Water plays a central role in making sure your skin stays healthy, smooth and radiant, so it only makes sense that every skin care aisle is lined with products that promise to hydrate and moisturize skin. But what many of us may not realize is that although they are often used interchangeably, moisturizing and hydration are not exactly the same thing. While both are key in providing skin with much-needed nourishment, knowing the difference will help you make the best choice when targeting your skin’s specific needs.
Difference Between Hydrating and Moisturizing
Moisturizers and hydrators both address the importance of making sure the skin is getting all the water it needs to fight dryness and dehydration, premature signs of aging and environmental damage. The difference, however, lies mostly in how they go about achieving these results.
“Hydration [refers to] the water content within the cells that leads them to swell and be plump and bouncy, thus reflecting light well. If water flows out of the cells and the cells are dehydrated, they can become shriveled, which leads to lackluster skin,” explains board-certified dermatologist Anna Guanche, MD, FAAD. This means that when you’re using a topical hydrator, you’re infusing your cells with water and improving your skin’s ability to absorb moisture and nutrients.
On the other hand, moisturizing is about trapping and sealing in moisture to build the skin’s protective barrier, prevent water loss and keep the skin soft and smooth, says board-certified dermatologist Tsippora Shainhouse, MD, FAAD.
How to Know If You Need a Hydrator, Moisturizer or Both
If your skin tends to be on the dry side, it’s easy to assume that a healthy dose of moisturizer is all it takes to restore its plump appearance and youthful glow. While this may be true at times, it’s also possible that your skin may not, in fact, be dry but dehydrated. And if the latter is true, then a hydrator is what you need to get the job done.
To know if your skin is dry or dehydrated, it’s important to take note of your skin’s condition. The skin has a natural lipid barrier that protects itself from damage and water loss. If you’re prone to having dry, flaky skin, it’s a tell-tale sign that it’s not producing enough lipid cells to form a protective barrier, making it unable to lock in moisture. And that’s where moisturizers come in.
“A moisturizer’s job is to reduce the amount of water that evaporates off of the skin to minimize transepidermal water loss. They lock in and seal in moisture,” explains Dr. Guanche. Moisturizing is particularly helpful for skin that is dry and peeling or flaking after undergoing a chemical peel, using Retin A or during the winter, Dr. Guanche adds.
Meanwhile, if you’re dealing with a dull and lackluster complexion with fine lines and wrinkles becoming more noticeable, your skin may be battling dehydration. “Dehydrated skin means the cells are parched and starved of water. When this happens, they are not plump and volumized and appear shriveled collectively,” explains Dr. Guanche. “People can have hydrated but dry skin or dehydrated but moisturized skin. Ideally, we want hydrated, bouncy, swollen cells that have topical moisture locked into them,” she explains.
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