It’s a known fact that as the largest organ in our body, our skin needs a lot of water to keep its youthful glow. This is why we often see makeup and skin care products that are specially formulated to moisturize and hydrate our skin. However, not many of us know that moisturizing and hydrating, although often used interchangeably, are not exactly the same thing. While they both provide our skin with much-needed nourishment, knowing the difference will help us make the best choice for our skin’s specific needs.
Moisturizers and hydrators both address the importance of making sure that our skin is getting all the moisture it needs to fight dryness, signs of aging and environmental damage. The difference, however, lies mostly on how they go about achieving this result.
Our skin has a natural lipid barrier that protects itself from damage and water loss. If you’re prone to having dry, flaky skin, that’s a tell-tale sign that your skin isn’t producing enough lipid cells to form a protective barrier, making it unable to lock in moisture. And that’s where moisturizers come in. They help trap the natural oils and lipids on the surface of your skin, prevent water from evaporating, and maintain a healthy moisture balance. Hydration, on the other hand, refers to the amount of water in the skin, and hydrators are specially formulated with ingredients called humectants for this purpose: to increase water content by catching moisture from the air and delivering it down to the skin’s layers.
In other words: “Dehydrated skin lacks water and therefore requires hydration,” explains Nicole Akers, head of education and training at SkinCeuticals. “Dry skin lacks oil and needs to be moisturized. It is important to distinguish between these two skin conditions because they can often be treated incorrectly.”
So, you ask, if both moisturizers and hydrators aid in providing our skin with moisture, how do we know which of the two our skin needs?
“Both are important to maintain healthy skin,” says board-certified dermatologist Carole Aponte, co-founder and chief medical officer of PREP Cosmetics. “If you have your hands in water all day, the skin will be hydrated but will likely have lost all of the natural moisturizers on the surface. It will become rough and scaly as soon as the water evaporates. Similarly, if your skin is dehydrated, it will appear dull no matter how much surface oil you apply.”
“While hydration is what makes our skin soft, this result is transient if there is no oil protecting that hydration from evaporating and exiting the skin, “ adds Akers. “Conversely, to apply oil on top of already dehydrated skin may smooth it, but it will still lack the hydration that makes it feel soft and elastic. Dehydrated skin that is moisturized without receiving the amount of hydration will still look dull and feel uncomfortably tight. Dry skin that is hydrated but not moisturized will still flake and have a rough texture.”
According to board-certified dermatologist Hadley King, how naturally dry or oily our skin is, and how humid or dry the environment your skin lives in, will determine which types of products will be best for our skin.
While drinking plenty of water is still the easiest way to hydrate our skin, those with dry skin will benefit from a hydrator with hyaluronic acid. “Hyaluronic acid is by far the gold standard for hydrating,” says Akers. “ It is found naturally in the human body and it can hold up to a thousand times its weight in water.” Other ingredients to keep an eye out for are glycerin, alpha hydroxy acids, urea and propylene glycol.
As for your moisturizer, opt for rich creams packed with essential oils, fruit extracts, shea butter, cocoa butter and beeswax to help your skin retain moisture.
If you have sensitive or mature skin, reach for hydrators with natural humectants like aloe, honey and marine extracts like seaweed and algae. These ingredients are not only milder, they also contain a host of vitamins and minerals that the body absorbs as nutrients. When picking out a moisturizer, consider oils extracted from sweet almond, apricot and coconut, as well as moringa and jojoba, which are known not only for their gentle moisturizing and nourishing properties but also for countering signs of aging and free radical damage.
When it comes to oily skin or acne-prone skin, adding both steps in your skin care routine may seem unnecessary, but according to Akers, oily skin could be a sign of dehydration. “Women usually associate oil with breakouts—this is simply not the case. Stripping the skin of any oil without replacing it can cause your skin to respond by producing excess oil. This reaction can overwhelm the pores and cause congestion and breakouts. It will also cause your skin to age faster,” she says. “My advice? Continue to hydrate and moisturize. Skin heals faster and most efficiently in a moist environment.” Lightweight gels and creams that are labeled “non-comedogenic” would be your best options as they won’t clog your pores and are less likely to cause breakouts.