What Causes Dry Skin: The 11 Reasons Your Face Is so Dry—and What You Can Do About It

Is your routine as hydrating as it could be?
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What causes dry skin

Got dry skin? More moisturizer is not the answer—or at least, it's not the ONLY answer. 

When you're dealing with dryness, there's often more going on than just a lack of product.

In this tutorial, I want to draw your attention to 11 other factors that can be involved in dry skin. (Excluding the weather, because there's not much we can do about that!)

You will learn:

  • Where you might be going wrong in your routine
  • Which products can cause dryness versus treat it
  • The physiological triggers for dry skin
  • How moisturizer can affect your skin long-term!

What Causes Dry Skin and How to Get Rid of It

1. You’re Over-Cleansing

First Aid Beauty Face Cleanser

First Aid Beauty Face Cleanser

Washing your face to remove dirt, oil, makeup and pollution seems like the most basic step in your daily skincare routine.

So what could go wrong?

You might be cleansing to the point that your skin feels uncomfortably tight and parched afterward, like it's crying out for moisturizer.

If you've experienced this "squeaky-clean" feeling, it's a sure sign of over-cleansing—the most common cause of dry skin.

The culprit is usually a cleanser that's too harsh for your skin and strips away its natural protective layer. Often, such products are formulated with sulfates, which are cleansing agents that produce a lather but tend to be drying and irritating.

Consider switching to one of my favourite non-drying cleansers, which include:

Whatever formula you go with, be sure to remove it thoroughly. Oils and often creams need be removed with a warm, wet cloth, and even micellar cleansers, I recommend rinsing off. Leftover cleanser residue on your skin can actually be drying and inflammatory (not to mention a cause of breakouts). 

Also keep in mind that you my not even need to cleanse in the morning. For many people, a splash of water is enough!

2. Your Water is Too Hot

MV Organic Skincare Pure Jojoba

MV Organic Skincare Pure Jojoba

They feel so good, but long, steamy showers at high temperatures can lead to dry skin from head to toe.

That's because the hotter the water, the more it whisks away the fatty substances in our skin that help it to retain moisture. 

Now, I'm not going to suggest you give up hot showers—I live in Canada, after all! But here are some ways to mitigate their effects:

  • Wash your face at the sink: You can avoid the hot water getting in direct contact with your face by washing it at the sink before you hop in the shower. Use lukewarm water (around room temperature).
  • Protect your skin: If your skin is very dry and reactive, try applying a few drops of jojoba oil as a protective layer before you shower. This is a great tip I got from facialist Sharon McGlinchey, and her MV Organic Skincare Pure Jojoba is the very best.
  • Limit showers to 10 minutes: Water itself can have a drying effect, whether it's hot, warm or cold. So it's best to keep showers on the shorter side if you can.

For the same reasons you want to avoid long, hot showers, steaming your skin with a device like this one is a big no-no. Not only will it strip your skin of moisture, but it can also throw your pH off balance and dilate and damage capillaries (worsening redness, inflammation and rosacea).

3. You’re Not Exfoliating

Foreo Luna 2 for Sensitive Skin

Foreo Luna 2 for Sensitive Skin

If you think dry skin types shouldn't exfoliate, think again.

Even if you're dry, you still need regular gentle exfoliation to remove dead skin cells. 

If dead skin stays stuck on the surface, it can form a barrier that prevents your moisturizer and other treatments from reaching the LIVE cells, where they're needed. So you'll just be wasting your time (and products!).

Here are a few of my favourite exfoliation methods for all skin, especially dry skin:

  • Silicone cleansing brush: I swear by the Foreo Luna, which has non-abrasive, hygienic silicone bristles that deep-clean while lifting off dead skin. For dry and sensitive types, I recommend the version for Sensitive Skin.
  • Soft cloth: You can also get a great exfoliation by removing your cleanser with a soft cloth like the Eve Lom Muslin Cleansing Cloth. After applying cleanser, soak the cloth in warm water and drape it over your face for about 10 seconds to let the warmth soften the dead skin (making it easier to remove). Wipe off the cleanser, and then rinse and repeat up to four more times.
  • Konjac sponge: This is an all-natural sponge that softens and expands in water. Use it in circular motions, either in conjunction with cleanser or even with water alone. Try the Boscia Konjac Cleansing Sponge.
  • Lactic acid: For chemical exfoliation, this alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA) is mild but effective. ClarityRx Brighten It 10% Lactic Acid Solution is the simplest formula you'll find, with just water and lactic acid.
  • Betaine salicylate: This beta-hydroxy acid (BHA)—commonly found in Korean skincare products—is a more hydrating alternative to salicylic acid. Besides removing surface dead cells, it also penetrates into the pores to help clear congestion, and is anti-inflammatory. For dry skin, I suggest COSRX Moisture Up Pad.
  • Polyhydroxy acids (PHAs): Gluconolactone, galactose and lactobionic acid are similar to AHAs, but even gentler, less irritating and more hydrating. Try The Inkey List PHA Toner.

4. You’re Exfoliating Too Much

Eve Lom Muslin Cleansing Cloth

Eve Lom Muslin Cleansing Cloth

On the flip side, make sure you're not over-exfoliating, either. 

When you exfoliate too often, with a product that's too strong for your skin, it can become irritated, sensitive and inflamed. Some people even get rashes or breakouts.

Ironically, over-exfoliation can also cause the very problem you're trying to treat: tight, flaky, dry skin!

If you suspect that may be happening, give your skin a break for at least two weeks before slowly re-introducing one of the gentler exfoliation methods I suggested above.

These exfoliation methods are typically too aggressive for dry skin:

  • Nylon cleansing brushes: The stiff bristles of the Clarisonic can be irritating and tend to remove too much of the skin's natural protective oils, leading to water loss and a compromised skin barrier. They're also susceptible to growing mold and bacteria! Stick with the Foreo Luna or PMD Clean instead.
  • Abrasive scrubs: Granular scrubs physically buff away dead cells, but anything too jagged, like pumice or walnut shells, could scratch and potentially damage your skin. The rounder the particle, the gentler it will be. (I like Peet Rivko Exfoliator, which has jojoba beads.)
  • Glycolic acid: Although it's the most powerful type of AHA, glycolic acid is also the most irritating, due to its small molecule size. I personally cannot use it without becoming red and flaky within a few days! 
  • Salicylic acid: As a BHA, salicylic acid is a better choice than glycolic, since it has a large molecule size and anti-inflammatory properties. However, it's still a strong acid that is almost always found in formulations for oily, acne-prone skin, which likely won't be suitable if you're dry. 

How often should you exfoliate? There's no set "rule"—it really depends on what you're using and what your skin can tolerate. Some skin is so sensitive that it can only handle the gentlest product once or twice a week. But thicker, more resilient skin could handle stronger exfoliation as often as twice a day. 

In general, I think you get more benefits from exfoliating regularly (ideally daily), even if it's mild, rather than shocking your skin with something more intensive less often (like once a week). It's just a matter of self-experimentation to find the method and frequency that works best for you.

5. You’re Applying Harsh Ingredients

Paula's Choice 10 Percent Niacinamide Booster

Paula's Choice 10% Niacinamide Booster

It's not just certain exfoliating methods that can lead to dry skin. Many anti-aging ingredients can have the same effect—and even more so if your routine includes multiple treatments.

These are the worst culprits for causing dryness:

  • Prescription retinoids: It's no secret that adapalene, tretinoin and tazarotene are associated with dry, peeling skin (a condition known as the "retinoid uglies"). 
  • Retinol: The most popular and proven over-the-counter retinoid is also notoriously drying for many people.
  • L-ascorbic acid: As the active form of vitamin C, L-ascorbic acid works best at a low (acidic) pH that some may find drying and irritating, especially at higher concentrations. 
  • Hydroquinone: Available both over-the-counter and by prescription, hydroquinone not only makes your skin drier, but is also linked to other side effects (like allergies and ochronosis).

Consider switching to one of these gentler options instead:

No matter which ingredient(s) you choose, watch out for formulas with high concentrations of alcohol or witch hazel, which can strip your skin of moisture. I try to avoid any products that list them in the first five ingredients. 

And it's always a good idea to go fragrance-free. Both synthetic and natural fragrance has a high potential for irritation.

6. You’re Only Using Humectants

OSEA Atmosphere Protection Cream

OSEA Atmosphere Protection Cream

Humectants are water-attracting ingredients like hyaluronic acid, glycerin and aloe, which you'll typically find in serums and essences. They work by drawing in moisture from the environment to plump and hydrate your skin.

But unless you live in a humid climate, they might not be enough to keep you moisturized on their own.

In low humidity, humectants actually have the opposite effect because there's more moisture in your skin than the air. In other words, they can pull moisture out instead of keeping it in, leading to dryness!

If you think this is happening to you, try sealing in your serum or essence with something a little more occlusive that prevents the water from escaping—like a cream, an oil, or both. Your occlusive can even just be your sunscreen.

Some of my top picks include:

You'll notice I didn't recommend anything with silicones. Although they, too, are occlusives, I believe that natural oils are more compatible with our skin and less likely to clog pores and interfere with cellular renewal. They're also a lot more aesthetically desirable—I hate the slippery, artificial feel of silicones, and how they're so prone to pilling!

7. You’re Only Using Occlusives

COSRX Advanced Snail 96 Mucin Power Essence

COSRX Advanced Snail 96 Mucin Power Essence

Just like you may not want to use a humectant on its own, you probably don't want to use an occlusive on its own, either.

Occlusives are great at locking in moisture, but if you don't have enough in your skin to begin with, they won't do a thing for dryness. 

Their only job is to hold onto water AFTER it has already been supplied by your serum, essence or cream.

(Yes, you can also treat your cream as a humectant, since most moisturizers are a blend of both humectants and occlusives. The lighter the formulation, the more likely you'll want to seal it in with an oil on top.)

Try layering one of these underneath your occlusive:

8. You’re Layering Products in the Wrong Order

Indie Lee Squalane Facial Oil

Indie Lee Squalane Facial Oil

Maybe you have all the right products to banish dry skin—but you're applying them in the wrong order in your routine.

The biggest pitfall is with oils.  

One school of thought is that oils should be applied before creams so they can absorb better into the skin. There are even many so-called "serums," which are actually oils—like this one and this one—with instructions to apply them on bare skin.

I'm not really a fan of this method since oils, with their occlusive properties, tend to sit on the top layer of your skin and form a barrier. So any cream you layer over them may not fully penetrate, and you won't get the moisture your skin needs. 

If you do want to try an oil first, I would recommend squalane, since it has the thinnest texture and is very fast-absorbing. (Again, I love Indie Lee Squalane Facial Oil.) But you only want to use a small amount, ideally on damp skin so that it has some moisture to trap.

Otherwise, the general "rule" is to apply your hydrators in order of thinnest to thickest texture, with watery formulations going on before creamy ones, and oils as your last step.

9. Your Diet is Low in Vitamin A

Vital Proteins Beef Liver Capsules

Vital Proteins Beef Liver Capsules

Vitamin A is essential for many physiological processes, including the daily replacement of skin cells.

But if you're not meeting your body's requirements for it, a vitamin A deficiency could cause skin cells to shed too quickly, resulting in dryness and even medical conditions like eczema.

This is known as abnormal keratinization, and vitamin A can help by slowing it down, so that skin cells function longer before they flake off.

These are some ways you can safely get more vitamin A in your diet:

  • Food sources: Liver has the highest amount of active (preformed) vitamin A, but butter, cream, milk and eggs are also good sources. Provitamin A from plant sources high in beta-carotene (like sweet potato and carrots) is less desirable. It has to be converted by our bodies into active vitamin A, but many people have poor conversion due to sluggish liver and thyroid function.
  • Supplements: If you can't get enough vitamin A from food, supplementing with desiccated liver capsules is an option. I recommend Vital Proteins Beef Liver Capsules, Saturée A+ Liver Capsules and Perfect Desiccated Liver Capsules

10. You Have a Slow Metabolism

How to Heal Your Metabolism by Kate Deering

How to Heal Your Metabolism by Kate Deering

Slow metabolism can be a cause of dry skin (among many other symptoms), and it's more common than you think.

"In hypothyroid patients, blood circulation through the skin is less than normal at all times," says Dr. Broda Barnes in his book, Hypothyroidism: The Unsuspected Illness, "and is reduced even further in cold weather since at that time more blood is shifted away from the skin and to the interior of the body in order to preserve body heat."

With reduced circulation, the skin doesn't receive enough nourishment, waste products aren't promptly removed, and it is vulnerable to bacterial invaders.

Keep in mind that it's very possible to have slow metabolism, even if blood tests indicate normal thyroid function. Dr. Barnes (who is considered the pioneer of thyroid research) deemed lab tests "unreliable" and claimed that 40 percent of Americans were in fact hypothyroid. That was back in 1976, so imagine how high that number is today!

The best practical advice I've found for restoring healthy metabolism is in the book How to Heal Your Metabolism by Kate Deering. I can't recommend it enough!

11. Your Skin is “Addicted” to Moisturizer

SkinCeuticals Hydrating B5 Gel

SkinCeuticals Hydrating B5 Gel

The most surprising cause of dry skin is that you might just be using TOO MUCH moisturizer.

That's right—some dermatologists and facialists believe that your skin can actually become so reliant on moisturizer that it gets lazy and stops maintaining its own hydration levels.

"Moisturizers can be used occasionally... but to depend on them as an essential for skincare is wrong because it weakens skin," says Dr. Zein Obagi. "You cannot reverse Mother Nature by applying moisture from the surface, thinking that the moisture will go down and provide what your skin needs. No, it stays on the surface and makes you addicted to it. It slows down skin's ability to renew itself."

"Over-moisturizing our skin's surface sends a signal to its water reservoirs to halt production," says Kate Kerr, a London-based facialist. "When that happens, the skin becomes sluggish and actually lacking in moisture, which makes us reach for even creamier formulas, exacerbating the problem."

If you're not among the 10 to 15 percent of the population with genetically dry skin (often accompanied by eczema or atopic dermatitis), then you can try swapping out your heavy creams for a hyaluronic acid serum, advises Kerr. Try SkinCeuticals Hydrating B5 Gel or Timeless Hyaluronic Acid Pure (both use sodium hyaluronate, which is high-molecular weight).

It can take up to 12 weeks to break the "addiction" to moisturizer, but most people are said to see an improvement as early as the two-week mark.

Conclusion

Now you know the most common causes that lead to dryness—and how to address them!

The most surprising thing about dry skin is how easily we can bring it upon ourselves with an overzealous routine. 

A lot of brands would love to have us believe that in order to get results, we need to be aggressively cleansing and exfoliating, and then treating our skin with multiple active ingredients and heavy creams. But it's just not so. A gentle, "less is more" approach is always best, no matter what your skin type. 

I would also encourage you to get away from the idea that your skin even has a set "type." Maybe it seems dry at this point in time, but with these tips, it's not necessarily destined to be that way forever.

Here's to moist, dewy, hydrated skin in your future!

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