Scan almost any skincare line, or even most beauty websites, and you’ll notice that the words moisturize and hydrate are used interchangeably. The trouble is, they’re actually different things.
To be clear, there is some overlap between them, which is probably why they started being used synonymously. And, yes, every one of us should be hydrating and moisturizing. But at the most fundamental level, hydrating refers to adding water to your skin, while moisturizing means adding oils.
When you begin thinking within that framework, you’ll also realize that dry skin and dehydrated skin are two distinct conditions. Though, they tend to go hand in hand.
Dehydrated skin can look dull and even a little unhealthy. Another easy way to tell if your skin is dehydrated is to splash it with some tepid water and pat it dry. Does it immediately look at least a little better? If so, your skin’s dehydrated.
Dry skin, which lacks oils, can also look lackluster, but it’s usually accompanied by inflammation, itchiness, and rashes. That’s because the skin barrier, which is the outermost layer of our skin, is compromised when our skin is dry. As a result, it can’t keep irritants from getting in as well as it normally would.
It also can’t prevent the natural water in the deeper layers of the skin from escaping, which is how our skin can be both dry and dehydrated at the same time.
What you can do about it
Fortunately, the solution here is a simple one: Use a moisturizer that contains both hydrating and moisturizing ingredients. And apply it while your skin’s still damp from the shower.
The most effective of those ingredients are humectants, emollients, and occlusives.
Aside from water, humectants are the only true hydrating ingredient you’ll find in a moisturizer. Basically, they attract water and hold on to it within the skin. The most common examples include hyaluronic acid, honey, aloe, and glycerin.
Emollients are oily substances that make the skin feel immediately soft and smooth after you apply a moisturizer. Any type of plant- or nut-based oil falls under this umbrella. (Think jojoba oil and shea butter.) Ceramides are also an emollient, though they’re unique compared to the others because they also help bolster the skin barrier.
Occlusives work by creating a barrier over the skin’s surface that locks in both oils and hydration. Common examples are beeswax, petrolatum, and dimethicone.