Skincare for Dry Skin: What It Is, Causes, and Ideal Routine

Close-up of a girl with very dry skin

The concept of dry skin isn’t as straightforward as you’d expect, lack of communication between the skincare industry and the medical community certainly doesn’t help. And navigating the confusion can be pretty difficult when your skin feels parched or uncomfortable! 

The right tweaks to your dry skincare routine can make all of the difference between soft, happy skin and itchiness and irritation.

So in this post, we'll clarify the confusion and give your skin that relief that only true moisture can provide.

    What is dry skin?

    Dry skin is skin that doesn’t produce much sebum; it’s as simple as that. Sebum is the oily blend of lipids produced by the sebaceous glands in human skin. 

    This oily substance has an important role in keeping the skin functioning well. Sebum helps to keep water inside the skin, acts as a lubricant to prevent friction, and even exhibits antioxidant and antibacterial effects, to prevent skin degradation, inflammation, and infection. That said, high sebum production also correlates with more clogged pores and acne. 

    Since dry skin doesn’t produce enough sebum, it’s more prone to dehydration and sensitivity, and over time, it may show faster signs of aging. 

    Note: We’re making a distinction between dry skin and dehydrated skin, which mostly comes from the skincare world. The American Academy of Dermatology often uses the term “dry skin” to also refer to dehydrated skin. It’s really easy and common for oily skin to become dehydrated, though, so we think communication is easier when we keep the distinction. 

    Signs of dry skin

    How can you tell if you have dry skin? These are the key signs that your skin is underperforming in the sebum departments. 

    • Very little oil production, so your skin doesn’t get shiny.  
    • Smaller pores, especially if you’re younger - it’s common to have larger pores and dry skin later in life. 
    • You’re more prone to dehydration and sensitivity, although these aren’t sure signs. 
    If you're still not totally sure, we have a complete post dedicated to helping you figure out what skin type you have.  

      What causes dry skin?

      The thing about skin types is that they’re fairly innate. They’re largely based on the level of sebum your skin produces, which isn’t something that changes easily. With that in mind, these are the main factors that cause dry skin:  

      • Genetics: Many skin conditions are inherited. Chances are that if many people in your family had dry skin, you will have dry skin as well. 
      • Hormones: Hormonal fluctuations have a major impact on how much sebum the skin produces. In particular, the fewer androgens cycling through the body, the likelier it is for the skin to be dry. 
      • Age: As we get older our skin tends to get dryer since the body often produces less of the hormones that contribute to sebum production.
        • Certain diseases: Diseases with an impact on hormones can also lead to dry skin, especially if they reduce the amount of male hormones the body produces.
        • Medications: Certain medications can cause the sebaceous glands to produce less oil, which will make the skin dryer. That’s actually the mechanism of action behind isotretinoin, an acne medication, but it can also be the result of hormonal medications.  

          Dry skin concerns.

          Before you can start putting together your ideal skincare routine for dry skin, it’s important to take note of other skin concerns you might have. This way, you can tailor different elements of your routine toward addressing those specific concerns, as well. Here are the common skin concerns you’ll want to be aware of if you have dry skin:

          • Dehydration: Lack of water in the stratum corneum, often comes hand in hand with dry skin types.
          • Disrupted skin barrier: Evidenced by a stinging sensation and the skin’s inability to retain water. 
          • Premature aging: Evidenced by the formation of fine lines, wrinkles, and overall loss of firmness. Happens to all of us with time, but dry skin often has thinner lower layers which correlate with faster signs of aging. 
          • Sensitivity: Lack of moisture in the skin can often worsen skin sensitivity and reactivity, so those with dry skin can be more prone to redness and irritation. 
          • Acne: While acne is associated with oily skin, it can also occur in those with dry skin. If you have both breakouts and dry skin, you’ll need to find the balance between enough moisture and anti-acne actives.

            Best skincare products.

            The best skincare routine for dry skin is pretty simple, but for it to work, you have to choose products that will adequately nourish and hydrate your skin. Here are the things we’d recommend keeping in mind! 

            Moisturizers for dry skin

            For day-to-day use, it’s useful to choose a medium-thickness lotion with barrier-replenishing ingredients like niacinamide, squalane, or ceramides. Our Hyaluronic Acid & Niacinamide Hydration Cream is an excellent choice. 

            At times when your skin feels especially dry or dehydrated, look for rich, thick moisturizing formulas with occlusives like dimethicone or petrolatum. You don’t have to choose an expensive product, either. There are plenty of excellent creams with thick textures that aren’t expensive. 

            The best time to use a rich moisturizer is after you’ve soaked the skin in water. By immersing your skin in water for a few minutes, you help it absorb a ton of moisture, but once you get out of the water, that moisture starts to evaporate very quickly. Applying a thick, occlusive cream within a few minutes will immediately seal that water into the skin, which is particularly useful if you’re dehydration-prone. 

            Cleanser for dry skin

            The best thing you can do when you have dry skin is avoid over-cleansing. Even a lot of gentle cleansers will remove some of your skin’s lipids, potentially disrupting your skin barrier and causing dehydration. For example, we think that cleansing in the morning is best avoided. 

            That said, you’ll still need to cleanse your skin on nights when you’ve worn makeup or heavy sunscreens. Choose cream or oil-based cleansers that will do a wonderful job breaking down debris while also infusing your skin with moisture. There are a lot of affordable drugstore and French pharmacy cleansers that can do a phenomenal job. 

            Exfoliant for dry skin

            A few times a week, your skin barrier may benefit from exfoliation with AHAs like glycolic and lactic acid. These exfoliating acids have humectant effects, which means they help the skin retain moisture, and they’ve also been found to help thin the top layer of rough dead skin while thickening the lower layers of the epidermis, making the skin heartier over time. 

            To save time, we developed our AHA cleanser as a gentle, easy-to-rinse exfoliant that cleanses gently while also removing dead skin. You can use it as needed, and even leave it on for up to 5 minutes when you want a very thorough peeling treatment. 

            Serums for dry skin

            Serums are your chance to really treat your skin, so choose serums based on your specific concerns. 

            Most serums are water-based, so while they can help infuse the skin with some hydration, they’re not as effective as creams and lotions at moisturizing the skin.

            You can’t go wrong with treatments or serums with retinaldehyde for general skin rejuvenation and anti-aging benefits. Vitamin C is another popular option - it’s an antioxidant so it’s excellent for preserving youthfulness, protecting the skin, giving it a brightening boost, and amping up sunscreen. 

            Aside from there, you can also find skin-soothing serums, serums with other types of antioxidants, or even serums with exfoliating acids. Avoid using too many treatments at once, though. At best, layering serums one on top of the other will cause dilution, but at worst, you run the risk of irritating your skin from too many active ingredients. 

            Sunscreens for dry skin

            Sunscreen is a must-have in the daytime, protecting your skin from the extremely destructive damage of the sun. A rich sunscreen can even double as a moisturizer! Beauty of Joseon’s Relief Sun is a recent favorite of ours thanks to its rich, nourishing formula. 

            If you’re already using a moisturizer in the daytime, you might prefer a light sunscreen like Biore’s Watery Essence, that will layer nicely and feel great over your moisturizer. Just make sure that your moisturizer sinks in thoroughly before applying sunscreen. 

            Example skincare routine for dry skin.

            Now that you know what to look for in skincare for dry skin, this sample routine explains how you can put it all together! 

            • Splash your skin repeatedly with water. 
            • Apply a treatment serum to address specific concerns. 
            • Apply a thin layer of moisturizer and let it sink in completely. 
            • Apply at least a ¼ teaspoon of sunscreen to the face and neck. 

            • Cleanse your skin with a gentle cleanser, or use an exfoliating cleanser as needed.  
            • Apply a treatment serum to address specific concerns. 
            • Apply a rich moisturizer.
            • Optionally, apply a final rich ointment or balm that will seal everything in.  


            What are the best skincare ingredients for dry skin?

            For daily use, the best skincare ingredients for dry skin are ones that replenish the lipids that are normally part of healthy sebum. That includes ceramides, cholesterol, fatty acids like linoleic acid and stearic acid, and squalane. Additionally, ingredients like niacinamide can help the skin boost its production of these important lipids. 

            At times when the skin is more irritated or compromised, look for occlusive ingredients that’ll create a barrier over the skin to prevent TEWL and soothing ingredients like green tea extract. 

            Is toner necessary for dry skin?

            Toners are a mixed bag, and they’re not mandatory for dry skin. You can enjoy an amazing, nourishing, and moisturizing skincare routine without ever touching a toner! 

            If you do want to use a toner, avoid harsh astringent formulas with drying ingredients like alcohol or a lot of essential oils. Instead, you can use light, water-based toners with a lot of humectants like hyaluronic acid or glycerin. These ingredients can be used to “splash your skin” and add hydration, in a similar way to a simple water soak. If you do use a toner, we suggest you apply it after your active serums, so you don’t slow down their absorption.

            What skincare ingredients to avoid for dry skin?

            When you have dry skin, you’ll want to avoid ingredients that are liable to make it drier. Here are the kinds of products we suggest you skip: 

            • Traditional soaps since they usually have a disruptive alkaline pH. 
            • Detergent-based cleansers since they may strip your skin of oils. 
            • Masks with clay.
            • Products heavy in denatured alcohol.
            • Be careful with acne treatments like benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid. They may be helpful if you break out, but you may need to compensate by moisturizing more. 

            How can I tell the difference between dryness and dehydration?

            Dehydration is a temporary problem when your skin’s upper layers lack water, while dryness is your skin not producing a lot of oil. Having dry skin can lead to dehydration, but those with oily skin are just as likely to be dehydrated. 
            So how to tell the difference? It’s simple.  If your skin doesn’t produce much oil and your pores are on the small side, then you’re dry. You’ll be able to tell that your skin is dehydrated if it feels tight and uncomfortable, or if it looks flaky and dull. It may even sting a little when you apply moisturizer. 
            If, in addition to signs of dehydration, your skin still gets shiny, then you probably have dehydrated, oily skin. 

            Stay moist 

            Dry skin thrives with gentle care, with plenty of creams that’ll replenish lipids for better moisture retention. Neglect can quickly turn what is clear, smooth-looking skin into itchy, irritated, and more susceptible to damage and premature aging.

            So take great care of your dry skin - we promise that there’s not much to it. Then, you can focus more on other aspects of your routine, whether you want to make it fun, or prioritize specific concerns like preventing premature aging or brightening your complexion!

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