Medically reviewed by Mary Lucas, MSCIS, MPhil, RN
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 1/25/2022
For many of us, terms like dehydrated skin and dry skin can feel so interchangeable that we simply use them that way. It makes sense, after all: what really would be the difference between something that is dry and something that is dehydrated.
It’s a fair question, and one that many beauty and skincare experts seem never to answer, as they fall into the same traps.
The relationship between a dry skin type and dehydrated skin is a bit confusing, and though we use these terms interchangeably, they aren’t really all that interchangeable.
That’s because there’s a bigger implication to saying your skin barrier is dehydrated, and a potentially less serious problem if it’s simply dry.
Skin hydration means different things, but keeping your skin hydrated in either case is still important for your skincare routine and your skin health generally. Let’s break this down.
Dry skin is a condition that results from a variety of potential factors. The medical name for dry skin is “xerosis,” and it can be caused by things like climate, genetics, diet, organ diseases, hormonal fluctuations and dehydration.
What it comes down to is a loss of moisture, and skin can lose moisture through a variety of avenues — not just dehydration.
You might experience dry skin as a result of an arid climate or a medication you’re taking. You might also experience it from winter heaters or a change in diet. Chlorinated pools can cause dry skin, too.
However, a key element of skin “dryness” is that it’s not just about your lack of water content (which should be around 10 percent to 15 percent) or dull skin appearance. It’s about something else too: oil or lipids.
Curiously enough, the oily skin surface that some people complain about actually does something very well: keeping things from not drying out.
When we remove oil, however, we’re removing a protective layer produced by our bodies to act as a barrier from the elements.
Conditions like psoriasis and eczema can also cause this to happen — your hands, body and face may dry out from these skin conditions, and this can lead to irritated skin, uneven skin texture or skin tone and other symptoms.
Age can also play a factor, both by increasing your risk and also making existing conditions like seborrheic dermatitis, contact dermatitis, atopic dermatitis and athlete’s foot worse.
Dryness can come from certain kidney and other diseases as well, lest you think the list ends there.
Okay. So, we know what dry skin is and what can happen if your skin becomes dry. But what about dehydrated skin? Well, it’s complicated.
Dehydrated skin is a bigger issue, and it’s a sort of hierarchy question. Your skin may be dry due to an abundance of dead skin cells, but the cause could be dehydration or not.
But if your skin is dehydrated, it will be not only dry, but it may suffer more serious symptoms due to dehydration.
Dehydration can be a risk factor for dry skin as well, along with many other problems. Symptoms of dehydration include turgor (a lack of elasticity in skin), sunken eyes and slow capillary refill.
Dehydration is a serious skin condition that can also lead to dry mouth, discolored or dark urine, dizziness, feeling tired and, yes, dry skin.
Severe dehydration can cause confusion, fainting, lack of urination, rapid breathing or heart rate, and of course if it persists long enough, death.
Dry skin, to be blunt, will do none of these things except present you with dry skin.
Dehydrated skin, however, is really just a symptom of total body dehydration.
The good news is that the confusing nature of these terms essentially stops here, and the solutions become straightforward.
Dehydration is a condition that can be solved by consuming and retaining plenty of water.
If you’re otherwise healthy, that’s as simple as drinking water. If you’re having trouble staying hydrated, you may want to consult a healthcare professional, as chronic dehydration could signal a number of health conditions that you should address.
As for dry skin? Well, there’s a bit more to it.
Some of these dangers are cosmetic, but over time they can result in decreases in the healthy function of your cells, which means sickly skin, slower wound healing, and reduced elasticity and firmness.
Regardless of skin type, protecting your skin and preventing these problems, then, is really about how you keep moisture and oil in the right places, at the right levels.
Washing your face the right way, for the right amount of time, is one important way to keep from drying out your skin barrier, as many cleansers can cause moisture loss.
Applying moisturizer after a bath or shower will likewise help you replenish what is lost from washing.
The American Academy of Dermatology advises people with dry skin to avoid retinoids, alpha-hydroxy acids and alcohol in skincare products.
While they may help manage dry cells, they can also contribute to and exacerbate dryness.
For environmental dryness, humidifiers are a great way to mitigate the damage.
The same goes for moisturizers like hyaluronic acid, which is a naturally occurring compound that helps your body retain moisture for later use.
Dryness and skin dehydration are both bad for you in the short and long term — that much is true.
But as conditions, they offer their own causes for concern, and their own levels of seriousness.
We’re not downplaying the importance of a healthy skin barrier, but chronic dehydration is an issue that causes major organ issues and other problems over time.
Regardless of whether your skin is dry or dehydrated, if the problem doesn’t go away with some one-on-one attention, it’s probably time to bring it to the attention of a healthcare professional.
People seldom get excited for a trip to the doctor’s office, but chronic issues like this can be signs of significant issues that you’re only making worse by avoiding them.
Over time, the damage can become irreversible, leaving your skin sallow and sad-looking.
What we’re saying is, if you’re concerned about any of these symptoms, talk to someone.
A healthcare provider is uniquely qualified to help you find the root cause, which may indeed be as simple to address as buying the right moisturizer.
But if the problem is worse, you’ll be glad you talked to the professionals.
Taking care of your skin is a little like taking care of the paint on your car: a few knicks and dings here and there may not feel like a big deal, but as they accumulate, you’re treading dangerously toward rust and long-term damage to the body.
Learning the difference between dehydrated skin and dry skin can make a big difference.
It’s also worth noting that dry skin is a symptom of dehydration, but not the other way around — and that dehydration is something you should have looked at by your healthcare provider sooner, rather than later.
Dry, dehydrated skin is a warning — don’t ignore the check engine light.