Hydrating and Moisturizing Aren’t the Same for Your Skin — Here’s Why

You might think hydration is something that only people with dry or dehydrated skin need to worry about. But hydrating your skin is just like hydrating your body: Your body needs hydration to look and feel its best — and, no matter your skin type, so does your skin.

But what, exactly, is hydration? Is it the same as moisture? And with so many different products claiming to give you the hydrated skin you crave — oils and creams and gels, oh my! — how do you choose one that actually gives your skin the potent dose of moisture it needs?

Moisturizers are oil-based ingredients, including occlusive agents, such as petrolatum or mineral oil, and emollients like esters and plant oils. They work by creating a seal on the surface of skin which prevents water from escaping. They also make the skin feel smoother and less dry.

Hydrators are ingredients called humectants, such as glycerin or hyaluronic acid, that absorb water from the atmosphere or your skin and hold it in place on your skin.

It’s important to recognize that they work very differently, because which you choose can make or break your skin health. The end goal might be the same — better hydrated skin — but the game plan to get there depends on your skin type.

The million dollar question: Which is best for your skin type?

1 If you have dry skin, try a thicker moisturizer

If your skin is naturally dry year-round and tends to flake or peel, chances are, it’s not weather-related dehydration that’s causing your dryness — your skin just has a hard time retaining moisture.

For that, you’ll need to moisturize to create a protective seal on the surface to lock in moisture. A thick, emollient moisturizer will help prevent water from leaving your skin — and, with the right formula, will provide the nutrients and nourishment your complexion needs to thrive all winter long.

Ingredients you’ll definitely want to try: oils including plant oils, like jojoba oil, and nut oils, like coconut oil

2 If you have dehydrated skin, try a hydrating serum

If your skin is dehydrated, you need to actively add water back into the skin. Look for a hydrating serum with hyaluronic acid, which retains an impressive 1,000 times its weight in water — and will add a healthy dose of hydration back into the skin.

Ingredients you’ll definitely want to try: hyaluronic acid, aloe vera, honey

3 If you have oily skin, try water-based hydrators and moisturizers

Just because you have an oily skin type doesn’t mean your skin isn’t dehydrated — and if your skin is dehydrated, it can actually exacerbate your oil issues.

People with oily skin often have compromised barrier function, which makes it hard for their skin to retain moisture. As moisture leaves the skin, it becomes dehydrated, causing the skin to produce more oil.

It’s a vicious cycle, and the only way to break it is to give your skin the proper hydration and moisture it needs.

Look for water-based, noncomedogenic hydrators and moisturizers. Water-based products will feel lighter on the skin and won’t clog your pores.

But how do you know if the product will moisturize or hydrate?

When it comes to keeping your skin hydrated, which is better: hydrator or moisturizer?

The answer is BOTH!

Here’s a table to help determine if you’re keeping your skin healthy with the right ingredients.

Ingredient Moisturizer (occlusive) or hydrator (humectant)
hyaluronic acid hydrator
glycerin hydrator
aloe hydrator
honey hydrator
nut or seed oil, such as coconut, almond, hemp moisturizer
shea butter moisturizer
plant oils, such as squalene, jojoba, rose hip, tea tree moisturizer
snail mucin hydrator
mineral oil moisturizer
lanolin moisturizer
lactic acid hydrator
citric acid hydrator
ceramide technically neither: ceramides strengthen the skin’s barrier to help prevent moisture loss


Hydrate by applying humectants like hyaluronic acid first, then follow up with an occlusive like plant oils to lock it in.

Or, if you want to keep things simple, look for a product that does both. Face masks are a great option to get the one-two punch to hydrate and moisturize your skin with a single product.