how to fix dehydrated skin

How do you know if you have dehydrated skin? Unlike oily or dry skin, its signs are more subtle. For example…

Is your skin dry and oily at the same time? (I know, so frustrating!)

Or maybe your skin has lost all its glow – and those fine lines have become oh so noticeable all of a sudden?

In both of these cases, you may have dehydrated skin. It’s a common condition that almost everyone gets at some point – especially if you go overboard with skincare.

It’s also tricky to treat. Dehydrated skin looks a lot like dry skin and that can send you down the wrong treatment path. What’s the right way to fix dehydrated skin? Read on to find out.

(P.S. I’ll give you a hint now: less is more.)

What’s Dehydrated Skin?

Dehydrated skin isn’t a permanent skin type. It’s a temporary skin condition anyone can get – even oily skin. Dehydrated skin happens when your skin lacks water. It doesn’t have enough to function properly.

To confuse you even more, dehydrated skin is often accompanied by excess oil production. In other words, dehydrated skin is dry and oily at the same time. It feels like you have a greasy layer on top of your skin, but underneath that, it’s all brittle and dry. Ever felt like that?

This happens because your skin doesn’t have enough water. So, it tries to compensate by producing more sebum to keep it hydrated. Now your skin’s a mess and you’re super confused. *sighs*

How can you tell if you have it? Some tell tale dehydrated skin signs are dulness, loss of elasticity, and surface wrinkles. In other words, when your skin is dehydrated, it shows premature signs of aging and makes you look tired and older.

Related: How To Determine Your Real Skin Type

Dehydrated Skin Signs: How Can I Tell If I Have It?

Dehydrated skin looks a lot like dry skin. So how can you tell it if you have it? Common dehydrated skin signs are:

  • Your skin feels dry and oily at the same time – and it’s driving you crazy.
  • Your skin feels tight (especially on the upper cheeks) – even though you have excess oil.
  • Your skin feels paper-thin and wrinkles easily.
  • Your skin is flaking like crazy all over the place.
  • Your skin is so dull, you look like you’re tired all the time (even though you’re not).

If you have all or most of these symptoms, your skin IS dehydrated.

The Pinch Test

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there were a dehydrated skin test, so you could tell immediately if you have it? There is one! It’s called The Pinch Test. Here are all the steps:

  1. Pinch a small amount of skin on your cheek and hold for a few seconds.
  2. Does your skin bounce back immediately? You’re likely NOT dehydrated.
  3. Does your skin take a few seconds to bounced back? You’re likely dehydrated.

FYI, this test is NOT foolproof. As dietitian Samantha Cassetty points out, this test may not give accurate results in older people: “One issue with this test is that older people have less elastic skin, so when pinched, it remains tented for a more extended period of time. This doesn’t necessarily indicate dehydration.”

P.S. You can repeat this test on every area of your skin (hands, abdomen, etc), you think could be dehydrated.

What Causes Dehydrated Skin?

Dehydrated skin is a confusing skin condition that happens when your skin’s protective barrier is damaged. A healthy barrier keeps water in, so everything is hydrated, supple, and working as it should. But, when this protective barrier gets damaged, all hell breaks loose:

  • Skin cells stick and clump together (instead of shedding), causing flaky, dull, and rough skin – and increasing your chances of acne!
  • Water evaporates out of the skin, leaving it feeling tight and dry.
  • Germs and other nasties get into your skin, possibly causing infections and all kinds of trouble.

What damages your skin’s protective barrier so much to cause dehydrated skin? All the usual culprits:

  • Harsh (both dry and cold) weather
  • Medical conditions
  • Natural aging
  • Over-cleansing (especially with soap)
  • Over-exfoliation
  • Overuse of harsh skincare ingredients (like Tretinoin and Glycolic Acid)
  • Some medication
  • Unprotected sun exposure

Related: 4 Skincare Treatments That Can Damage Skin If Abused

What Does Dehydrated Skin Look Like?

As all skin type can experience dehydration at some point, let’s take a look at how it compares to other skin types and what it may look like for you:

Dry VS Dehydrated Skin

Dry and dehydrated skin often feel the same, but there’s a key difference between them:

  • Dry skin lacks OIL AND WATER.
  • Dehydrated skin lacks WATER (but can still overproduce oil).

Dry skin happens when your skin doesn’t produce enough sebum (your skin’s natural moisturisers). Symptoms include dryness, flakiness, itchiness, and tightness. If you’re experiencing discomfort, chances are your skin is dry.

Dehydrated skin happens when it doesn’t have enough water. If your skin feels dry in the morning and becomes slick with oil a few hours later, or if you feel like you’ve got a slick of oil on top of a brittle, dry surface, then you’ve got dehydrated skin.

Struggling to put together a skincare routine that banishes dryness and makes your skin supple and dewy? Download your FREE “Best Skincare Routine For Dry Skin” to get started (it features product recommendations + right application order):

Related: The Best Skincare Routine For Dry Skin

Can Dehydrated Skin Be Oily?

Yes, oily, acne-prone skin is naturally MORE prone to dehydration. I know it’s hard to tell when the overproduction of sebum coexists with flakiness and feelings of tightness. It’s like your skin can’t make its mind up what to be, driving you crazy in the process.

Why does this happen?

  1. Studies show that acne-prone skin produces more oil and has fewer ceramides and fatty acids (the building blocks of your skin’s protective barrier), leaving you more prone to TEWL (Trans-Epidermal Water Loss). In other words, when you have acne-prone skin (a condition that’s more likely to happen in oily skin), you lose water at a faster rate. Next thing you know, dehydration sets in.
  2. You damage your protective barrier even more with harsh anti-acne treatments. In an effort to keep sebum production under control, you throw everything at your skin, leaving holes in its barrier that allow water to evaporate out. With less moisture into your skin, you experience dehydration.

Can Dehydrated Skin Cause Acne?

No, dehydrated skin does not cause acne. If you’re experience dehydration and breakouts at the same time, you’re likely using skincare products that aren’t suitable for your skin type:

  • Too emollient: Dehydrated skin looks a lot like dry skin, so you may be tempting to up your moisturising game and use richer creams when that’s the last thing your skin need. Skincare products that are too rich for your skin type can clog pores and gives you acne.
  • Too irritating: So many lotions and potions are loaded with essential oils and other harsh, irritating ingredients that inflame your skin. Guess what acne is? An inflammatory disease.

In all these cases, dehydration isn’t the cause of acne. It’s a symptom of it.

Struggling to put together a skincare routine that banishes excess oil, acne, and blackheads? Download your FREE “Best Skincare Routine For Oily Skin” cheatsheet to find out. It features product recommendations and right application order:

Related: The Best Skincare Routine For Oily Skin

What Should You Avoid When You Have Dehydrated Skin?

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: when it comes to fixing dehydrated skin, less is more. Often, just getting rid of the wrong skincare products goes a long way in healing a damaged protective barrier and getting your glow back. Here’s what to avoid when you have dehydrated skin:

cerave hydrating cleanser

1. Avoid Harsh Cleansers

No matter how gentle it is, the cleansing process is always a bit traumatic for skin.

According to 2013 study, “Cleanser surfactants can bind to SC proteins, leading to keratin swelling within corneocytes and subsequent structural damage to the SC as well as damage to and denaturation of key SC enzymes… While it may be impossible for cleansers to have no negative impact on the skin, attempts to formulate cleansers to reduce cleanser-induced damage have been successful.”

Soaps and surfactants-based cleansers are the worst culprits. They have a high pH that disrupts the skin’s protective barrier, leading to dehydration and even acne in the long run. A 2011 study shows that “Strong cleansers that are highly efficient in removing dirt, oil, and other debris from the skin surface are also likely to produce the greatest magnitude of damage to the permeability barrier of the SC through stripping lipids and components of NMF (natural moisturizing factor) and/or damage to SC proteins.”

As a rule, everything that works too well at removing dirt and grime can compromise your skin’s barrier. If a cleanser leaves your skin feeling squeaky clean and tight, ditch it immediately!


Opt for gentle, pH-balanced cleansers (if it’s higher than 6, you’re in trouble) that cleanse skin without disrupting your skin’s protective barrier. If your skin is dry, oil-based cleansers are your best bet. If even that is too much for your skin, use your cleanser only in the evening and wash your face with water only in the morning.

Best Cleansers For Dehydrated Skin:

  • Bioderma Sensibio H2O Micellar Water ($14.90): A gentle cleanser you don’t need to rinse off. It’s suitable only for sensitive skin. Available at Sephora
  • Corsx low PH Good Morning Gel Cleanser ($11.00): A gentle, pH-balanced (5.5) foaming cleanser that removes impurities, makeup, and excessive oil without disrupting the skin’s protective barrier. Available at DermstoreLook FantasticSokoGlamUlta and Yes Style
  • CeraVe Hydrating Cleanser ($14.99): A gentle, creamy cleanser that removes dirt and makeup and hydrates skin at the same time. vailable at Sephora, Look Fantastic, and Ulta

Related: Why You Need To Avoid High-pH Cleansers At All Costs

2. Harsh Actives

The most effective anti-aging and anti-acne ingredients are HARSH. They can easily cause dryness and flakiness even in the most resistant skin. When your skin’s all dehydrated and its protective barrier broken down, they’re an absolute no-no. Using them doesn’t help you treat wrinkles and acne. It just inflicts more damage.

Here’s what you need to stop using immediately if you suspect your skin is dehydrated:

  • AHAs (glycolic acid, lactic acid, mandelic acid, etc)
  • Ascorbic acid (vitamin C)
  • Azelaic Acid
  • Benzoyl Peroxide
  • BHA (salicylic acid, betaine salicylate)
  • Retinoids (tretinoin, adapalene, retinol, retinaldehyde, etc)
  • Scrubs

It’s not forever. Give your skin a few weeks to recover and then you can start to slowly re-introduce them.

Related: AHAs VS BHA: Which One Is Right For You?

3. Irritants

Some skincare ingredients are irritating even when your skin is 100% healthy. They cause redness, irritation, dryness, and all kinds of skin issues. When your skin is damaged, using them is a recipe for disaster. You just can’t heal dehydrated skin while you’re using them.

Here’s what you need to steer clear of:

  • Alcohol Denat
  • Citrus oils and extracts
  • Essential oils
  • Fragrance
  • Mint and peppermint

Related: 7 Natural Ingredients That Can Irritate Sensitive Skin

the inkey list niacinamide

How to Fix Dehydrated Skin

Now you know what to avoid to make dehydrated skin worse and slow down the healing process, let’s talk about how to fix it. The treatments are similar to those for dry skin, with some tweaks to accommodate oily skin.

Moisturise, Moisturise, Moisturise

As dehydrated skin is characterised by a broken protective barrier and lack of water, the cure is simple. Let’s patch up that protective barrier so that water stays in and helps skin function its best. How? By using moisturisers with skin-identical actives.

Skin-identical actives are substances that make up your skin’s protective barrier. Add them back in and you can patch up any holes in it, retain moisture into your skin, and get your complexion back to health.

Here are the best skin-identical actives to look out for in a moisturiser (no worries, I’ll also tell you what the best moisturisers for dehydrated skin are below):

Best Moisturisers For Dehydrated Skin

  • CeraVe PM Facial Moisturising Lotion ($15.99): The moisturiser I recommend most often to my clients, it’s loaded with skin-identical ingredients (including ceramides, niacinamide, and cholesterol) that repair your skin barrier and make skin soft and healthy again. Available at Sephora and Ulta.
  • EltaMD PM Therapy Facial Moisturiser ($35.00): A beautiful formula enriched with niacinamide, linoleic acid, and hyaluronic acid to draw moisture from the air into your skin and keep it there.Available at Dermstore.
  • Eucerin Dry Skin Replenishing Cream 5% Urea (£9.50): Urea is a godsend for dry skin as it gives skin plenty of moisture and helps it retain it. It’s a simple formula, but it works wonders. Available at Boots.

Use A Hyaluronic Acid Serum

The moisturisers above are great at patching up your skin’s protective barrier, so that moisture stays in. But first, you need to add extra hydration into your skin. That’s a job for Hyaluronic Acid. This powerful ingredient attracts and binds to your skin up to 1000 times its weight in water. All that extra hydration (once you seal it in with a good moisturiser!) plumps up your skin, makes it softer, and gives it a beautiful glow.

Best Hyaluronic Acid Serums For Dehydrated Skin:

  • La Roche Posay Heal B5 Hyaluronic Acid Serum (£27.75): A simple, no-frills Hyaluronic Acid serum to hydrate skin and soothe irritation. Available at Sephora and Look Fantastic
  • Niod Multi-Molecular Hyaluronic Acid (£25.00): This baby contains 15 forms of Hyaluronic Acid to hydrate every layer of skin. It’s the most hydrating serum I’ve ever tried. Available at Beauty Bay and Cult Beauty
  • Paula’s Choice Resist Hyaluronic Acid Booster ($34.00): It contains Hyaluronic Acid to hydrate skin and ceramides to create a protective barrier that keeps moisture in. Available at DermstoreNordstromPaula’s Choice and Selfridges

Exfoliate Once A Week

I know this can sound like a contradiction. Above, I told you to stop using exfoliants, including AHAs and BHA. I still stand by that. Lots of people over-exfoliate and that makes dehydrated skin worse.

But, every rule has its exception. If you stop exfoliating completely, the build up of dead skin cells can stop your skin from absorbing your moisturisers and all the goodies they contain. A good compromise until your skin heals is to exfoliate ONCE A WEEK. This way, you remove dead skin cells without compromising your skin’s barrier and worsening dehydration.

Which exfoliant should you use? Here’s what I recommend:

  • Dehydrated and dry or pigmented skin: Glycolic acid. This member of the AHAs family exfoliates skin, fades away dark spots, and provides some hydration.
  • Dehydrated and oily, acne-prone skin: Salicylic acid. This BHA exfoliant is oil-soluble, so it can penetrate your pores and unclog them from within to treat blackheads, whiteheads, and acne.
  • Dehydrated and sensitive skin: Lactic acid. The gentlest member of the AHAs family, it exfoliates and hydrates skin without irritation.

Best Exfoliants For Dehydrated Skin:

  • Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid ($29.00): A solid salicylic acid exfoliant for oily, acne-prone skin. It both prevents and treats blackheads, whiteheads, and pimples. Its texture is a little sticky, but if you’re cool with that, you’ll get results. Available at DermstoreLook Fantastic and Paula’s Choice
  • The Inkey List Lactic Acid Serum (£7.99): A 10% lactic acid exfoliant with 1% Hyaluronic Acid to exfoliate and hydrate sensitive skin at the same time. Available at Cult Beauty and The Inkey List.
  • The Ordinary Glycolic Acid 7% Toning Solution (£6.80): A gentle, no-frills Glycolic Acid exfoliant for people on a budget. Available at Beauty Bay and Cult Beauty

The Bottom Line

Anyone can have dehydrated skin. It happens when your skin’s protective barrier is damaged and your skin starts losing too much water – yet, oil production often confusingly stays the same or increases. The fix is simple: repair your protective barrier and your skin will heal within a few short weeks.