Dry skin problems are so common that they even have their own hashtag on Instagram (#dryskinproblems, with more than 75,000 posts and counting!). Anyone who has experienced tightness, flakiness and rough patches knows how uncomfortable they can be—to the point where you’re constantly slathering your face in moisturizer.
But that may not be your best strategy. While creams do help to prevent moisture loss, it’s even more important to ditch the habits that are dehydrating your skin, and switch to a more hydrating routine.
In this tutorial, you will learn what causes dryness, where you might be going wrong, and which products are best for quenching a thirsty complexion. Whether you’re new to dry skin, or you consider it to be your lifelong “skin type,” this is how to keep your face happily hydrated.
What Is Dry Skin?
When your skin is dry, it usually feels tight—especially after you wash it—and looks flaky. Its texture is rough, not smooth, and fine lines and wrinkles are often more apparent. It can even take on a dull cast, no matter how many products you pile on.
According to researchers, this happens when the skin’s water content is less than 10%, and its barrier function is disrupted. Along with skin cells, the skin barrier is comprised of naturally-occurring lipids, which—when depleted—become less effective at keeping water locked in and irritants out. A reduction in the skin’s natural moisturizing factors, which bind water, is also thought to be involved.
“Only 10-15% of the population has a true genetically dry skin,” says Kate Kerr, a London-based celebrity facialist. “They have always had dry skin and have never had any problems with acne or excessive oil flow. They are often prone to dry skin conditions like eczema and dermatitis.”
When the rest of us experience dry skin, our routines are usually the culprit. So just because you’re dealing with the symptoms of dryness, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you have a dry skin type, or are destined to deal with this condition forever.
What Causes Dry Skin?
Here’s what could be causing your skin to feel dry:
1. You're Over-Cleansing
Washing your face seems like the most basic step in your daily routine... so what could go wrong? You might be using a cleanser that is stripping away your skin’s natural oils, leaving your face uncomfortably tight. This is the most frequent cause of dry skin, and sulfates are usually to blame.
"Sulfates are an ingredient that should be avoided in people with dry skin,” says Dr. Jeriel Weitz. “[They] are a type of surfactant, which helps to remove dirt and oil from your skin and thus helps to clean the skin. However, sulfates also disrupt the epidermal barrier, which can make them too harsh for people with dry skin. The most common sulfates found in cosmetic products are sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate, so be sure to avoid them if you have dry skin.”
2. Your Water Is Too Hot
It feels so good, but washing your face with hot water—whether at the sink or during a long, steamy shower—can lead to dry skin. That’s because hot water whisks away the fatty substances in our skin that help it to retain moisture. “[It] strips the skin of sebum, the healthy fats and oils necessary for skin health, and dehydrates the skin,” says Dr. Shari Marchbein.
3. You’re Not Exfoliating
If you think dry skin doesn’t need exfoliating, think again. Regular gentle exfoliation is essential to remove surface dead skin cells, so that your hydrators can reach the live cells underneath.
“If your skin is dry, tight and flaky, it means that you have dry skin cell build-up on the surface of the skin,” explains celebrity facialist Renée Rouleau. “Rather than putting on extra cream, try increasing your exfoliation... so that when your cream goes on it hydrates the new cells rather than the dry cells.”
4. You’re Exfoliating Too Much
On the flip side, make sure you’re not over-exfoliating, either. When you exfoliate too aggressively or too often, you can “create tiny cracks in the skin barrier that lead to more loss of hydration and inflammation,” says Dr. Joshua Zeichner.
Avoid anything abrasive, like cleansing brushes with nylon bristles or scrubs with jagged particles. Not only can they strip protective oils, they could even scratch and irritate your skin. Also be careful with glycolic acid, which is notoriously drying and irritating due to its low molecular weight.
5. You’re Applying Harsh Ingredients
It’s not just certain exfoliating methods that can lead to dry skin. Many active ingredients can have the same effect—especially retinol and prescription retinoids. Dryness, peeling, redness, burning and itching are all well-known side effects that can appear, especially during the early course of treatment.
Vitamin C in the form of L-ascorbic acid can also pose a problem because it is usually formulated at a low (acidic) pH and at concentrations as high as 15-20%. “This may cause some skin irritation, redness and dryness,” says Zeichner.
Don’t forget drying alcohols like denaturated alcohol, ethanol and SD alcohol 40, which are often found in toners. Just like harsh cleansers and exfoliants, they can strip the skin, so switch to alcohol-free products instead.
6. You’re Only Using Humectants
Humectants are water-attracting ingredients (like glycerin and hyaluronic acid) that draw moisture into the epidermis from the dermis or the environment. But unless you live in a humid climate, they could make dryness worse if you use them on their own.
“If you are in a humid environment, humectant ingredients will pull in moisture from the air and therefore help your skin to stay hydrated,” says Dr. Leslie Baumann. “If you are in a dry climate, on the other hand, humectants can cause your skin to become dehydrated by pulling moisture up from deeper layers and onto the surface, where they can evaporate into the air. For this reason, it is best to combine humectant ingredients with occlusives.”
7. You’re Only Using Occlusives
Occlusives are oily or waxy ingredients (like petrolatum, lanolin and jojoba oil) that form a protective barrier on the surface of 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.
"I do find that a lot of people who only use oils are actually really dehydrated or their skin barrier is compromised underneath all that application of oils," says Dr. Melissa Kanchanapoomi Levin. "I'm not saying oils are bad, but it can’t be the only component when you’re talking about moisturizing or restoring the skin barrier.”
8. You Need to Repair Your Skin Barrier
If combining humectants and occlusives hasn’t helped, then you may need additional ingredients to repair your damaged skin barrier. Researchers have likened it to a brick-and-mortar system. Your skin cells are the bricks, and the lipids in between them—ceramides, cholesterol and fatty acids—are the mortar. When cracks develop between cells, moisture escapes, but you can repair them by applying these substances topically.
9. You’re Layering Products in the Wrong Order
Maybe you have all the right products to banish dry skin, but you’re applying them in the wrong order. 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 Vintner’s Daughter Active Botanical Serum) that are actually oils, and come with instructions to apply them on bare skin.
The problem is that oils are occlusive, so anything you layer over them may not fully penetrate, and you won’t get the hydration your skin needs. “I like to refer to a face oil as being like a bodyguard for your skin, or like a top coat that works to seal all the products that are underneath deep into the skin,” says Rouleau.
10. You’re Moisturizing Too Much
The most unexpected cause of dry skin is that you might be using too much moisturizer. That’s right—some experts, like Kerr and Dr. Zein Obagi, believe that it’s only necessary for the 10-15% of people with genetically dry skin. For everyone else, it makes the skin “lazy,” and can even weaken barrier function, increasing susceptibility to irritants.
“If you apply a lot of moisture, skin will become sensitive, dry [and] dull, and [it will] interfere with natural hydration,” says Obagi. “Moisturizers can be used occasionally... but to depend on them as an essential for skincare is wrong because it weakens skin. 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.”
11. Your Diet Is Low in Vitamin A
Vitamin A is a key nutrient for regulating skin cell turnover, preventing UV damage and wound healing. But if you’re not meeting your body’s requirements for it, a deficiency could cause skin cells to shed too quickly, resulting in dryness and even conditions like atopic dermatitis (eczema). Upping the vitamin A in your diet can help slow down shedding, so that skin cells function longer before they flake off.
12. You Have a Slow Metabolism
Low thyroid function can be a cause of dry skin, 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 and waste products aren’t being promptly removed.
Even if blood tests indicate normal thyroid function, your thyroid could still be sluggish. Barnes (who is considered the pioneer of thyroid research) deemed lab tests “unreliable” and claimed that 40% of Americans were in fact hypothyroid.
How to Get Rid of Dry Skin on Your Face
Now that you know what could be triggering your dry skin, here’s what you can do about it:
Switch to a Sulfate-Free Cleanser
Swap out your harsh cleanser for one that’s non-drying and sulfate-free. Choose from:
- Cream cleansers: Creamy formulas are moisturizing and won’t disrupt your skin’s pH level. My top picks for dry skin include First Aid Beauty Face Cleanser (reviewed here), Blume Daydreamer Face Wash and Peet Rivko Gentle Cleanser. For more options, see my guide to cream cleansers.
- Oil cleansers: Oils are ideal because they don’t contain any detergents; just remove them with warm water and a soft cloth. There’s no need for anything fancy—pure coconut oils like Kopari Organic Coconut Melt do the job and are the most shelf-stable.
- Micellar cleansers: Micellar water cleansers such as Bioderma Sensibio H2O and Caudalie Vinoclean Micellar Cleansing Water aren’t just for removing makeup. You can actually use them as your main cleanser, and they’re much less likely to dry out your skin.
- Gel and foaming cleansers: Although gels and foams are usually geared at oily types, I have found a few exceptions that are suitable for even dry skin. Indie Lee Brightening Cleanser (reviewed here), iS Clinical Cleansing Complex, Graydon Face Foam and Caudalie Vinoclean Gentle Foam Cleanser are all ultra-gentle and non-stripping.
Also keep in mind that you may not even need a cleanser in the morning. For dry skin, cleansing with water alone may be enough.
Apply a Hydrating Toner
Alcohol-based toner is a big no-no for dry skin, so choose a hydrating version instead. When used after cleansing, it works to remove any leftover cleanser residue, deposit weightless humectants, and prep your skin to receive active ingredients.
I recommend Indie Lee CoQ-10 Toner (reviewed here), which is packed with aloe and hyaluronic acid, and First Aid Beauty Ultra Repair Wild Oat Hydrating Toner, which has squalane, colloidal oatmeal and honey.
Start Gently Exfoliating
There’s no set rule on how often dry skin needs to be exfoliated—it depends on what method you’re using, and what your skin can tolerate. In general, you’ll get better results from mild exfoliation on a regular basis (even daily), rather than doing something more intense less often. Here are my favourite exfoliants for dry skin:
- Betaine salicylate: This is a BHA that is a milder and more hydrating alternative to salicylic acid, with anti-inflammatory properties. Try COSRX Moisture Up Pad, which has 0.5% along with propolis and hyaluronic acid.
- Lactic acid: This is the best AHA for dry skin because it hydrates while it exfoliates, and is unlikely to cause irritation. Start with The Ordinary Lactic Acid 5% + HA and then move up to the brand’s Lactic Acid 10% + HA (both reviewed here) when your skin can handle it.
- Polyhydroxy acids (PHAs): Gluconolactone, galactose and lactobionic acid are similar to AHAs, but have even larger molecule sizes (so they’re ultra-gentle). I love The Inkey List PHA Toner, which has 3% PHAs plus 3% niacinamide.
- Non-abrasive scrubs: Look for scrubs with round (not jagged) particles in a creamy base, such as Dr. Barbara Sturm Facial Scrub and Peet Rivko Exfoliator.
- Silicone cleansing brushes: The Foreo Luna and PMD Clean both have soft silicone bristles that deep-clean and lift off dead skin.
- Konjac sponge: This is an all-natural sponge that softens and expands in water. To exfoliate, use it in circular motions, either in conjunction with cleanser or even with water alone. Try the 100% Pure Konjac Charcoal Konjac Sponge.
- Soft cloth: You can even get a great exfoliation by simply removing your cleanser with a soft cloth such as 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.
Use a Hydrating Serum, Essence or Mist
Hydrating serums, essences and face mists are all about delivering humectants—the water-loving ingredients that pull moisture into the skin. Try layering one of these underneath your occlusive moisturizer and/or face oil:
- Serums: You can’t go wrong with a simple hyaluronic acid formula such as SkinCeuticals Hydrating B5 Gel, Timeless Hyaluronic Acid or ClarityRx Daily Dose of Water Hyaluronic Acid Hydrating Serum. Another favourite of mine is Consonant HydrExtreme, which hydrates with a highly effective polysaccharide. Propolis-based serums such as COSRX Propolis Light Ampoule are also fabulous for dry skin. For more options, see my guide to hydrating serums.
- Essences: For a more fluid, watery texture, I love SK-II Facial Treatment Essence and Omorovicza Omoressence. Also consider COSRX Advanced Snail 96 Mucin Power Essence with 96% snail mucin, a more emollient (and gooey!) type of humectant.
- Mists: The most moisturizing mists that I’ve found are Agent Nateur Holi (Water), which is packed with hyaluronic acid, and Allies of Skin Molecular Saviour Probiotics Repair Mist, which is made with 5% niacinamide. For more options, see my guide to face mists.
If you suspect that your skin may be “addicted” to moisturizer, Kerr recommends hydrating with humectants like these instead, but there will be an adjustment period. “Expect [a] notable difference within six weeks—and a big one within 18 weeks, once three skin cycles have taken place. During the transition period, you might notice your skin feels tighter, perhaps a little flaky, and products may tingle very slightly. But don't quit—that means it’s working.”
Add Barrier-Repairing Ingredients
To seal the cracks in a damaged skin barrier, look for products with the following ingredients (the more of them, the better!):
- Ceramides: Since they make up more than half your skin barrier, ceramides are the most important component for repair. Serums such as Skin Inc Supplement Bar Ceramide Serum and Pacifica Vegan Ceramide Serum allow you to incorporate them into your routine in a lightweight layer.
- Cholesterol: As the second most prevalent lipid in the skin barrier, cholesterol keeps skin plump and well-hydrated. You can find it (along with ceramides) in The Inkey List Ceramide Night Treatment and EltaMD Barrier Renewal Complex.
- Fatty acids: The naturally-occurring fatty acids in our skin work to decrease water loss, and we can replicate their function by applying them topically. Palmitic acid and stearic acid are two of the best (and most stable). Try Boscia Plant Stem Cell and Ceramide Barrier-Defense Moisturizer.
- Niacinamide: While it’s not a component of the skin barrier, niacinamide plays a supporting role by increasing ceramide production. Kristina Holey + Marie Veronique Soothing B3 Serum is hydrating and calming on dry skin (and is free of fragrance and essential oils).
Switch to Non-Drying Actives
When actives cause dryness, it’s sometimes a matter of giving your skin enough time to slowly build up a tolerance. But if you still can’t handle certain ingredients (like retinol), consider one of these options instead:
- Hydroxypinacolone retinoate (HPR): More commonly known by the trade name “granactive retinoid,” HPR is a retinoic acid ester that is as active as pure retinoic acid, but causes little to no dryness or irritation. (“Granactive retinoid” refers to HPR in the solvent dimethyl isosorbide in a 1:10 ratio.) The Ordinary Granactive Retinoid 5% in Squalane (reviewed here) is a good place to start.
- Retinyl retinoate: This is another retinoic acid ester that is well-tolerated by all skin. It is comparable to retinaldehyde since it converts to active retinoic acid in just one step. Find it in Verso Super Facial Serum, which is especially suitable for dry skin.
- Vitamin C derivatives: Researchers have speculated that vitamin C may help to prevent dry skin by supporting the production of barrier lipids. If you can’t handle L-ascorbic acid, try ascorbyl glucoside (found in The Ordinary Ascorbyl Glucoside Solution 12%, reviewed here), THD ascorbate (found in Joanna Vargas Rescue Serum), ethyl ascorbic acid (found in Summer Fridays CC Me Serum) or sodium ascorbyl phosphate (found in Mad Hippie Vitamin C Serum).
- Niacinamide: Don’t forget that niacinamide is also a powerful active that does a lot more than just support the skin barrier. It brightens, fades pigmentation and reduces redness and sallowness. See my guide to niacinamide serums for all your options.
Finish With a Lotion, Cream or Oil
A final layer of lotion, cream or oil will act as an occlusive to lock in moisture and prevent it from escaping. (During the daytime, your occlusive can even just be your sunscreen.) My top picks include:
- Lotions: OSEA Atmosphere Protection Cream and Omorovicza Elemental Emulsion have a light, fluid texture, but still keep hydration in your skin.
- Creams: Doctor Rogers RESTORE Face Cream is a dermatologist-formulated cream full of skin-friendly ingredients. Augustinus Bader The Cream is also one of your best bets for both hydration and barrier repair. For more picks, see my guide to face moisturizers.
- Oils: Squalane oils such as Indie Lee Squalane Facial Oil (reviewed here) soften and seal in moisture while remaining extremely lightweight. For a richer texture, try a jojoba oil like MV Skintherapy Pure Jojoba.
Tweak Your Diet
These are some ways you can safely get more vitamin A in your diet to hydrate your skin from within:
- Food sources: Beef 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.
Conclusion + Further Reading
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 destined to be that way forever. Here’s to dewy, hydrated skin in your future!
- Sethi, Anisha, Kaur, Tejinder, Malhotra, S.K. & Gambhir, M.L. (2016). Moisturizers: The Slippery Road. Indian Journal of Dermatology. 2016 May-Jun; 61(3): 279–287.
- Purnamawati, Schandra, Indrastuti, Niken, Danarti, Retno & Saefudin, Tatan. (2017). The Role of Moisturizers in Addressing Various Kinds of Dermatitis: A Review. Clinical Medicine & Research. 2017 Dec; 15(3-4): 75–87.
- Pullar, Juliet M., Carr, Anitra C. & Vissers, Margreet C. M. (2017). The Roles of Vitamin C in Skin Health. Nutrients. 2017 Aug; 9(8): 866.
- Smith, W. P. (1996). Comparative effectiveness of alpha-hydroxy acids on skin properties. International Journal of Cosmetic Science. 1996 Apr; 18(2): 75-83.
- Phillips, Tania J. (2005). An update on the safety and efficacy of topical retinoids. Cutis. 2005 Feb; 75(2 Suppl):14-22, 24; discussion 22-3.
- Pinnell, S.R., Yang, H., Omar, M., Monteiro-Riviere, N., DeBuys, H.V., Walker, L.C., Wang, Y. & Levine, M. (2001). Topical L-ascorbic acid: percutaneous absorption studies. Dermatologic Surgery. 2001 Feb; 27(2): 137-42.
- Held, E., Sveinsdóttir, S. & Agner, T. (1999). Effect of long-term use of moisturizer on skin hydration, barrier function and susceptibility to irritants. Acta Dermato-Venereologica. 1999 Jan; 79(1): 49-51.
- Park, Kyungho. (2015). Role of Micronutrients in Skin Health and Function. Biomolecules & Therapeutics. 2015 May; 23(3): 207–217.
- Huang, Zhiyi, Liu, Yu, Qi, Guangying, Brand, David & Zheng, Song Guo. (2018). Role of Vitamin A in the Immune System. Journal of Clinical Medicine. 2018 Sep; 7(9): 258.
- Mihály, Johanna, Gamlieli, Anat, Worm, Margitta & Rühl, Ralph. (2011). Decreased retinoid concentration and retinoid signalling pathways in human atopic dermatitis. Experimental Dermatology. 2011 Apr; 20(4): 326-30.
- Kim, Eun Ju, Kim, Min-Kyoung, Jin, Xing-Ji, Oh, Jang-Hee, Kim, Ji Eun & Ho, Jin. (2010). Skin Aging and Photoaging Alter Fatty Acids Composition, Including 11,14,17-eicosatrienoic Acid, in the Epidermis of Human Skin. Journal of Korean Medical Science. 2010 Jun; 25(6): 980–983.
- Tanno, O., Ota, Y., Kitamura, N., Katsube, T. & Inoue, S. (2000). Nicotinamide increases biosynthesis of ceramides as well as other stratum corneum lipids to improve the epidermal permeability barrier. British Journal of Dermatology. 2000 Sep; 143(3): 524-31.
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