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What’s the Difference Between Dry and Dehydrated Skin?

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No, they’re not the same.

woman looking in the mirror

It’s that time of year again—you know, when your summer glow slowly fades away and you feel stuck once again with dry, dull skin for the forseeable future. But there’s big news: You might not be dealing with dry skin at all. Instead, your skin may just be dehydrated. (We know what you’re thinking, and no, it’s not the same thing.) If you’re confused, you’re not alone. That’s why we’re breaking down the difference between dehydrated skin and dry skin so you can get a softer, smoother complexion in a flash.

The dry skin most people are familiar with doesn’t have a hint of radiance. “Dry skin tends to lack the appearance of pores and oil,” explains Roberta Del Campo, MD, dermatologist and founder of Del Campo Dermatology & Laser Institute in Miami, FL. “It can look dull, rough, and scaly and, when severe, can appear cracked and irritated.” Dry skin is a sign that your skin doesn’t have enough oil, according to Del Campo. You can be genetically predisposed to this, or just have it as a skin type (meaning you’re born with it, for whatever reason).

While there’s not much you can do about either of those factors, other things can worsen or create dryness—even if you don’t have naturally dry skin. These include harsh products, like those heavy-duty cleansers that strip your skin and leave it feeling tight or squeaky-clean, some oral medications (including those used for acne treatment), and even hormonal changes.

On the bright side, dry skin isn’t tough to fix. Del Campo is a fan of moisturizers with emollients, which help seal in hydration. She suggests slathering on rich creams that contain an ingredient called ceramides, which help fortify skin’s protective moisture barrier. In addition, “avoid harsh scrubs, washes, and toners, particularly those that contain alcohol, fragrances, or other harsh ingredients,” Del Campo says. These ingredients tend to remove skin’s natural oil, which only worsens matters when you’re dealing with dryness.

Dehydrated skin, on the other hand, means your skin lacks water, not oil. Dehydration can happen no matter what your skin type is—meaning it’s even possible to have oily skin that’s technically dehydrated. “It fluctuates with the seasons and can actually even fluctuate day to day,” Del Campo says. Dehydrated skin often looks slack and lacks a plump, firm texture.

Dehydration tends to appear in colder climates, which typically have lower humidity. And, as with dry skin, harsh products can sap skin’s moisture too, which eventually leads to dehydration. “One simple test to tell if your skin is dehydrated is a pinch test,” Del Campo explains. “This is when you pinch the skin and let go. If it doesn’t bounce back immediately, your skin is dehydrated.”

If you’ve failed the pinch test, Del Campo says there are easy solutions to restore hydration to skin. Invest in a humidifier to add moisture to the air, avoid long, hot showers (which strip the skin of water), and ditch any harsh products. Instead, stock up on moisturizers with hyaluronic acid, which can hold up to a thousand times its weight in water.

Once you know exactly what your skin is lacking, you can best treat it—and restore a glowing, healthy complexion.

Get more great health and wellness stories at Shape.com/Strive.