Derms Say There's a Right and Wrong Way to Moisturize—Here's What You Need to Know

Swatches of hydrating skincare products on a blue background

Liz DeSousa / Byrdie

Few things are more satisfying than having a healthy, hydrating glow, and your skin would agree. The benefits are never-ending, and the visuals are a bonus.

While countless products exist to keep skin moisturized, it's important to pick the proper one for your skin type. The weather and season, your diet and water intake, and the ingredients you're already using in your skincare routine also play a role. We asked board-certified dermatologists Marisa Garshick, MD, and Aanand Geria, MD, and skin professional Krista Eichten to divulge every tip they have for maximizing moisture. Keep reading for what they had to say.

Meet the Expert

  • Marisa Garshick, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist and clinical assistant professor at Cornell University.
  • Aanand Geria, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist based in Verona, New Jersey.
  • Krista Eichten is the senior vice president of products and services for Sanitas Skincare.
01 of 05

Moisturize Overnight

Our bodies put in work while our minds go to rest, so it's no surprise that moisturizing overnight is crucial to healthy, supple skin. "Skin goes into repair mode while we sleep," says Eichten. "This is the prime time to dose it with extra nutrients."

Start with freshly cleansed skin, then layer a hydrating serum on the face, neck, and chest. "Choose an antioxidant-rich formula, like our VitaRich Serum ($62), to help counteract the environmental aggressors of the day, then layer a moisturizing balm like Topical C ($56) over the top," Eichten continues.

Geria also notes that our skin's oil production is actually at its lowest during the night, because this is when our bodies lose the most water. "An overnight mask can help your skin rejuvenate itself and stay hydrated," he says.

02 of 05

Stay Hydrated

If there is one tip to swear by, it's this one. Your body needs water to function, and staying hydrated is absolutely crucial for skin health and overall health, head to toe. "Our skin is hydrated from the inside out," explains Geria. "Meaning if you do not drink enough fluids, it's easier for it to become dry. Water keeps the body hydrated, helping it to maintain elasticity."

That being said, staying hydrated goes beyond just drinking water. "It’s a popular misconception that drinking more water is the key to quenching dry skin," says Eichten. "While water is necessary to keep our overall body functioning well, it’s a myth that it can eradicate dry, flaky skin. Why? Because water doesn’t go right to your skin after you drink it. Instead, it travels through your digestive system, enters the bloodstream, is then filtered by the kidneys, and finally goes to your cells. While skin cells do ultimately benefit from the intake of water, it isn’t our best strategy for keeping the skin hydrated."

So what exactly is the best strategy? "Instead, it’s key to understand how to keep the water that’s in the skin from leaching out in a process called transepidermal water loss, or TEWL," Eichten continues. "TEWL is a natural process, as water will evaporate from the skin over the course of a day, but we can slow it down by opting for skincare products that help the skin lock in moisture like fatty acids, ceramides, and hyaluronic acid."

03 of 05

Avoid Drying Ingredients

As counter-intuitive as it sounds, the moisturizers on the shelves are not always moisturizing. It's important to read the label on any skincare product before you purchase, to ensure it does not include ingredients that actually dry the skin versus hydrate it.

"Certain skincare lines contain ingredients that should be avoided if you have dry skin," explains Geria. "Stay away from products containing alcohol, fragrances, and glycolic acid. Not only can alcohol dry your skin, but it can also cause irritation, redness, and in some cases, even eczema to develop. Although fragrances typically make up a small percentage of a product, if you have dry skin, it's likely to cause acne. Glycolic acid is an exfoliant, benefiting skin cell production and regeneration, which is helpful for those with dull skin. But for those who have dry skin, glycolic acid is likely to make your skin more dehydrated and irritated."

Approach benzoyl peroxide and bar soap with caution as well. "Benzoyl peroxide is harsh and upsets the skin’s natural microbiome, which in turn can lead to redness, irritation, and peeling, and also leave your skin more susceptible to pathogens, potentially causing more acne," says Eichten of the acne-fighting ingredient. "A vicious cycle of breakouts often ensues with long-term use. A better alternative to benzoyl peroxide, which still fights acne but keeps skin moisture reserves in check, is sulfur. A lesser known clinically proven ingredient, sulfur also promotes rapid exfoliation of pore-clogging dead skin cell buildup but without irritation.

"[Bar] soap is extremely alkaline, which means the pH is high, sometimes as high as 10," Eichten continues. "For context, our skin functions best at a pH of around 5.5-6.5. When something alkaline is left on the skin for too long it causes a buildup. Over time, this alkaline residue accumulates on the skin and impedes your skin’s ability to absorb other topical nutrients, meaning your other products will not work as well. A better swap for bar soap is a gentle, daily cleanser that is pH neutral or even just slightly lower than your skin’s natural pH."

04 of 05

Apply Moisturizing Products Properly

While this may sound like an obvious concept, Garshick emphasizes that it's important to apply all hydrating skincare products in the correct way for maximum benefit, without clogging or overdoing it. Her breakdown is as follows.

  • Apply moisturizer to damp skin: In general, it is best to apply moisturizer when the skin is still damp, as this helps to lock moisture in.
  • Pat skin dry: Do not rub vigorously as the friction caused by rubbing can be drying and irritating on the skin. 
  • Use creams or ointments: For those with dry skin, the thicker the moisturizer, (often) the better, as this provides an occlusive barrier to help lock moisture in. Creams and ointments contain more oil than lotions, which is what makes them particularly helpful at sealing in moisture.
  • Remember your lips, hands, and feet: People often remember to moisturize their face but may forget about areas that are also susceptible to dryness such as the lips, hands, and feet. For these areas, using a thicker moisturizing ointment such as Vaseline's Healing Jelly Ointment ($4) can be a great option to not only help lock in moisture but to protect against external irritants as well. Wear cotton gloves or socks after applying your moisturizer.
  • Use a cleanser or cleansing bar that will leave the skin feeling moisturized: Harsh soaps can be drying on the skin and strip it of its natural oils. Instead, it is best to opt for cleansers or cleansing bars that leave moisture behind and nourish the skin.
  • Consider a hydrating serum containing hyaluronic acid or glycerin: Hydrating serums help to draw moisture in using humectants that help to attract water. This works especially well when paired with a moisturizer which can help to lock moisture in.
05 of 05

Use the Right Exfoliant For Your Skin

Exfoliation is an essential step for healthy, smooth, and balanced skin, Eichten shares. There are three forms of exfoliation: mechanical, chemical, and enzymatic. "While all can be suitable for dry skin it’s important to choose products that contain nourishing ingredients that help counteract any potential irritation that could be caused by exfoliation," she says.

  • Mechanical: Mechanical exfoliation physically removes dead skin cells with the use of crystals or granules. Facial scrubs can often be harsh, so if you're going this route, Eichten recommends looking for a gentle, non-abrasive formula in a moisturizing base (keep an eye out for vitamins and jojoba oil). Avoid scrubs that use nut shells, or large or irregularly-shaped crystals as they can be too aggressive and cause small microtears in the skin. Instead, opt for round silica crystals to gently polish away dead skin without irritation. 
  • Chemical: For dry skin, look no further than lactic acid to resolve dull, dry, and flaky skin, Eichten recommends. As with any acid on dry skin, less is always more. Look for a low-strength formula and limit your frequency of use to three times per week.
  • Enzymatic: Enzymes work by dissolving the “glue” or keratin that holds dead skin cells together. The enzymes digest the dead skin and help your skin rev up its natural cell turnover process. Fruit enzymes dissolve dead skin and keratin while squalane, hyaluronic acid, and a lipid blend will restore moisture and counteract any potential redness and irritation.

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