Pro Tips To Actually Treat Your Dry Winter Skin, Not Mask It

As if flat, staticky hair and chapped lips aren't annoying enough to deal with this time of year, most of us also have to cope with parched, lackluster skin. The first step to getting your glow back? Learning the difference between dryness, which is a skin type, and dehydration, a skin condition. In fact, whether you believe it or not, even though both dry and dehydrated skin feel pretty much the same, there's a fine line between the two that can significantly help you learn to better treat your complexion during the winter.

To help you figure out the causes, symptoms, and, most important, fixes, we've enlisted the help of two experts in the field. According to dermatologist Harold Lancer, MD, "Dry skin typically refers to skin experiencing unusual topical dryness, perhaps due to the weather or a new treatment. Dehydration, on the other hand, typically refers to skin showing the side effects of internal dehydration." Adds dermatologist David Colbert, MD: "Sometimes dry skin can be dehydrated, but the latter is ultimately when your body is losing more fluid than it should be retaining or not receiving enough electrolytes." Read on to find out whether you have dry or dehydrated skin, and how to fix it — one flaky patch at a time.

First Things First: Deciphering Dryness vs. Dehydration

Though the symptoms for dry and dehydrated skin are slightly different, neither is a pretty look: "Dry skin feels tight, itchy, and irritated, and may look red, bumpy, or splotchy," says Dr. Lancer. Dehydrated skin, on the other hand, tends to misbehave. "If you typically have balanced skin, you may suddenly break out," he says. "Your skin-care regimen may suddenly not deliver its usual results. Truly dehydrated skin is dull, congested, and easily becomes flaky."

Dr. Colbert suggests using a pinch test to tell: "You know your skin is dehydrated when it has lost volume. Pinch the skin on the back of your hand with your index and thumb fingers. If your skin is hydrated, it quickly bounces back to normal, but if you have dehydrated skin, it slowly goes back down."

Truly dehydrated skin is dull, congested, and easily becomes flaky.

-Harold Lancer, MD
Now You Can Play the Blame Game…
It's not easy pinpointing exactly what causes dryness or dehydration, since so many variables are at play. Some people with dry skin, especially more serious conditions like eczema and psoriasis, can blame genetics. But where you live and other seemingly innocent activities — say, if you crank up the thermostat at home or often go swimming in chlorinated pools — can explain topical dryness. "We all have a transepidermal water barrier, acting as a wall between our skin and the environment, that fights against water loss," says Dr. Colbert. "But the barrier can break down without you noticing from over-scrubbing, over-washing, or being in a dry environment for long periods of time."

Dr. Lancer suggests examining how you treat your skin. Sure, skin can be a wonderfully resilient organ, but it's also delicate and sensitive to external stressors. Anything from your skin-care regimen (like overusing anti-aging products without hydration) to your hygiene (taking super-hot showers) and harsh environmental factors (such as wind and cold) could ravage skin, causing that telltale irritation and redness.

When it comes to dehydrated skin, however, your diet and lifestyle — as well as certain medications you might be taking — are likely culprits. Whether you're consuming too many cocktails or chugging down coffee without getting enough H2O, your skin's thirsty for more water. "Our skin cells are meant to be plump and protected by their lipid barrier — an external, semipermeable wall that defends our cells from external elements while properly regulating the flow of nutrients and hydration to the cell," says Dr. Lancer. "When our diets lack essential fatty acids, an adequate supply of fresh water, or lean protein, our cells become less adept at regulating their hydration levels because of their impaired lipid barriers." Simply put, homeostasis — your body's internal balancing mechanism — goes haywire when you don't put the right things in.

Pinch the skin on the back of your hand with your index and thumb fingers. If your skin is hydrated, it quickly bounces back to normal…

-David Colbert, MD
Decided You're Dry? Get Scrubbing
Since dry skin's typically caused by external factors, exfoliation's the most effective treatment — just don't overdo it, as that could trigger more dryness. "I would call dry skin the beginning stages of truly dehydrated skin," says Dr. Lancer. "But there are simple topical steps you can take to reverse the effects before it impacts the overall health of your complexion. When the upper layers of the epidermis become dehydrated, it can prevent the penetration of other topical ingredients — even very hydrating ones."

He recommends the combination of gentle physical exfoliation and a non-foaming cleanser to help sweep away the buildup of dead cells. "This should be followed by an application of a hydrating serum or treatment," he says. "Look for products containing ceramides, a naturally occurring waxy lipid that helps to improve and repair the skin's ability to retain moisture." Other ingredients to watch out for? "Hyaluronic acid and lactic acid can also be very helpful in treating dry skin. Any of these treatments should be followed by a rich moisturizer and strong sun protection to seal in hydration."

Feeling Dehydrated? Start From the Inside Out

Alternatively, if you suffer from dehydrated skin, you've got a little more work to do. Not only should you tweak your day-to-day habits, you should address your condition topically. "Treat it as you would ordinary dry skin," says Dr. Lancer. "Ensure you are properly protecting your skin from the elements, and provide a moisture barrier by using products with powerful humectants to help get your skin back on track."

Then, work on ensuring that your diet is supporting your topical regimen and properly nourishing your skin cells. "Try adding foods into your diet that are rich in essential fatty acids — fresh salmon, mackerel, olive oil, avocados, eggs, and dark leafy greens like spinach and kale are all excellent for your skin and overall health," says Dr. Lancer. "Supplement your dietary changes with plenty of fresh water — at least 64 ounces a day — and herbal tea." And try your best to cut back on those daily latte runs: "Caffeine should be avoided, as it is a diuretic and will only dehydrate you further."

Dr. Colbert recommends drinking Pedialyte or non-sugary sports drinks to help increase your body's electrolyte levels, too. "Another at-home remedy is to drink water with a pinch of sea salt," he says. "Sea salt's mineral contents help hold more water within your body."
Parting Words for Both Dry and Dehydrated
Unfortunately, slathering on creams and serums in the hopes of quick improvement will hurt more than help your skin. "Many people are so eager to see results from their skin-care regimens that they overload their complexions, doing more harm than good," says Dr. Lancer. "When adding new treatments to your regimen, it's best to start with one application a week, slowly building up your skin's tolerance until it can handle daily applications. There's no such thing as a quick fix if you are seeking true radiance; slow and steady wins the race."

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