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Having dry skin on your face can be seriously frustrating. For one thing, flaking and peeling don’t exactly make for a radiant complexion. More importantly, though, thirsty skin can be downright uncomfortable. Maybe you notice tightness around your mouth and eyes, or perhaps you’re battling stubborn scaly patches that no dollop of moisturizer can soothe.
When, uh, faced with any of these issues, it’s important to think about your daily routine a little differently, Anna Yasmine Kirkorian, MD, the chief of dermatology at Children’s National Hospital in Washington, DC, tells SELF. “Some people are just more prone to drier skin than others at baseline,” Dr. Kirkorian says. However, she adds, “our everyday habits can further dry us out.”
Regardless of what’s making your face so parched, all of the experts SELF spoke with agreed that tending to your skin’s natural moisture barrier—the stratum corneum, to get technical—is often key to alleviating any tightness, flaking, or peeling.1
How, exactly, to best support this outer layer depends on what’s triggering your dryness to begin with. That’s why we asked a few dermatologists to break down the most common causes of dry skin on your face—and what you should be doing instead to restore your natural glow.
What causes dry skin on your face, and how can you bump up the moisture?
In general, flaking skin reflects damage to your skin barrier, which keeps hydration in and any [bacteria, chemicals, allergens, or environmental pollutants] out, Dr. Kirkorian explains. In simple terms, it acts as a protective shield.
If your dryness is paired with other more severe and persistent symptoms like a full-blown rash, scaly patches, or painfully raw and sensitive skin, that can indicate an underlying condition like eczema or psoriasis is also at play. Flare-ups of these inflammatory diseases go beyond everyday tightness and flaking. A dermatologist or primary care provider can diagnose these issues and recommend treatment options, such as prescription topical or oral medications.
Chronic skin conditions aside, here are some of the most common reasons your face might be feeling (and looking) like a desert.
1. You’re going too hard on skin care “actives.”
But wait—aren’t ingredients like vitamin C and salicylic acid supposed to help your face? In moderation, yes, but “too much of a good thing” is an idiom for a reason, and it can certainly apply to skin care products.
In short, an active is an ingredient responsible for targeting a specific skin concern, like dark spots or acne—so it’s usually pretty potent. If you’re buying a cleanser that says it’ll treat your cluster of pimples, for example, the active ingredient is what actually addresses those zits—benzoyl peroxide or sulfur, perhaps. Other common examples of actives include retinol and other retinoids, as well as most acids (including glycolic, azaleic, and lactic).
“The problem arises when people overdo it, because [even in normal, oily, or nonsensitive skin], using too many harsh products can strip your moisture barrier” Shasa Hu, MD, board-certified dermatologist and assistant professor of dermatology at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, tells SELF. When this outer layer is compromised, that means it’s less effective at retaining water, resulting in dryness.2
Instead, try this: You don’t need to avoid strong ingredients like the plague, necessarily, but just make sure you don’t use them too frequently or all at the same time, Dr. Kirkorian advises.
“The key is to make this a multistep process, meaning you may need to wax and wane on using certain products,” she adds. For example, after you spot-treat that pesky chin zit with 10% benzoyl peroxide, maybe don’t apply a moisturizer containing retinol afterward. Or if your face starts to feel itchy and tight after you add, say, a vitamin C serum to your routine, it’s smart to lay off until the irritation subsides. Then you can slowly re-introduce the active to see what frequency works for you, Dr. Kirkorian says—perhaps just one every other night.3
Another derm-approved way to avoid aggravating your face: Practice skin cycling—a method that involves rotating retinoids and exfoliants so your skin has a chance to heal between treatments.
2. Your products have alcohol as a main ingredient.
Alcohol is commonly on the list of no-nos for dry skin, mainly because, in excess, it can deplete sebum (a thick, oily substance naturally produced by your sebaceous or oil glands) and dehydrate your face.
It’s important to note that not all alcohols are bad. Some—like cetyl, stearyl, or cetearyl—can actually make your skin smoother or softer. Isopropyl and ethyl, on the other hand, can strip it of its natural oils, making toners or cleansers with these ingredients ideal for some acne-prone folks, Dr. Hu says (since excess sebum can clog pores and cause breakouts).4 However, they’re usually a bit too harsh for dry, damaged, or easily irritated skin, she adds.
Instead, try this: If isopropyl or ethyl (or just “alcohol”) is one of the first few ingredients in a product you use regularly, give it a rest. Instead, play it safe with alcohol-free alternatives and consider avoiding added fragrance, too: The chemicals responsible for that floral or fruity scent can be irritating to sensitive skin, per the American Academy of Dermatology.
Some dry-skin-friendly serums and toners to consider:
Paula’s Choice Moisture Renewal Oil Booster
Naturium Hyaluronic Acid Essence 2%
Good Molecules Niacinamide Serum
EltaMD Skin Recovery Essence Toner
3. You’re using physical exfoliants.
Cleansers and face scrubs with exfoliating particles like sugar or salt might seem like a smart way to de-flake your face. As it turns out, though, they can have the opposite effect. “Physical exfoliation is known to cause invisible cuts called micro trauma, which isn’t that harmful for most people with normal skin, but for those with dry or sensitive skin, this abrasion can further irritate an already compromised barrier,” Dr. Hu warns.
Another issue with scrubs: “It’s hard to control the degree of exfoliation and most people end up using too much or scrubbing with too much force,” she adds, all of which can do extra damage to your skin barrier (and, again, make it less effective at holding onto water).
Instead, try this: The solution isn’t to avoid exfoliating altogether—you’d be missing out on some pretty cool benefits like removing dead skin cells and unclogging pores. Rather than reaching for the walnut or sugar scrub, though, Kally Papantoniou, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City, recommends chemical exfoliants—specifically, alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) like glycolic acid or lactic acid. In short, AHAs work by loosening up the bonds (or “glue”) holding dead skin cells together, making it easier to shed them off.5
Just make sure to patch test before applying any acids all over your face, suggests the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), in order to avoid irritation or a potential allergic reaction. Some products to try:
CosRx AHA 7 Whitehead Power Liquid Treatment
Krave Beauty Kale-Lalu-yAHA
The Ordinary Lactic Acid 10% + HA 2% Exfoliating Serum
Tatcha The Rice Polish Foaming Enzyme Powder
4. You’re removing makeup with wipes.
On lazy Sunday evenings (or busy Monday nights), washing your face or double cleansing can feel like a real chore. As tempting as it is to grab a disposable wipe to swiftly remove mascara, foundation, and sunscreen, though, this convenient habit could be the reason your skin feels so dry, according to Dr. Hu.
First, a cleansing cloth alone isn’t always enough to get rid of makeup or dirt, which, if left behind, can clog your pores and lead to breakouts.6 Plus, the friction from rubbing anything across your cheeks, forehead, and delicate eye area can damage your skin barrier and yep, dry it out, Dr. Hu says. (Not to mention the fact that wipes often contain those potentially problematic added fragrances we already warned you about.)
Instead, try this: Using a gentle face wash with soothing ingredients (niacinamide, hyaluronic acid, and glycerin are good choices) is key to avoiding further dehydration, Dr. Papantoniou says. Ideally, your cleanser of choice should say things like “gentle,” “creamy,” or “moisturizing” on the label.
For extra-dry skin types, oil-based cleansers may be the way to go since they typically don’t contain surfactants (harsh chemical compounds often found in detergents or foaming products). However, it’s worth noting that oils can also clog your pores. So, especially if you’re acne-prone, consider keeping it simple with a mild wash—preferably one that says “noncomedogenic” on the label, Dr. Hu advises.
Finally, when a cleanser alone isn’t enough to remove persistent or waterproof makeup, Dr. Kirkorian suggests massaging your face with Vaseline, a product with only one ingredient (petrolatum), before cleansing. This method, she says, is less aggressive than using wipes. We totally get it if Vaseline is too greasy for you, though, so another great and gentle option is micellar water, which contains purified water and hydrating micelles (clusters of molecules that bind to oil).7
Drunk Elephant E-Rase Milki Micellar Water
Native Unscented Sensitive Facial Cleanser
Era Organics Facial Cleansing Oil Makeup Remover
La Roche-Posay Toleriane Hydrating Gentle Face Cleanser
5. You’re over-cleansing your face.
Wait—before you proceed with your face wash or micellar water, just know that there is such a thing as too much cleansing when it comes to dry and itchy skin. “There’s this misconception that you need to wash your face intensely and frequently to keep it clean, and doing so too often can also remove the skin’s natural moisturizing oils,” Dr. Kirkorian says.8
Instead, try this: There’s no one-size-fits-all rule for how often you should wash your face. However, Dr. Hu recommends a general guideline of once a day (twice, max) and preferably in the evening. That way, you’ll take off all the oil and dirt (and makeup, perhaps) that’s likely piled up throughout the day. In the morning, if you’re feeling super dry, you can probably skip the cleanser and just rinse your face with plain old water.8 Assuming you thoroughly washed your face the night before, your skin probably hasn’t accumulated a ton of dirt or oil while you slept, she explains. The caveat: If you exercise in the a.m. and get sweaty, it’s smart to cleanse a second time, to avoid clogged pores, Dr. Hu says. (Same goes for a mid-day workout, by the way.)
6. You’re taking really hot showers.
Winding down with a steamy shower can be the perfect way to relax. But a scorching rinse may be making your face even more parched. Hot water can deplete the skin of its natural oils, leading to drier skin, Dr. Papantoniou says.
Instead, try this: No, you don’t have to end your day with a freezing shower (or cold plunge)—eek. Instead, the best (and probably most realistic) solution is keeping the water at a warm-to-tepid temperature, she says. (And if you’re really keen on washing up in a liquid inferno, at least start with warm water then transition to hot for just a few blissful minutes).
As an added hydration bonus, Dr. Papantoniou recommends investing in a humidifier, if you can, which can help balance out the moisture in the air—a benefit that’s especially important in colder, drier months.
AquaOasis Cool Mist Humidifier (2.2-L.)
Hey Dewy Wireless Humidifier
7. You’re using the wrong moisturizer.
Any lotion or cream should be able to fix flaking or peeling, right? Not exactly. Before we get into the specific moisturizers you should (and shouldn’t) be using, it’s helpful to brush up on common skin hydrators.
Most moisturizer formulas contain ingredients from one or more of these three categories: humectants, which attract water to the skin; emollients, which soften and smooth the surface; and occlusives, which sit on top and seal in moisture.9 When used in tandem, this trio can help the skin better repair itself. And people with dry skin should pay particular attention to the latter two categories.
“Gel- or water-based moisturizers tend to be lighter,” Dr. Hu says, which is fine when it’s really humid out and you want something not-so-greasy—or if you have super oily skin in general.10 These formulas aren’t ideal for dry skin, though, because they primarily contain water and humectants (like glycerin or hyaluronic acid), she explains. Those are great for attracting moisture, as we said, but you also need occlusives and emollients to lock that hydration in, especially in cold, dry weather.
Instead, try this: The derms we consulted recommend a thick, cream-based moisturizer containing not only humectants but emollients and occlusives too. One standout ingredient to look for is ceramides, a holy grail emollient (or more specifically a lipid) that binds your skin cells together, strengthening the moisture barrier. Shea butter and dimethicone are some other great barrier-repairing (and occlusive) options that can lock in moisture, Dr. Hu adds.
While rich creams can be highly hydrating, it’s worth noting that some common occlusive ingredients (like coconut oil) can also clog pores. Like with facial cleansers, to avoid breaking out from your moisturizer, look for products labeled “non-comedogenic.”
CeraVe Moisturizing Cream
Tower 28 Beauty SOS Daily Skin Barrier Redness Recovery Moisturizer
EADEM Cloud Cushion Plush Moisturizer with Ceramides + Peptides
Paula’s Choice Omega+ Complex Moisturizer
If you take one thing from this article, it should be this: The best way to relieve your dry face is to tend to your skin barrier. By being kind to this protective layer—perhaps by cycling your serums or incorporating tried-and-true hydrating ingredients into your routine—your face will be better equipped to hold onto moisture. And it’ll hopefully repay you with a healthy glow.
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