When it comes to picking a moisturizer, it sometimes feels like you need a Ph.D. in chemistry to navigate the terminology. From serums to face oils, emollients to humectants, how the heck do you choose the right product for your needs? And what’s the difference between dry and dehydrated? We consulted two trusted pros, Dallas skincare guru Renee Rouleau and New York facialist Elena Rubin, to help us decipher the jargon and defeat dryness and dehydration once and for all.
First things first: Assess whether your skin is dry or dehydrated. Dry means your skin is not producing oil, explains Rouleau. Signs include small pores, rough patches, flakiness, wrinkles, and inflammation. Dehydrated skin, on the other hand, signifies water deficiency. If your skin feels tight and you notice fine lines, chances are lack of water, not oil, is the culprit. In fact, says Rouleau, “dehydrated skin is common among those with oily and acne-prone skin who use harsh products that strip the skin of water.”
Moisturizers add oil back to the skin—great for combating dryness—while hydrating adds water—what to look for if your skin is dehydrated. (We never knew the difference either.)
Here’s a quick overview of five basic categories: serums are liquid concentrates (some thick, others thin) made from natural extracts. Since they’re usually water-based, they absorb quickly and penetrate deeply—great for dehydrated complexions. A face oil is a concentration of pure oil extracted from plants and herbs—perfect for dry skin. Generally speaking, a lotion is a blend of oil and liquid with a high percentage of liquid and a low percentage of oil, making it a more lightweight option than a cream, whose higher concentration of oil makes it thicker and more long-lasting. Finally, a body butter often contains shea butter and is the thickest option of all.
Three types of ingredients play key roles in healing dry and dehydrated skin: humectants, occlusives, and emollients—the combination and concentration of which determines a product’s performance. Humectants help skin retain water and plump it up from the inside, while occlusives form a barrier that prevent water from being lost (warning: That pore-blocking barrier can lead to breakouts). Emollients, which often have some occlusive elements, are moisturizing agents that smooth and soften, but don’t penetrate as deeply as humectants.
“To repair dry skin, look for emollient barrier-repair ingredients,” advises Rouleau. Ceramides, shea butter, and jojoba, sweet almond, safflower, grape, and argan oils all fit the bill. We love Burt’s Bees Intense Hydration Day Lotion, which includes glycerin, jojoba seed oil, and antiaging clary sage, and Caudalie Divine Oil, which combines botanical oils with grape-seed polyphenols to restore skin’s moisture barrier (and you can use it on body, face, hair, even cuticles!). For extrathick goodness, try Tiossan Body Cream and Whish Body Butter, both of which contain shea butter. Your face will thank you for using ceramide-packed Caudalie Vinexpert Firming Serum and One Love Organics’ Love Springs Eternal Youth Preservation Serum, whose plant-derived oils provide a protective barrier against environmental damage and boost elasticity.
For dehydrated skin, look for humectants like sodium PCA, glycerin, heavy water, aloe vera, and hyaluronic acid. Rubin describes the latter, a naturally occurring molecule that holds 6,000 times its molecular weight in water, as “an intra-cellular glue to hold water in place.” We love Rubin’s Primer, a toner with heavy water, hyaluronic acid, and sodium PCA for maximum hydration, Paula’s Choice RESIST Advanced Replenishing Toner, which has hydrating glycerin and calming licorice root extract, and Juice Beauty’s Oil-Free Moisturizer, which pairs hyaluronic acid and aloe vera with nourishing organic juice extracts. For body, try water-based (MALIN+GOETZ) vitamin b5 body moisturizer, which includes glycerin and vitamin B5 to heal skin and hydrate.
For most people, “hydration is more key to focus on than moisturizing,” says Rubin. And both Rouleau and Rubin emphasize the importance of layering when it comes to your face. Start with a toner, follow with a hydrating serum, then moisturizer. Add in a face oil in between the serum and moisturizer if your skin is especially dry. And make sure to give your skin time to absorb each layer before moving onto the next step.
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Freelance writer, travel junkie, ex-Southerner with a love of grits and all things fried.