How to Tell If Your Skin Is Actually Dry — Or Just Dehydrated

Because they're not one and the same.

I've chalked up my oily forehead and slightly uneven skin texture to having combination skin and being in my early 30s. However, it turns out both aren't factors of my skin type and age, but rather signals that my skin is dehydrated.

During a recent facial with celebrity esthetician Renée Rouleau, I listed my main concerns as hormonal acne, post-inflammatory dark spots from past breakouts, and maintaining my skin's plumpness and firmness. Rouleau blew my mind when she told me that the extra shine on my forehead and the texture on my cheeks is actually dehydration, and most likely a result of using retinol every night. Yes, that's right: your skin can be oily and dehydrated at the same time.

While dry skin and dehydrated skin are two skincare terms that are often used interchangeably, they aren't one and the same. Post-facial, I tapped Rouleau, and two top dermatologists to explain the difference, how to tell which one you're dealing with, along with tips for rehydrating your skin — and keeping it that way.

What Is the Difference Between Dry Skin and Dehydrated Skin?

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To put it simply, dehydrated skin lacks water, whereas dry skin lacks oil or sebum. "All skin types can experience dehydration," confirms Dr. Tiffany Libby, a Rhode Island-based board-certified dermatologist. "For example, you can have oily skin that is still dehydrated."

However, California-based board-certified dermatologist Dr. Azadeh Shirazi says dehydrated skin can be a precursor to dry skin (which is rough and flaky) and notes that our skin becomes more prone to water loss as we age and our skin begins to produce less natural oils.

There are a number of factors that can contribute to dehydration, both external and internal. Dr. Libby calls out harsh soaps, hot showers, sun exposure, and the environment (dry heat or cold air). In addition, Dr. Shirazi says over-exfoliating the skin, along with not getting enough sleep or drinking enough water can also lead to dehydration.

How Can You Tell If You Have Dehydrated Skin or Dry Skin?

The pinch test is the simplest way of determining if your skin is dehydrated, "Pinch the skin over the back of the hand," says Dr. Shirazi. "If there's dehydration, the skin will be slow to return to its normal state."

But keep in mind whether your face has been feeling tight despite having oily or combination skin. "Dehydrated skin is when the skin has a shiny, crinkly look to it where you can see superficial fine lines. (This is most noticeable when the skin is slightly pinched)," explains Rouleau. "If you have a hard time seeing it to the naked eye, then pay attention to how it feels. If it feels unusually tight and you have oily, combination skin, then this could mean that your skin is lacking water and is dehydrated."

"Think of a grape, dehydrated and devoid of its water content, it appears as a raisin," Dr. Libby adds. "Skin can also feel more tight, and may even experience irritation like itchiness."

How Do You Treat Dehydrated Skin?

First, it's important to eliminate whatever factors might be causing dehydration. For me, it was eliminating my retinol and any exfoliating products from my routine for a few weeks and focusing on hydration. Then, slowly incorporate these active ingredients back into my regimen a few times a week on alternating days.

"If your skin is dehydrated, you'll want to avoid anything that encourages the skin to feel tight and strip the skin of water," says Rouleau. "So this would be bar soaps, sulfate-based (harsh detergents) cleansers, alcohol-based toners, and any type of strong acne product, such as those with benzoyl peroxide."

But before that, it's even more vital to know what kind of hydration your skin type needs. "All skin types require water, but not oil. So in oily and combination skin types where oil is already present, then the skin requires water-based hydration," Rouleau explains. "If you have a normal or dry skin type, this requires both water and oil—and this can be done through topical applications of serums, moisturizer and treatment oils." The Moisture Infusion Toner, Skin Drink Concentrate, and Sheer Moisture Lotion are three formulas from her namesake line that soothe and replenish skin with water-based hydration, while BeautyStat's Universal Moisture Essence is a moisturizing oil treatment.

As for external factors like pollution and sun exposure, applying an SPF every day is key. Dr. Libby recommends a formula that also contains hydrating ingredients. "Products like Glytone's Hydra Lipid UV Mineral Sunscreen SPF 40+ that keep in mind protecting and defending your skin throughout the day from sun's UV rays and other free radical-generating factors, while hydrating your skin with hyaluronic acid and squalane are essential to improving and maintaining your skin's health," she says. She also suggests investing in a humidifier. And as cliché as it sounds, make sure you're drinking enough water. Dr. Shirazi says 8 to 11 cups of fluid a day is a good rule of thumb.

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