Ask a Dermatologist: Can You Hydrate Your Skin Without Moisturizer?

Updated 09/24/19
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In a recent survey conducted by Statista, it was revealed that over 13 million people in the United States had not used a drop of moisturizer in the week prior to being assessed. The news was shocking, to say the least—particularly to those who have remained steadfast when it comes to their everyday skin routine. However, to offer a bit of solace, the survey shared that there were 60 million who said they used it seven times in the same time period, while over 24 million claimed to have applied it a total of 14 times. 

While many may find going without moisturizer an unthinkable offense, the grievances that people have had with cream moisturizers have not been unheard of. The general consensus has largely been that some of these formulas can lead to breakouts, while others leave skin looking and feeling oily. 

In light of this issue, we tapped the expertise of a few skincare gurus to give us their take on whether or not moisturizer is a true necessity. As it turns out, the question is more loaded than you think. 

Check out what the experts had to say below.

Ways to Hydrate Your Skin Without Moisturizer
Jiaqi Zhou/Byrdie 

If you're cream moisturizer–averse…

If feeling greasy is what turns you off about cream moisturizer, experts suggest using oil as a means of hydration. There seems to be a common misconception that oils will leave you feeling like you just ran a marathon in 90-degree weather. However, this notion is simply not true. In fact, there are many oils that are light, easily absorbed, non-comedogenic, and great for daily use.

"The secret is using natural oils," says Kristina Goldenberg, MD. "Shea butter is one of my favorites. It gives the skin lasting moisture. As someone with dry, sensitive skin, I do not have to worry about an allergy since this is a very gentle product."

Paul Jarrod Frank, MD, says oils are even better than creams at hydrating the skin. "Water dries skin, but oils and ointments are the most hydrating," he adds. "Lotions go on easy but still don't hydrate as well as an oil."

The way oil works is by repairing your skin's top-most lipid barrier and locking in moisture, where water-based gel moisturizers and serums evaporate, making the skin feel even drier. The issue with oils, however, lies in those with acneic skin. According to celebrity esthetician Renée Rouleau, oils serve as a breeding ground for bacteria, leading to even more breakouts. In this case, you'll want to turn to other options (more on those later).

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For a lighter option, celebrity esthetician Joanna Vargas says serums will get the job done, especially if they're blended with fatty oils. She says, "Serums are great for hydration if they contain good fats like argan, avocado, or olive oil. Oils provide omega-3 fatty acids to keep the lipid layer moist while serving as anti-inflammatories. Also, my own retinol, Super Nova Serum helps to hydrate while stimulating collagen production." 

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Vargas is also a big fan of using sheet masks to nourish the skin—a pricier option for everyday use, but perfect for quick and easy application. Masks have also proven to be better for acne-prone skin because they don’t typically contain oils.

"I tend to do a sheet masks every night before bed and always use them on the plane," Vargas explains. "My sheet masks are loaded with great serum, and I feel like it's enough to treat the whole face, neck, and chest."

Another great option is to concoct your own mask or hydrating cleanser—a method which Goldenberg stands firmly behind. "It's easy to create do-it-yourself masks and cleansers at home that will be very hydrating," she says. "Some of my favorite ingredients to use are coconut oil, avocado, and honey. Don’t forget the turmeric if you want to add a little bit of anti-aging to the mix."

When incorporating these different moisturizers into your routine, it is important to start with the thinnest products first to get the best results. Putting a lighter serum on over an oil would prove to be counterproductive because the oil’s thickness would prevent proper absorption. Vargas recommends starting with a sheet mask, then following with a serum, and lastly an oil-serum or oil. If you're going the homemade-mask route, this would be the final step of your routine in lieu of oil. 

What if you only want to use one product?

Goldenberg reveals that her pick for a one-stop moisturizing product would be honey. "Honey is the most versatile. It provides moisture, it has antibacterial properties [Ed. note: a great option for acne-prone skin], and it also has antioxidants to help with anti-aging," she explains. "For those reasons, honey is my favorite."

When asked what his lone choice would be, Frank recommended a drugstore staple. He shares, "I always recommend using Aquaphor often, as it provides an extra layer of protection for your skin. It's especially great in the winter and helps protect skin from the wind."

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