The differences between dry and dehydrated skin

Published 03rd Oct 2023 by PB Admin

Have you ever had a client come in and noticed that their skin was drinking up products like a sponge? If the skin is this "thirsty", chances are it's not just dry – it's dehydrated.

While dry skin is a skin type, dehydrated skin is a skin condition that occurs when there’s a lack of water within the skin, and it can affect all skin types including oily and congested skin.

“Dry skin and dehydrated skin are two different things but they can sometimes exhibit very similar symptoms,” says Andrea O’Donnell, head of education at Dibi Milano. “Understanding the differences between them is important for proper skin care and treatment.” 

“The mix-up is easily done but they actually have very distinct characteristics and can require different approaches for treatment,”  adds Rebecca Elsdon, skincare expert and owner of skin health clinic Re/Skin in Sheffield.

Typical signs of dry skin

Unlike dehydrated skin, with dry skin lack of water isn’t the problem. “In simple terms, dry skin is mostly seen on the outside whereas dehydrated is more about what is going on inside,” says Hull-based skincare expert and aesthetician, Lesley Wilks.

“Dry skin is often characterised by a lack of natural oil (sebum) production,” says O’Donnell. “It’s a genetic predisposition and usually a long-term one.” 

“This can be both the sebum produced in the sebaceous glands as well as the natural lipids that are formed to create the lipid bilayer protective barrier,” adds Elsdon.

"To identify a dry skin, the common signs are a dull complexion, rough or uneven texture, itchiness, irritation, and in most cases the pores are not visible. It can often feel tight and uncomfortable and be quite reactive."

Dry skin signs to look out for:

  • Flaky/scaly appearance
  • Redness
  • Tightness
  • Irritation

“Dry skin can also cause an increased tendency to develop fine lines and wrinkles,” continues O’Donnell. It can also cause a risk of eczema, psoriasis, and dermatitis.

Treating dry skin

Dry skin may need more topical management as, due to genetic factors, the skin may be unable to produce adequate oils, explains Elsdon.

“Increasing essential fatty acids within the diet as well as skincare will be beneficial,” she says. 

“As dry skin doesn’t produce enough natural oils to keep skin moisturised, if you don’t use an active moisturising product that also protects it from the environment, it will cause bigger problems long term,” she adds.

“Treatment for dry skin typically involves using rich, emollient moisturisers and gentle cleansers that don't strip the skin of its natural oils,” says O’Donnell. 

“Treatments such as microdermabrasion, and exfoliators that contain jojoba beads are great for dry skin as they won’t dehydrate it,” says Wilkes. “Avoid products that contain salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide and ingredients that will inhibit natural oil production. Opt for products that contain vitamins and are soap and sulphate-free.”

Typical signs of dehydrated skin 

“Dehydrated skin is more about the 'padding' on the upper layers of your skin – keeping it nice and plump by way of hydration such as water and active ingredients like hyaluronic acid,” says Wilkes. “I always refer to this as like a grape and a raisin – the same thing just one is hydrated, the other is dehydrated, making it more wrinkly.”

“Often, when someone’s skin feels tight, they assume it’s dry when, in reality, it may be dehydrated,” explains Heaven Skincare founder and chief executive Deborah Mitchell. 

“Another distinguishing factor is the size of pores. Dry skin typically features smaller, more closed pores, whereas individuals with dehydrated skin tend to have enlarged pores.”

“Both types of skin can exhibit broken veins or redness, but from an expert perspective, we can discern that one appears red due to its thin, papery texture, resulting from dryness, while the other appears red because the skin has become overly sensitive, often due to the breakdown of the epidermal layer.”

As dehydrated skin can occur even in individuals with oily skin types due to lack of water or moisture in deeper layers of the dermis, O’Donnell says this can actually lead to an overproduction of oil as the skin tries to compensate.

"Dehydrated skin is a condition that is lacking in water or moisture and not necessarily oil," says Elsdon. "However, most dry skin types will have some dehydration due to the skin's inability to lock in the moisture."

She adds, "It is very often due to an accelerated transepidermal water loss as a result of an impaired barrier function that the skin can become dehydrated."

Other root causes of dehydrated skin include excessive sun exposure, a lack of proper hydration, a poor diet, harsh skincare products, and environmental factors like low humidity.

Other signs of dehydrated skin to look out for:

  • Dull skin
  • Loss of elasticity
  • Surface wrinkles
  • Dark under-eyes/tired-looking eyes
  • Skin irritation/ itching

Dehydrated skin typically feels tight, and dull, and fine lines and wrinkles are more noticeable,” adds O’Donnell. “It can also lead to increased sensitivity, redness, and an overall lack of radiance.”

Our experts also suggest conducting the pinch test to figure out if your client’s skin is dehydrated.

“Whilst this test isn’t always conclusive, it’s a good indication to spot dehydration,” says Jenna Unwin chief executive at Million Dollar Facial. “You are looking for the skin to snap back quickly and with ease. If it doesn't, this is potentially a sign of skin dehydration”.  You can conduct this test on the back of the hand or the upper part of the cheek.

Treating dehydrated skin

“Dehydrated skin is when the skin isn’t absorbing and holding enough water in the upper layers, therefore it needs a 'drink'," explains Wilkes.  

Dehydrated skin requires both external and internal care. "Drinking plenty of water is crucial,” says O’Donnell. “External treatments include hydrating and avoiding harsh skincare products. Humidifiers can also help add moisture to the environment.”

“With both dry and dehydrated skin you should start with using hydrating ingredients first such as hyaluronic acid and niacinamide,” says Unwin. “Then take steps to lock that moisture in.”

“Exfoliation plays a crucial role For individuals with dehydrated skin. Eliminating dead skin cells and promoting the renewal of skin cells is key,” adds Mitchell.

Meanwhile, Elsdon says that striking a balance and avoiding overexfoliation is important. 

“To properly treat dehydrated skin, the reason for the barrier impairment or dehydration needs to be identified,” she states. "It may be down to incorrect product use, a lifestyle or a health issue. An initial focus on barrier repair will ensure any trans epidermal water loss is brought back to normal levels, increasing hydrating products and a focus on the diet will also help."

Do your clients understand the difference between dry and dehydrated skin? What do you recommend for each condition? Let us know in the comments... 

PB Admin

PB Admin

Published 03rd Oct 2023

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