes can help, too. Try eating water-rich foods like watermelon and cucumber to increase your fluids, sleeping with a humidifier in your room and taking short, lukewarm showers to prevent the heat from sucking out more moisture.
Dehydrated skin cells need help retaining moisture, not replenishing the oils, so King explains, “Product choices need to focus on replenishing moisture in the skin with water-based ingredients, not oil” in order to avoid breakouts. Look for hyaluronic acid, sodium PCA, aloe vera and yucca in your lotions and cleansers. The new Fresh Lotus Youth Preserve Face Cream with Super 7 complex addresses issues of hydration with vegetable glycerol, an ingredient that attracts water to the skin. Also try products like Peter Thomas Roth Viz-1000, a 75 percent hyaluronic acid serum, and Sebamed Liquid Face and Body Wash, a lightweight, oil-free gel cleanser.
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