Skincare ads often make the words “hydrating” and “moisturizing” seem interchangeable. However, each has a specific meaning that goes beyond just making skin dewier, and that meaning depends on which elements the product introduces to skin. 

Ready for a cheat sheet on hydration and moisturization? Let’s break down the differences and get more acquainted with each of these skincare imperatives. 

‌‌‌‌Skincare 101

Let’s get down to basics. Hydration and moisturization all come down to oil versus water. Hydrating ingredients add water to the skin, addressing dehydration. Moisturizing ingredients add oil to the skin, addressing dryness

Hydrating = adding water; moisturizing = adding oil. Easy.

‌‌‌‌Your Skin’s Structure

On the outer layer of your skin is something called the lipid barrier. The lipid barrier, made from fat-rich oils, creates a layer of protection on the skin's surface. It has two main functions: keeping hydration in and keeping the rest of the world—including all its microparticles of pollution—out. 

Over-exfoliating and using harsh ingredients like sodium lauryl sulfate wear down this protective layer. Then, vital hydration slips out and harmful environmental aggressors sneak in. These microparticles cause inflammation and may lead to DNA-level damage. In fact, skin disorders, such as eczema and psoriasis, can manifest from the very inflammation brought on by these overzealous practices. Note: This is not to say that all dry skin will result in eczema—that is far from the case. The opportunity is, however, very real.

‌‌‌‌Knowing What to Reach For

So, if you get to the unfortunate stage where you know your skin isn’t feeling its best, how do you tell if your skin is dry or dehydrated? 

Well, dehydrated skin typically looks dull and lackluster and feels tight when you make certain facial expressions. This is unlike dry skin, which instead looks flaky or rough in texture and causes you to feel itchiness rather than tightness. On occasion, dry skin can also display as redness and feel sensitive to the touch. 

Here’s what to reach for if you’re dealing with the first option, dehydration:

Ingredients like glycerin and hyaluronic acid are humectants. These water-loving ingredients pull moisture into your skin, locking it in. Hyaluronic acid is a powerful humectant, holding up to a thousand times its weight in water. Look for products with these active ingredients to make sure your skin holds onto water for a significant period of time.

Some of my favorites in this category include:

If the symptom description above has led you to diagnosing yourself with dry skin, the treatments you need to reach for are very different.

Lipids and ceramides are fats found in the skin's upper layers and makeup over half of the skin’s barrier. These lipids, composed of essential fatty acids, protect the skin from environmental stressors, keeping it healthy and moisturized. Plant-based oils and butters are a rich source of essential fatty acids. Squalane, a plant-based oil derived from olives or sugar cane, is an exceptional moisturizing agent because it is like our skin’s own lipids.

If you’re looking for something in this category, my go-tos are:

Remember, no matter what you’re dealing with, the most important thing is to be patient with and kind to your skin. Progress takes not just the right products, but also time and consistency.