If the goal is a smooth, glowing complexion, having flaky skin on your face doesn't make things any easier—just ask anyone whose experienced foundation clinging onto dry patches. Between over-exfoliation and using the wrong cleanser for your skin type, there are some things that exacerbate dry skin on the face. Still, that doesn't mean there aren't tweaks you can make to your skincare routine that'll pave the way for that ultra-hydrated complexion you've dreamt of.
We know tackling parched skin can often feel like an uphill battle, which is why we called on celebrity estheticians Renée Rouleau and Shani Darden, along with board-certified dermatologist and founder of Epionce Carl Thornfeldt to learn what causes super dry skin and how we can banish it for good.
Keep scrolling to learn expert-approved tips on how to fix dry skin.
Meet the Expert
- Renée Rouleau is a celebrity esthetician based in Austin, TX. She is also the founder and creator of her eponymous skincare line.
- Shani Darden is an L.A.-based expert celebrity esthetician. Her clients include Kelly Rowland, Jessica Alba, and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley.
- Carl Thornfeldt, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Epionce Skincare.
Determine Whether You're Dehydrated or Just Dry
The truth is, you could be mistaking your dry skin for dehydrated skin. The difference? Whereas dry skin refers to a skin type (just like oily or combination), dehydrated skin refers to a skin condition. Dry skin lacks oil, can be a result of genetics, and appears flaky and rough. Dehydrated skin, on the other hand, lacks water, can occur after consuming alcohol or caffeine, and appears dull and tight.
According to Rouleau, truly dry skin does not produce any oil or sebum, and since there’s no oil to enlarge the follicles or breed bacteria, dry skin types have itty-bitty pores and never break out. Blemish-free skin and tiny pores might not sound so bad, but the skin relies on oil to hold moisture. Without it, your complexion can appear rough and flaky, and wrinkles can appear more pronounced.
Bottom line: if you don’t have oil in your skin (meaning you have teensy pores and nary a pimple), you likely have dry skin. On top of that, if you experience flakiness and irritation, you can feel even more confident about your diagnosis. If you're experiencing tightness or a dull complexion, or you've had a night of drinking (which can suck hydration out of your skin), you likely have dehydrated skin.
Avoid Over-Exfoliating Your Skin
Maybe you’re using your facial cleansing brush twice a day (that’s too much!) or overusing retinol and acid serums. Whatever the case may be, while you might think these habits will improve your skin’s appearance, in reality, they’re damaging your skin’s moisture barrier, resulting in surface dryness and irritation. "Any form of exfoliation is damaging to the protective skin barrier and triggers an inflammatory response in the skin," says Thornfeldt. "While acute inflammation helps stimulate collagen and elastin synthesis, long-term inflammation and barrier damage are linked to many skin concerns and conditions— particularly, if the skin is already dry and the skin barrier is more damaged, over-exfoliating exacerbates the problem."
But don't let that keep you from exfoliating at all. According to Darden, it’s still important to exfoliate dry and sensitive skin because if you’re not removing the dead skin on the surface, your hydrating and treatment products won’t be able to properly absorb. If you have super dry skin, Thornfeldt recommends reserving physical exfoliation to the professional environment (like microdermabrasion) and instead, sticking to chemical exfoliants (aka acids) of low concentrations that won’t trigger the damaging response. Try these exfoliating pads from Kinship—they're made with glycolic acid (an AHA) as well as the brand's plant-based probiotic, which can help maintain your moisture barrier.
Use Sulfate-Free Cleansers
Foaming and gel cleansers may put on a fancy show, but according to Rouleau, many of them are formulated with sulfates (which you’ll recognize on the ingredient list as either sodium lauryl sulfate, sodium laureth sulfate, or ammonium laureth sulfate). “This ingredient is a surfactant, a cleansing agent that cuts oil from the skin,” Rouleau says. “These ingredients are simply too harsh and will strip the water out of the skin after every washing.”
Thornfeldt agrees, adding that when too much oil is removed from the skin, the protective skin barrier of the skin breaks down. "There are key oils in the skin that act like glue to hold the skin barrier together," he explains. "Damage or remove those oils, and the skin barrier is more susceptible to breaking and allowing environmental insults, like UV rays or pollution, in." While this is true for all skin types, it's more of a challenge for drier skin types.
Rouleau says that choosing a cleanser is the single most important step of your skincare routine because washing with a drying cleanser zaps the skin of moisture, which means you'll have to quickly run and put your moisturizer on to put back in what you just took out. We're fans of this hydrating pick from Pacifica because not only is it sulfate-free, but it contains moisture-retaining hyaluronic acid for super plump skin.
Perform Your Skincare Routine Quickly
After washing your face, Rouleau says to tone immediately with an alcohol-free formula (like this one from Epionce) and moisturize right away. “If you leave your skin bare for more than a minute, it will start to dehydrate,” she says. “Perform your skincare routine quickly, and be sure to always leave your toner damp on the skin.” And, because applying a toner or moisturizer immediately after face washing helps lock in some of the water, you won't have to use as much product.
If your dry skin is experiencing flakiness, choose a hydrating toner that also contains soothing ingredients like aloe vera and rosewater.
Repair Dryness with a Night Cream
Some people avoid using night creams to let their skin "breathe," but both Rouleau and Thornfeldt agree that using moisturizer at night is very important. This is because night creams work best when the skin is in repair mode at night while we sleep, says Thornfeldt. During the day, our skin is in protection mode, fending off the day's disturbances (think: UV rays and pollution). "At night when your skin is at rest, the skin’s permeability is at its highest, allowing the active ingredients to absorb deep within the skin,” Rouleau says. This is the time when you can really tackle your skincare concerns (in this case, dryness) since your skin is no longer playing defense.
A night cream is essentially a moisturizer without sunscreen and you don’t have to use something specifically labeled “night cream." Any moisturizer without SPF will work, as long as it suits your skin type. This pick from Ranavat features a luxuriously rich consistency that's perfect for dry skin, along with a blend of anti-aging botanicals such as bakuchi seed and lotus flower.
Add Moisture to the Air with a Humidifier
Lotions, potions, and creams aside, your fix for dry skin could be as simple as plugging in your humidifier. Especially in the wintertime (or year-round, in dry climates), it’s important to add moisture into the air, as this encourages moisture in your skin to stay put. Darden recommends this humidifier from Dyson, as it helps to keep the air clean and at the perfect humidity, which allows your skin to stay more hydrated and comfortable overnight and throughout the day.
Use a Hydrating Oil Serum
Thornfeldt explains that a healthy skin barrier comprises a mixture of cholesterol, ceramides, and free fatty acids. For a product to really be effective for dry skin, the important thing is whether or not it helps restore the skin barrier. In order for it to do that, it must contain oils—particularly the oils that are found in healthy skin. If you're worried about clogging your pores, Thornfeldt says that the product won't be pore-clogging if the oils are highly purified and do not contain contaminants. "Remember, moisture is about water-holding capacity, but because dry skin types are not producing enough oil, adding more water without the oils the skin barrier needs is counterproductive for addressing what dry skin needs," he says.
Always Wear SPF
Dry skin also damages your moisture barrier, which isn’t so fun. That means tiny cracks can develop in the layer of skin that’s supposed to keep moisture in and irritants out. These cracks can make your skin sting and appear flaky, Rouleau says. If you don’t fix the damage, it can eventually lead to the breakdown of precious collagen and elastin—the stuff that keeps us looking young.
One way to combat fine lines and wrinkles? Protecting your skin from the sun—rain or shine. "Wearing sunscreen every single day is the most important thing you can do for your skin to keep it healthy and glowing," says Darden. "Even if you’re inside all day, UV light can still pass through your windows, so it’s essential to keep your skin protected." She recommends keeping your routine simple yet effective by using a hydrating sunscreen that doubles as a daily moisturizer.
The key is to find one that you love so much that you’ll want to wear it every day, versus only using an SPF for its protective function. We're fans of this one from J.Lo Beauty since it's equally a moisturizing cream and an SPF.
What can dry skin be a sign of?
In general, dry skin isn't a sign of anything serious. It's typically caused by harsh soaps, weather conditions, or over-exfoliation.
Does drinking water help dry skin?
Because dry skin means your skin lacks oil, drinking water won't necessarily improve dryness. Water is more likely to help re-hydrate those with dehydrated skin.
What should I eat for dry skin?
Coconut, avocados, fatty fish, and sweet potatoes can help improve skin texture and dryness.
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American Academy of Dermatology Association. 10 skin care habits that can worsen acne.
Papakonstantinou E, Roth M, Karakiulakis G. Hyaluronic acid: A key molecule in skin aging. Dermatoendocrinol. 2012;4(3):253-258.
Engebretsen KA, Johansen JD, Kezic S, Linneberg A, Thyssen JP. The effect of environmental humidity and temperature on skin barrier function and dermatitis. Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology. 2016;30(2):223-249.
Cleveland Clinic. Dry skin: management and treatment. Updated May 13, 2020.