Your skin holds a large amount of water and acts as a protective barrier, preventing excessive fluid loss. Just as it is necessary to drink water for your body to work properly, it is critical to keep your skin hydrated for it to perform well.
Aside from functioning effectively, your skin also needs to be hydrated to look its best—whether you have dry, oily, or combination skin. Because of this demand, it’s only natural that every skincare aisle is lined with products that guarantee to hydrate and moisturize your skin. However, many are unaware that though these terms are often used interchangeably, hydrating and moisturizing do not mean the same thing.
While both hydration and moisture are necessary for supplying much-needed nourishment to your skin, understanding the difference can help you make the best choice for your skin’s unique demands.
What’s the difference between hydrating and moisturizing?
Hydration is the process of absorbing moisture from the air and infusing it into your cells to boost your skin’s ability to absorb moisture and nutrients. The presence of water within the cells makes them expand and become plump and bouncy, effectively reflecting light. If water flows out from the cells and they get dehydrated, the cells can become shriveled, resulting in dull skin. Moisturizing, on the other hand, is about trapping and sealing in moisture to strengthen your skin’s natural protective barrier, minimize water loss, and maintain soft, smooth skin.
What’s the difference between hydrators and moisturizers?
Hydrators and moisturizers both ensure your skin receives all the water it needs to fight dehydration, dryness, surface dullness, acne, oily skin, and premature signs of aging. The main difference lies in how they accomplish these goals.
While drinking lots of water is still the simplest approach to hydrate your skin, people with dry skin may benefit from a topical hydrator that pulls and binds water into the cells. Hydrators use humectants, ingredients that draw water to the skin. Humectants are like sponges that collect moisture from the environment, and they continue to soak up and retain moisture long after it has been gathered. They bind moisture to your skin, allowing your skin to absorb water. You can find various natural and synthetic humectants in skincare products, such as aloe vera, glycerin, propylene glycol, sorbitol, and hyaluronic acid.
Hyaluronic acid can hold up to a thousand times its molecular weight in water. It enters your skin and binds water to the cells, infusing moisture to all layers of the skin. And it continues to extract moisture from the surrounding environment after infusing the top layer of the skin with vital moisture. As a natural humectant, it enables the skin to enhance its ability to self-hydrate over time, providing long-lasting hydration for your skin.
Hydrating ingredients are typically suitable for all skin types and concerns—whether you’re dealing with acne, breakouts during periods, dullness, or indications of aging. They are water-soluble and alcohol-free; they will not clog pores or dry out and irritate your skin.
Moisturizers refer to a variety of skincare products that lock in moisture and prevent your skin from drying out. Your skin has a natural oil barrier, but when skin dries out or ages, this lipid barrier begins to break down, and your skin loses moisture. Moisturizers work by forming a seal on the skin’s surface, preventing water from escaping. Additionally, they treat dry skin and protect the skin from further damage.
Moisturizers contain oil-based ingredients, such as emollients and occlusive agents, that help seal in moisture and keep the skin supple and smooth. Emollients, like dimethicone and mineral oil, are moisturizing agents that protect, nourish, and repair dry, rough, flaky, or cracked skin. Occlusives, like beeswax and petrolatum, minimize water loss by forming a protective layer on the skin.
You can choose a lighter or heavier moisturizer, depending on your skin type or the season. Lightweight lotions are recommended for oilier skin while rich creams are best for drier skin. Warm, humid spring and summer months may call for lightweight moisturizing lotions or gels while cold, dry, windy autumn and winter months may require heavier creams with oils, body butter, ceramides, or dimethicone.
How can you tell if you need a hydrator, moisturizer, or both?
In simple terms, hydrating equals water, and moisturizing equals oil. If your skin is dehydrated, it lacks water and needs a hydrator. If your skin is dry and flaky, it lacks oil and needs a moisturizer.
If you have a dull and lackluster complexion with visible fine lines and wrinkles, your skin may be dehydrated. Dehydrated skin indicates that the cells are dry and parched—they’ve lost their plumpness and appear shriveled. Look for a hydrating serum that contains hyaluronic acid to draw and bind water back into your skin.
If your skin is typically dry and prone to flaking or peeling all year-round, it is unlikely to be caused by weather-related dehydration. Most likely, your skin just has a difficult time locking in moisture. In this case, you need a thick, emollient moisturizer to form a protective seal and prevent water from leaving your skin.
For really dry skin, occlusive agents such as petrolatum are the best to improve skin texture. However, if you don’t want to use petroleum jelly, you can try canola oil, shea butter, or soybean oil instead.
There’s nothing wrong with using both a hydrator and moisturizer. Simply hydrate your skin first with humectants such as hyaluronic acid, and then follow up with a moisturizing lotion or cream. Alternatively, if you like to keep things simple, you can look for a product that does both.
Written by Katie Pierce, a teacher-slash-writer who loves telling stories to an audience, whether it’s bored adults in front of a computer screen or a bunch of hyperactive 4-year-olds. Writing keeps her sane (most of the time) and allows her to enjoy some quiet time in the evening before she walks into a room of screaming kids (all of whom she loves dearly) the next morning.