The Difference Between Moisturizing and Hydrating

1. What is the difference between moisture and hydration?

2. Is your skin dehydrated or dry?

3. What is a humectant?

4. What is an emollient?


If you’ve lived your entire life thinking that moisturizing and hydrating are the same, you’re not alone. When it comes to moisturizing vs. hydrating skin, there’s a lot of confusion; we’ve been conditioned by brands, advertisements and everyday language to believe that these words are interchangeable, but they’re not. Knowing the difference between the two will help you determine what products are the best fit for your skin’s specific needs.


If, despite your best skincare efforts, you are prone to dry skin or have occasional bouts of dryness, it’s likely that your skin is either dehydrated or not getting enough moisture due to something more chronic. It can also be both. Here, we clarify the difference between moisturizing and hydrating and break down how you can work both types of products into your skincare routine for healthy, happy and balanced skin.


1. What is the difference between moisture and hydration?


Is hydrating and moisturizing the same thing? Not exactly. But before we explain how they are different, let’s talk about how they are similar. They share a common goal: to help skin get enough water.


Where they differ is how each gets the job done. Hydrating products work to hydrate your skin cells, increase their water content. Essentially, the act of skin hydration is the absorption of moisture from the air, which then infuses cells with water. Once hydration levels are improved, your skin can start absorbing moisture and nutrients more easily.


On the flip side, moisturizing products are all about prevention. They help stop transepidermal water loss (TWL)—which is the loss of water that passes from inside the body through the epidermis to the surrounding atmosphere—by reinforcing your skin’s barrier function. When your skin barrier is strong, it protects your skin from external stressors and locks in moisture.


2. Is your skin dehydrated or dry?


Now that you know what the difference between moisturizing and hydrating skincare products is, the next step is to find out which type you need. To do this, you’ll need to determine whether your skin is dry or dehydrated—and, yes, these words also have two totally different meanings.


Dehydrated skin can feel and look dry, but the major difference is that it is usually temporary and can affect all skin types, even oily skin. It’s typically caused by external factors, like drinking too much alcohol or caffeine, weather or indoor heating. Dehydrated skin requires a hydrating product to boost water content in skin cells.


Dry skin, on the other hand, is caused by the body not producing enough sebum—an oily, waxy substance produced by the sebaceous glands. This substance coats, moisturizes and protects the skin. Unfortunately, we have no control over the body’s production of sebum. This means that people with dry skin need to use products that deliver oil and moisture. People with dry skin may be low on oil, but they can still have normal levels of hydration—although it’s harder for them to achieve because their skin barrier is often compromised.


3. What is a humectant?


Whether they’re for your face or your body, moisturizers contain a variety of different ingredients, all of which work in slightly different ways to help address and treat dryness. If you’ve identified that your primary skin concern is dehydration, your next step is to choose ingredients and skincare products that will boost skin hydration.


Hydration is a basic tenet of health, which means you’ll want to look for a humectant moisturizer for skin. Wondering what a humectant in skincare is and what it does? Well, a humectant is a broad category of ingredients that deliver water to the cells, which is exactly how to hydrate skin with the right formulas. Ingredients like alpha hydroxy acids (AHA), hyaluronic acid, aloe vera, urea and glycerine are all considered humectants and work like magnets, attracting moisture from the deep layer of the skin as well as the environment. They help to draw moisture and bring it to the outermost layer.


4. What is an emollient?


Wondering how to keep skin moisturized all day? Emollients are the answer. If you have dry skin, using an emollient-rich product is your ticket to smoother, more supple and moisturized skin. But first, let’s unpack what is an emollient.


An emollient is any ingredient that increases water levels in the epidermis—in other words, it’s moisturizing. The best emollients for face and body are shea butter, plant oils, petrolatum and fatty acids like lanolin. They are commonly waxy, which is what gives moisturizers their elegant texture and feel.


When you have dry skin, your skin barrier is compromised. Think of it as a brick wall: The cells are the bricks, and the lipids are the grout. When skin is dry, there’s not enough grout (lipids) so cracks appear in the wall; this allows moisture to easily escape, leading to further dryness, flakes and skin irritation. Emollients act as the grout, filling in those gaps.


The best hydrator for dry skin is an emollient-rich moisturizer. Even if you don’t have dry skin, it’s important to have an emollient-laced product in your routine because it diligently seals in the layers of other products (like serums) so they don’t evaporate. Emollients that contain a lot of oil also serve as occlusive agents, which means they keep your skin hydrated longer.


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