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What Causes Dry Skin? The 12 Reasons Your Face Is So Dry—and What You Can Do About It

Is your skincare routine as hydrating as it could be?
What causes dry skin

Got dry skin? Whether you’re new to experiencing a dry, flaky face, or you consider it to be your lifelong skin type, more moisturizer is not the answer. Or at least, it’s not the only answer. 

When you’re dealing with dryness, there’s often more going on than just a lack of product.

In this tutorial, I’m sharing the 12 other factors that can be involved—excluding the weather, because there’s not much we can do about that!—and how to address them to get rid of dry skin.

You will learn where you might be going wrong in your routine, which products can treat dry skin versus cause it, and how moisturizer can affect your facial skin long-term.

What Causes Dry Skin and How to Get Rid of It

You’re Over-Cleansing

First Aid Beauty Face Cleanser

First Aid Beauty Face Cleanser

Washing your face to remove dirt, oil, makeup and pollution seems like the most basic step in your daily skincare routine. So what could go wrong?

You might be cleansing to the point that your skin feels uncomfortably tight and parched afterward, like it’s crying out for moisturizer.

If you’ve experienced this “squeaky-clean” feeling, it’s a sure sign of over-cleansing—the most common cause of dry skin.

Cleansers that are too harsh for your skin will strip away its natural protective layer. Usually, such products are formulated with sulfates, which are cleansing agents that produce a lather but tend to be drying and irritating.

Consider switching to one of my favourite non-drying cleansers, which include:

Also keep in mind that you my not even need to cleanse in the morning. For many people, a splash of water is enough!

Your Water Is Too Hot

MV Skintherapy Pure Jojoba

MV Skintherapy Pure Jojoba

They feel so good, but long, steamy showers at high temperatures can lead to dry skin from head to toe.

That’s because the hotter the water, the more it whisks away the fatty substances in our skin that help it to retain moisture. 

Now, I’m not going to suggest you give up hot showers. (After all, I live in Canada, and that’s how I get through the winters!) But here are some ways to mitigate their effects:

  • Wash your face at the sink: You can avoid the hot water getting in direct contact with your face by washing it at the sink before you hop in the shower. Use lukewarm water (around room temperature).
  • Protect your skin: If your skin is very dry and reactive, try applying a few drops of jojoba oil as a protective layer before you shower. This is a great tip I got from facialist Sharon McGlinchey, and her MV Skintherapy Pure Jojoba is the very best.
  • Limit showers to 10 minutes: Water itself can have a drying effect, whether it’s hot, warm or cold. So it’s best to keep showers on the shorter side if you can.

For the same reasons you want to avoid long, hot showers, steaming your skin with a device like this one is a big no-no. Not only will it deplete your skin of moisture, but it can also throw your pH off balance and dilate and damage capillaries (worsening redness, inflammation and rosacea).

You’re Not Exfoliating

COSRX Moisture Up Pad

COSRX Moisture Up Pad

If you think dry skin types shouldn’t exfoliate, think again. Even if you feel dry, you still need regular gentle exfoliation to remove dead skin cells. 

If dead skin stays stuck on the surface, it can form a barrier that prevents your hydrators from reaching the live cells, where they’re needed. So you’ll just be wasting your time (and products!).

Here are a few of my favourite exfoliation methods for all skin, especially dry skin:

  • Silicone cleansing brush: I swear by the Foreo Luna, which has non-abrasive silicone bristles that deep-clean while lifting off dead skin. For dry and sensitive types, I recommend the version for Sensitive Skin.
  • Soft cloth: You can also get a great exfoliation by removing your cleanser with a soft cloth like the Eve Lom Muslin Cleansing Cloth. After applying cleanser, wet the cloth with warm water and drape it over your face for about 10 seconds to let the warmth soften the dead skin (making it easier to remove). Wipe off the cleanser, and then rinse and repeat up to four more times.
  • Konjac sponge: This is an all-natural sponge that softens and expands in water. Use it in circular motions, either in conjunction with cleanser or even with water alone. Try the Boscia Konjac Cleansing Sponge.
  • Betaine salicylate: This beta-hydroxy acid (BHA)—commonly found in Korean skincare products—is gentle and hydrating, with anti-inflammatory properties. For dry skin, I suggest COSRX Moisture Up Pad, which has 0.5% along with propolis and hyaluronic acid.
  • Lactic acid: This alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA) is mild but effective. ClarityRx Brighten It 10% Lactic Acid Solution is the simplest formula you’ll find, with just water and lactic acid.
  • Polyhydroxy acids (PHAs): Gluconolactone, galactose and lactobionic acid are similar to AHAs, but even gentler, less irritating and more hydrating. Try The Inkey List PHA Toner.

You’re Exfoliating Too Much

Peet Rivko Exfoliator

Peet Rivko Exfoliator

On the flip side, make sure you’re not over-exfoliating, either. 

When you exfoliate too often, with a product that’s too strong for your skin, you can cause dryness, irritation and a compromised skin barrier—the exact same issues that you are trying to treat!

If you suspect that you may have over-exfoliated, give your skin a break for at least two weeks before slowly re-introducing one of the gentler exfoliation methods I suggested above.

And be sure to avoid these exfoliation methods, which are typically too aggressive for dry skin:

  • Nylon cleansing brushes: Nylon bristles can be irritating and tend to remove too much of the skin's natural protective oils, leading to water loss and a compromised skin barrier. They’re also susceptible to growing mold and bacteria! Stick with the Foreo Luna or PMD Clean instead.
  • Abrasive scrubs: Granular scrubs physically buff away dead cells, but anything too jagged, like pumice or walnut shells, could scratch and potentially damage your skin. The rounder the particle, the gentler it will be. Dr. Barbara Sturm Facial Scrub and Peet Rivko Exfoliator are the best options I’ve found.
  • Glycolic acid: As the most powerful AHA, glycolic acid is also the most drying and irritating, due to its small molecule size. (I personally cannot use it without becoming red and flaky within a few days!) Lactic acid is a better AHA for dry skin, so try The Ordinary Lactic Acid 5% + HA.
  • Salicylic acid: While salicylic acid is preferable to glycolic acid, since it has a large molecule size and anti-inflammatory properties, it’s still a strong acid. Plus, it’s almost always found in formulations for oily, acne-prone skin, which likely won’t be suitable if you’re dry. Go for a product with betaine salicylate instead, such as Glow Recipe Watermelon Glow PHA + BHA Pore-Tight Toner.

How often should you exfoliate? There’s no set rule—it really depends on what method you’re using and what your skin can tolerate. In general, I think you get more benefits from doing regular mild exfoliation (ideally daily), rather than shocking your skin with something more intensive less often (like weekly).

You’re Applying Harsh Ingredients

Paula's Choice 10 Percent Niacinamide Booster

Paula’s Choice 10% Niacinamide Booster

It’s not just certain exfoliating methods that can lead to dry skin. Many topical ingredients can have the same effect, especially if your routine includes strong anti-aging treatments.

These are among the worst culprits for causing dryness:

  • Prescription retinoids: It’s no secret that adapalene, tretinoin and tazarotene are associated with dry, peeling skin (a condition known as the “retinoid uglies”). 
  • Retinol: The most popular and proven over-the-counter retinoid is also notoriously drying for many people.
  • L-ascorbic acid: As the active form of vitamin C, L-ascorbic acid works best at a low (acidic) pH that some may find drying and irritating, especially at higher concentrations. 
  • Hydroquinone: Available both over-the-counter and by prescription, hydroquinone not only makes your skin drier, but is also linked to other side effects (like allergies and ochronosis).

Sometimes, it’s just a matter of giving your skin enough time to slowly build up a tolerance. But if you still find these ingredients too aggressive, consider one of these gentler options instead:

No matter which ingredient(s) you choose, watch out for formulas with high concentrations of alcohol or witch hazel, which can strip your skin of moisture. I try to avoid any products that list them in the first five ingredients. 

And it’s always a good idea to go fragrance-free. Both synthetic and natural fragrance has a high potential for causing irritation and dryness.

You’re Only Using Humectants

OSEA Atmosphere Protection Cream

OSEA Atmosphere Protection Cream

Humectants are water-attracting ingredients like hyaluronic acid, glycerin and aloe, which you’ll typically find in serums, essences and gel moisturizers. They work by drawing in moisture from the environment to plump and hydrate your skin.

But unless you live in a humid climate, they might not be enough to keep you moisturized on their own.

In low humidity, humectants can pull moisture out of the underlying layers of your skin instead of taking it from the environment, because there’s more water in your skin than the air. When this moisture evaporates from the skin surface, it leads to dryness and dehydration.

If you think this is happening to you, try sealing in your humectant with something a little more occlusive that prevents the water from escaping—such as a cream, an oil, or both. Your occlusive can even just be your sunscreen.

The Skincare Edit Recommends

Some of my top picks include:

You’ll notice I didn’t recommend anything high in silicones or mineral oil. Although they, too, are occlusives, I believe that natural oils are more compatible with our skin and less likely to interfere with cellular renewal (which can actually make you drier over time!). 

You’re Only Using Occlusives

Timeless Hyaluronic Acid

Timeless Hyaluronic Acid

Just like you don’t want use a humectant on its own, you don’t want to use an occlusive alone, either.

Occlusives include ingredients like shea butter, jojoba oil and lanolin. With their larger molecules, they form a barrier between the air and your skin. Their job is to lock in moisture—not to deliver it.

So if you don’t have enough water in your skin to begin with, they won’t do a thing for dryness. They only hold onto water after it has already been supplied by your serum, essence or cream.

Try layering one of these underneath your occlusive moisturizer or face oil:

Your Skin Barrier Is Damaged

EltaMD Barrier Renewal Complex

EltaMD Barrier Renewal Complex

The root cause of dryness is a damaged skin barrier—so if applying humectants and occlusives doesn’t help, then you may need additional ingredients to repair it.

Our skin barrier is the outer surface of the skin that keeps water in, and bacteria and irritants out. 

When it becomes damaged, invisible cracks develop between skin cells, which allow moisture to escape and environmental aggressors to enter (leading to dryness).

Look for products with these ingredients (the more of them, the better!) to repair your skin barrier:

For best results, there is one product I’ve found that contains ALL of the above: EltaMD Barrier Renewal Complex

You’re Layering Products in the Wrong Order

Indie Lee Squalane Facial Oil

Indie Lee Squalane Facial Oil

Maybe you have all the right products to banish dry skin—but you’re applying them in the wrong order in your routine.

The biggest pitfall is with oils.  

One school of thought is that oils should go on before creams so they can “absorb better” into your skin. There are even so-called serums (like this one) that are actually oils, and come with instructions to apply them on bare skin.

I’m not a fan of doing this because oils, with their occlusive properties, don’t deliver any moisture and tend to form a barrier on top of your skin. So any cream you layer over them may not fully penetrate, and you won’t get the hydration your skin needs. 

If you do want to try an oil first, I would recommend a squalane like Indie Lee Squalane Facial Oil, since it has the thinnest texture. But only use a small amount, and ideally on damp skin so that it has some water to trap.

Otherwise, the general rule is to apply your hydrators in order of thinnest to thickest texture, with watery formulations going on before creamy ones, and oils as your last step.

Your Skin Is “Addicted” to Moisturizer

SkinCeuticals Hydrating B5 Gel

SkinCeuticals Hydrating B5 Gel

The most unexpected cause of dry skin is that you might be using too much moisturizer.

That’s right—some dermatologists and facialists believe that moisturizer is only necessary for the 10-15% of the population with genetically dry skin (often accompanied by eczema or atopic dermatitis). 

For everyone else, relying on moisturizer all the time can make your skin “lazy,” so it stops maintaining its own hydration levels.

“Moisturizers can be used occasionally... but to depend on them as an essential for skincare is wrong because it weakens skin,” says Dr. Zein Obagi. “You cannot reverse Mother Nature by applying moisture from the surface, thinking that the moisture will go down and provide what your skin needs. No, it stays on the surface and makes you addicted to it. It slows down skin’s ability to renew itself.”

“Over-moisturizing our skin’s surface sends a signal to its water reservoirs to halt production,” says Kate Kerr, a London-based facialist. “When that happens, the skin becomes sluggish and actually lacking in moisture, which makes us reach for even creamier formulas, exacerbating the problem.”

If you suspect that your skin may be “addicted” to moisturizer, Kerr recommends swapping out your heavy creams for a hyaluronic acid serum. (I like SkinCeuticals Hydrating B5 Gel and Timeless Hyaluronic Acid.) To prevent it from evaporating, you could just use sunscreen or a couple drops of squalane oil.

It can take up to 12 weeks for skin to adjust, but most people are said to see an improvement as early as the two-week mark. I noticed a big difference myself!

Your Diet Is Low in Vitamin A

Vital Proteins Beef Liver Capsules

Vital Proteins Beef Liver Capsules

Vitamin A is essential for many physiological processes, including the daily replacement of skin cells. But if you’re not meeting your body’s requirements for it, a vitamin A deficiency could cause skin cells to shed too quickly, resulting in dryness and even medical conditions like eczema.

This is known as abnormal keratinization, and vitamin A can help by slowing it down, so that skin cells function longer before they flake off.

These are some ways you can safely get more vitamin A in your diet:

  • Food sources: Liver has the highest amount of active (preformed) vitamin A, but butter, cream, milk and eggs are also good sources. Provitamin A from plant sources high in beta-carotene (like sweet potato and carrots) is less desirable. It has to be converted by our bodies into active vitamin A, but many people have poor conversion due to sluggish liver and thyroid function.
  • Supplements: If you can’t get enough vitamin A from food, supplementing with desiccated liver capsules is an option. I recommend Vital Proteins Beef Liver Capsules and Saturée A+ Liver Capsules.

You Have a Slow Metabolism

How to Heal Your Metabolism by Kate Deering

How to Heal Your Metabolism by Kate Deering

Slow metabolism can be a cause of dry skin (among many other symptoms), and it's more common than you think.

“In hypothyroid patients, blood circulation through the skin is less than normal at all times,” said Dr. Broda Barnes in his book, Hypothyroidism: The Unsuspected Illness.

With reduced circulation, skin becomes drier because it doesn’t receive enough nourishment, waste products aren’t promptly removed, and it is vulnerable to bacterial invaders.

Keep in mind that it’s very possible to have slow metabolism, even if blood tests indicate normal thyroid function. Dr. Barnes (who is considered the pioneer of thyroid research) deemed lab tests “unreliable” and claimed that 40% of Americans were in fact hypothyroid. That was back in 1976, so imagine how high that number is today!

The best practical advice I’ve found for restoring healthy metabolism is in the book How to Heal Your Metabolism by Kate Deering. I can’t recommend it enough!


Now you know the most common causes that lead to dryness—and how to address them!

The most surprising thing about dry skin is that we can easily bring it upon ourselves with an overzealous routine. But a gentle, “less is more” approach is always best, no matter what your skin type. 

I would also encourage you to get away from the idea that your skin even has a set “type.” Maybe it seems dry at this point in time, but with these tips, it’s not necessarily destined to be that way forever.

Here’s to moist, dewy, hydrated skin in your future!

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