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What Causes Dry Skin? The 12 Reasons Your Face Is So Dry—and What You Can Do About It

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

Dry skin problems are so common that they even have their own hashtag on Instagram (#dryskinproblems, with more than 75,000 posts and counting!). Anyone who has experienced tightness, flakiness and rough patches knows how uncomfortable they can be—to the point where you’re constantly slathering your face in moisturizer.

But that may not be your best strategy. While creams do help to prevent moisture loss, it’s even more important to ditch the habits that are dehydrating your skin, and switch to a more hydrating routine.

In this tutorial, you will learn what causes dryness, where you might be going wrong, and which products are best for quenching a thirsty complexion. Whether you’re new to dry skin, or you consider it to be your lifelong “skin type,” this is how to keep your face happily hydrated.

What Is Dry Skin?

What Causes Dry Skin?

1. You're Over-Cleansing

Washing your face seems like the most basic step in your daily routine... so what could go wrong? You might be using a cleanser that is stripping away your skin’s natural oils, leaving your face uncomfortably tight. This is the most frequent cause of dry skin, and sulfates are usually to blame. 

"Sulfates are an ingredient that should be avoided in people with dry skin,” says Dr. Jeriel Weitz. “[They] are a type of surfactant, which helps to remove dirt and oil from your skin and thus helps to clean the skin. However, sulfates also disrupt the epidermal barrier, which can make them too harsh for people with dry skin. The most common sulfates found in cosmetic products are sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate, so be sure to avoid them if you have dry skin.”[14]

2. Your Water Is Too Hot

It feels so good, but washing your face with hot water—whether at the sink or during a long, steamy shower—can lead to dry skin. That’s because hot water whisks away the fatty substances in our skin that help it to retain moisture. “[It] strips the skin of sebum, the healthy fats and oils necessary for skin health, and dehydrates the skin,” says Dr. Shari Marchbein.[15]

3. You’re Not Exfoliating

If you think dry skin doesn’t need exfoliating, think again. Regular gentle exfoliation is essential to remove surface dead skin cells, so that your hydrators can reach the live cells underneath.

“If your skin is dry, tight and flaky, it means that you have dry skin cell build-up on the surface of the skin,” explains celebrity facialist Renée Rouleau. “Rather than putting on extra cream, try increasing your exfoliation... so that when your cream goes on it hydrates the new cells rather than the dry cells.”[16]

4. You’re Exfoliating Too Much

On the flip side, make sure you’re not over-exfoliating, either. When you exfoliate too aggressively or too often, you can “create tiny cracks in the skin barrier that lead to more loss of hydration and inflammation,” says Dr. Joshua Zeichner.[17] 

Avoid anything abrasive, like cleansing brushes with nylon bristles or scrubs with jagged particles. Not only can they strip protective oils, they could even scratch and irritate your skin. Also be careful with glycolic acid, which is notoriously drying and irritating due to its low molecular weight.[4]

5. You’re Applying Harsh Ingredients

It’s not just certain exfoliating methods that can lead to dry skin. Many active ingredients can have the same effect—especially retinol and prescription retinoids. Dryness, peeling, redness, burning and itching are all well-known side effects that can appear, especially during the early course of treatment.[5]

Vitamin C in the form of L-ascorbic acid can also pose a problem because it is usually formulated at a low (acidic) pH[6] and at concentrations as high as 15-20%. “This may cause some skin irritation, redness and dryness,” says Zeichner.[18]

Don’t forget drying alcohols like denaturated alcohol, ethanol and SD alcohol 40, which are often found in toners. Just like harsh cleansers and exfoliants, they can strip the skin, so switch to alcohol-free products instead.

6. You’re Only Using Humectants

Humectants are water-attracting ingredients (like glycerin and hyaluronic acid) that draw moisture into the epidermis from the dermis or the environment.[1] But unless you live in a humid climate, they could make dryness worse if you use them on their own.

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From The Skincare Edit Archives

“If you are in a humid environment, humectant ingredients will pull in moisture from the air and therefore help your skin to stay hydrated,” says Dr. Leslie Baumann. “If you are in a dry climate, on the other hand, humectants can cause your skin to become dehydrated by pulling moisture up from deeper layers and onto the surface, where they can evaporate into the air. For this reason, it is best to combine humectant ingredients with occlusives.”[19]

7. You’re Only Using Occlusives

Occlusives are oily or waxy ingredients (like petrolatum, lanolin and jojoba oil) that form a protective barrier on the surface of your skin.[1] Their job is to lock in moisture, not to deliver it—so if you don’t have enough water in your skin to begin with, they won’t do a thing for dryness.

“I do find that a lot of people who only use oils are actually really dehydrated or their skin barrier is compromised underneath all that application of oils,” says Dr. Melissa Kanchanapoomi Levin.[20] “I’m not saying oils are bad, but it can’t be the only component when you’re talking about moisturizing or restoring the skin barrier.”

8. You Need to Repair Your Skin Barrier

If combining humectants and occlusives hasn’t helped, then you may need additional ingredients to repair your damaged skin barrier. Researchers have likened it to a brick-and-mortar system. Your skin cells are the bricks, and the lipids in between them—ceramides, cholesterol and fatty acids—are the mortar.[1] When cracks develop between cells, moisture escapes, but you can repair them by applying these substances topically.[2]

9. You’re Layering Products in the Wrong Order

Maybe you have all the right products to banish dry skin, but you’re applying them in the wrong order. The biggest pitfall is with oils. One school of thought is that oils should go on before creams so they can “absorb better” into your skin. There are even so-called serums (like Vintner’s Daughter Active Botanical Serum) that are actually oils, and come with instructions to apply them on bare skin.

The problem is that oils are occlusive, so anything you layer over them may not fully penetrate, and you won’t get the hydration your skin needs. “I like to refer to a face oil as being like a bodyguard for your skin, or like a top coat that works to seal all the products that are underneath deep into the skin,” says Rouleau.[21]

10. You’re Moisturizing Too Much

The most unexpected cause of dry skin is that you might be using too much moisturizer. That’s right—some experts, like Kerr and Dr. Zein Obagi, believe that it’s only necessary for the 10-15% of people with genetically dry skin. For everyone else, it makes the skin “lazy,” and can even weaken barrier function, increasing susceptibility to irritants.[7]

“If you apply a lot of moisture, skin will become sensitive, dry [and] dull, and [it will] interfere with natural hydration,” says Obagi.[22] “Moisturizers can be used occasionally... but to depend on them as an essential for skincare is wrong because it weakens skin. 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.”[23]

11. Your Diet Is Low in Vitamin A

Vitamin A is a key nutrient for regulating skin cell turnover, preventing UV damage and wound healing.[8] But if you’re not meeting your body’s requirements for it, a deficiency could cause skin cells to shed too quickly, resulting in dryness and even conditions like atopic dermatitis (eczema).[9][10] Upping the vitamin A in your diet can help slow down shedding, so that skin cells function longer before they flake off.

12. You Have a Slow Metabolism

Low thyroid function can be a cause of dry skin, and it’s more common than you think. “In hypothyroid patients, blood circulation through the skin is less than normal at all times,” said Dr. Broda Barnes in his book, Hypothyroidism: The Unsuspected Illness. With reduced circulation, skin becomes drier because it doesn’t receive enough nourishment and waste products aren’t being promptly removed.

Even if blood tests indicate normal thyroid function, your thyroid could still be sluggish. Barnes (who is considered the pioneer of thyroid research) deemed lab tests “unreliable” and claimed that 40% of Americans were in fact hypothyroid.

How to Get Rid of Dry Skin on Your Face

First Aid Beauty Face Cleanser
Indie Lee CoQ-10 Toner
COSRX Moisture Up Pad
SkinCeuticals Hydrating B5 Gel
EltaMD Barrier Renewal Complex
Verso Super Facial Serum
OSEA Atmosphere Protection Cream
Vital Proteins Beef Liver Capsules

Conclusion + Further Reading

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

The most surprising thing about dry skin is that we can easily bring it upon ourselves with an overzealous routine. But 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 destined to be that way forever. Here’s to dewy, hydrated skin in your future!

Further Reading

  1. Sethi, Anisha, Kaur, Tejinder, Malhotra, S.K. & Gambhir, M.L. (2016). Moisturizers: The Slippery Road. Indian Journal of Dermatology. 2016 May-Jun; 61(3): 279–287.
  2. Purnamawati, Schandra, Indrastuti, Niken, Danarti, Retno & Saefudin, Tatan. (2017). The Role of Moisturizers in Addressing Various Kinds of Dermatitis: A Review. Clinical Medicine & Research. 2017 Dec; 15(3-4): 75–87.
  3. Pullar, Juliet M., Carr, Anitra C. & Vissers, Margreet C. M. (2017). The Roles of Vitamin C in Skin Health. Nutrients. 2017 Aug; 9(8): 866.
  4. Smith, W. P. (1996). Comparative effectiveness of alpha-hydroxy acids on skin properties. International Journal of Cosmetic Science. 1996 Apr; 18(2): 75-83.
  5. Phillips, Tania J. (2005). An update on the safety and efficacy of topical retinoids. Cutis. 2005 Feb; 75(2 Suppl):14-22, 24; discussion 22-3.
  6. Pinnell, S.R., Yang, H., Omar, M., Monteiro-Riviere, N., DeBuys, H.V., Walker, L.C., Wang, Y. & Levine, M. (2001). Topical L-ascorbic acid: percutaneous absorption studies. Dermatologic Surgery. 2001 Feb; 27(2): 137-42.
  7. Held, E., Sveinsdóttir, S. & Agner, T. (1999). Effect of long-term use of moisturizer on skin hydration, barrier function and susceptibility to irritants. Acta Dermato-Venereologica. 1999 Jan; 79(1): 49-51.
  8. Park, Kyungho. (2015). Role of Micronutrients in Skin Health and Function. Biomolecules & Therapeutics. 2015 May; 23(3): 207–217.
  9. Huang, Zhiyi, Liu, Yu, Qi, Guangying, Brand, David & Zheng, Song Guo. (2018). Role of Vitamin A in the Immune System. Journal of Clinical Medicine. 2018 Sep; 7(9): 258.
  10. Mihály, Johanna, Gamlieli, Anat, Worm, Margitta & Rühl, Ralph. (2011). Decreased retinoid concentration and retinoid signalling pathways in human atopic dermatitis. Experimental Dermatology. 2011 Apr; 20(4): 326-30.
  11. Kim, Eun Ju, Kim, Min-Kyoung, Jin, Xing-Ji, Oh, Jang-Hee, Kim, Ji Eun & Ho, Jin. (2010). Skin Aging and Photoaging Alter Fatty Acids Composition, Including 11,14,17-eicosatrienoic Acid, in the Epidermis of Human Skin. Journal of Korean Medical Science. 2010 Jun; 25(6): 980–983.
  12. Tanno, O., Ota, Y., Kitamura, N., Katsube, T. & Inoue, S. (2000). Nicotinamide increases biosynthesis of ceramides as well as other stratum corneum lipids to improve the epidermal permeability barrier. British Journal of Dermatology. 2000 Sep; 143(3): 524-31.

Other sources: [13][14] • [15] • [16] • [17] • [18] • [19] • [20] • [21] • [22][23] • [24]

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