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Dehydrated Skin 101: Recognizing and Repairing a Damaged Moisture Barrier for that Glass Skin Look

Over here in the Western beauty market, one of the greatest revelations of the Asian beauty trend has been the importance of hydration to the overall health and appearance of your skin. That distinctive plump, bouncy, almost glossy look—dewy skin, glass skin, honey skin, whatever you want to call it—depends on very high levels of hydration to create a super-smooth surface and glowing effect. But what if your skin seems unable to hold enough hydration to achieve that effect? You may have dehydrated skin. Luckily, dehydrated skin is one of the easier issues to fix.

What is dehydrated skin?

Dehydrated skin is skin with insufficient water in its upper layers. Generally, you can tell your skin is dehydrated by a tight, uncomfortable, sometimes itchy feeling, as well as a general dullness and lack of elasticity. If you do a pinch test or simply press down on your skin and then release the pressure, you’ll see that your skin doesn’t bounce back quickly. Dehydrated skin often looks more aged than well hydrated skin, with more fine lines and less glow.

It’s important to know that dehydrated skin can occur whether your skin type is normal, oily, or dry. Skin types are inherited and largely unchangeable, while dehydrated skin is a skin condition that arises as a consequence of external factors. 

What causes dehydrated skin?

The very top layers of our skin function partly as a barrier against Trans Epidermal Water Loss (TEWL). When compromised, the moisture barrier allows increased TEWL, leading to dehydrated skin. Therefore, anything that affects the integrity of the moisture barrier can cause dehydrated skin. The most common culprits of a damaged barrier are too much exfoliation and too-harsh cleansing.

As we discussed in our article on chemical and physical exfoliators, the outer layer of skin consists of a brick-and-mortar arrangement of flattened dead skin cells held together with lipids. This structure acts as a waterproofing barrier that both keeps irritants and contaminants out and holds moisture in. Overexfoliation removes too many layers of skin cells. Overly harsh cleansers or overly frequent cleansing strip away too many lipids. Both weaken the skin barrier. The result is dehydrated skin.

For many of us, the importance of the moisture barrier was a serious skincare revelation. Here in the West, we’re often taught that we can scrub and peel and strip away our skin problems, that abrasive exfoliators and high-foam face washes that leave our skin feeling “squeaky clean” are a good thing. They’re not. In fact, some of us found that our scrubbing and endless washing was the cause of our skin problems in the first place.

Building your barrier back up

If you’ve determined that you have dehydrated skin, your first step should be to evaluate your current skincare routine for anything that may be damaging your moisture barrier.

Do you exfoliate regularly? Consider whether you may be exfoliating too often or too harshly. What that means will be different for every person, but as a general rule, I wouldn’t use a physical exfoliator more than once a week unless it’s a very, very gentle peeling gel. I wouldn’t use a peel-strength chemical exfoliator more than once a month, and I even limit my use of milder, “daily use” AHAs like COSRX’s AHA 7 Whitehead Power Liquid to no more than 5 times a week. If you suspect you may have been overexfoliating, temporarily reduce your frequency of exfoliation or drop your exfoliation routine altogether until your barrier recovers.

COSRX’s AHA 7 Whitehead Power Liquid

Also think carefully about your cleanser. As a general rule, I always recommend that people stick to cleansers at a pH of 7 (neutral) or lower. In its healthy state, skin’s moisture barrier maintains a low acidic pH, so cleansers at too high of a pH disrupt it, allowing the cleansing agents in the product to strip away too many of skin’s natural lipids.

You don’t necessarily need to buy pH strips to check your cleanser pH. Pay attention to how it makes your skin feel. If your skin is squeaky after cleansing and/or feels dry or tight immediately after you towel off, your cleanser is most likely too harsh. Also take a look at your cleanser’s ingredients. If you see the combo of myristic acid and/or stearic acid with potassium hydroxide, especially high up in the ingredients list, back away. Myristic and/or stearic acid plus potassium hydroxide equals soap. Soaps are generally very harsh and very high pH regardless of whatever moisturizing ingredients they contain. Many people also find cleansers with sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) to be too stripping for facial skin.

Fortunately, low pH cleansers aren’t hard to come by these days. Glowie Co carries several of my favorites. For more oily and resilient skin, COSRX Low pH Good Morning Gel Cleanser packs a satisfying amount of cleansing power in a pH 5.5 package. Normal skin will likely do well with the classic Hada Labo Gokujyun Hyaluronic Acid Foam Facial Cleanser, which I’ve used for years and years. And lately I’ve really enjoyed Taiwanese brand 23.5N’s Rice Soothing Cleansing Foam, which cleans softly while using rice extracts to soothe and prevent irritation. I find it suitable even for times when my skin feels extra sensitive or dry.

Hada Labo Gokujyun Hyaluronic Acid Foam Facial Cleanser CosRX Low pH Good Morning Gel Cleanser 23.5°N Rice Soothing Cleansing Foam

Once you’ve eliminated products that damage your skin barrier, it will begin to heal naturally on its own. This process may take several weeks to a couple of months. If you want to speed it along, you can do so in a couple of different ways.

Many moisturizing products tout ceramides among their key ingredients, and for good reason. Ceramides are lipids that occur naturally in the skin barrier, and research shows that ceramides, cholesterol, and free fatty acids at a 3:1:1 ratio help to speed up barrier recovery—a very good thing for dehydrated skin. Not all ceramide products use these ingredients at that ratio, however. One that does is Holy Snails First Snow Essence, which delivers these barrier-strengthening ingredients in the optimal ratio but in a lightweight liquid format that’s suitable for applying immediately after cleansing.

Niacinamide has also been shown to improve skin barrier function, in part by increasing ceramide production in the skin. Holy Snails Shark Sauce and Shark Sauce variants contain niacinamide at a research-backed 5% concentration, boosted with 3% n-acetylglucosamine for enhanced effectiveness. As a side benefit for dehydrated skin, the lightweight, watery consistencies of the Shark Sauce products and the inclusion of hyaluronic acid and seaweed extracts in them help hydrate skin for an immediately plumper and brighter effect.

Holy Snails Shark Sauce

Adding instant hydration

Reducing exfoliation, switching to a gentler cleanser, and adding ceramides and niacinamide to your routine will go a long way towards strengthening your barrier over time. We tend to like more immediate results these days, however. For dehydrated skin, there are a couple of things you can do to achieve a plumper, bouncier appearance right away.

Asian skincare is famous for layering multiple hydrating products in a single routine. This is a fantastic way to max out the hydration in the upper layers of your skin. Look for lightweight, water-based liquids with humectants like glycerin and hyaluronic acid: humectants are molecules that attach and bind to many times their own weight in water, retaining it in your skin for longer than it would stay on its own. Among my favorites is the Haruharu WONDER Black Rice Hyaluronic Toner, which sinks in quickly and layers beautifully.

Don’t forget sheet masks! Soaking skin for longer periods of time in a mask saturated with hydrating solution increases skin’s hydration levels, so a well-chosen sheet mask will go a long way towards filling out those upper layers of skin. Annie’s Way Hyaluronic Acid + Seaweed Hydrating Mask is one of my longtime staples. The seaweed extracts in these masks help to smooth skin texture while adding to the humectant effect of the hyaluronic acid.

Finally, while your skin barrier recovers, trap hydration in your skin more effectively with an occlusive moisturizer at the end of your routine. Occlusives form a physical barrier on top of skin to slow down TEWL. Nothing can stop TEWL altogether, but a barrier cream like COSRX Balancium Comfort Ceramide Cream will reduce water loss so your skin can look and feel plumper for longer. And if your skin barrier is severely damaged, petroleum jelly is powerfully occlusive, so a thin layer of Vaseline may help!

CosRx Balancium Comfort Ceramide Cream

Don’t sweat these dehydration myths

As a final note, there are a couple of pervasive skin hydration myths you can totally ignore.

Unless you’re actually dehydrated overall, with dark pee and probably at least some of the other signs of dehydration, drinking more water will probably make no difference to the visible hydration levels of your skin. When we talk about dehydrated skin, we’re only talking about the very upper layers of skin. At deeper levels, skin has a near-infinite supply of hydration via your bloodstream. Dehydrated skin arises from skin’s inability to retain water, not from an internal lack of water.

Humectants don’t dehydrate skin, as some have claimed. For the most part, humectants in skincare add water via the water they’re mixed with in the products you use. Even where humectants successfully bind water from deeper layers of skin, they’re actually slowing that water’s journey through your skin to the surface, delaying TEWL. Again, your skin has a near-infinite supply of water at its deepest layers, so humectants aren’t causing any kind of loss for you.

And finally, wearing a sheet mask for longer periods of time won’t dehydrate your skin. The mask will not suck the moisture back out of your skin if you accidentally leave it on for so long that it dries out. Water will continue to evaporate from your skin at its usual rate if you don’t follow up with a moisturizer to seal it in, but the mask does not pull it back out.

I hope this article has you feeling more prepared to tackle dehydrated skin! As far as skin issues go, this really is one of the easier ones to handle, so toss those harsh cleansers, grab some ceramides and humectants, and let’s go!