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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?

Scientifically, moisturizer is an umbrella term for moisturizer types:

  • emollients (fats and oils)
  • squalene (oil)
  • humectants
  • occlusive

But in the world of marketing and the world in which we buy products, the terminology has gone through a makeover.

“[Hydrator and moisturizer] are marketing terms and can be defined by the brands pretty much however they want,” says Perry Romanowski, cosmetic chemist and co-founder of The Beauty Brains.

But while there’s no gold standard for what defines a hydrator and a moisturizer, for the most part, brands use these terms to differentiate how your skin gets the moisture it needs.

Is water a good moisturizer? Water alone isn’t a strong enough ingredient to keep your skin moisturized. It’s also likely by the time you leave the bathroom, it’s evaporated away — along with your skin’s natural oils. In fact, the more you wash your skin without applying a moisturizer or hydrator, the more likely your skin will dry out.

The technical terms are occlusives, which you may see labeled as moisturizers, and humectants, or hydrators.

“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,” says Romanowski. “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.

There are a ton of different products on the market, from balms to oils to creams, gels to ointments to hydrators — but the truth is, most of them do the same thing.

“Most skin lotions [and products] will contain both occlusive and emollient ingredients and humectant ingredients — so they moisturize and hydrate at the same time,” says Romanowski. “The particular form that a product takes, gel, balm, oil, cream, etc., doesn’t really affect the performance of the product. It’s the ingredients that matter. The form just affects the experience of applying the ingredients.”

That being said, read the ingredients and experiment. Sometimes your skin might do better with only a moisturizer or hydrator, not both. By learning exactly how your skin likes to drink, you maximize your way to hydrated skin.

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.

If your skin is really dry, what’s the best solution? Good, old-fashioned petroleum jelly, also known as petrolatum. “For really dry skin, occlusive agents are the best — something with petrolatum works the best,” says Romanowski. “But if someone wants to avoid petrolatum, [then] shea butter or canola oil or soybean oil can work. In reality, petrolatum is the best however.”

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

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

Hydrate from the inside out

  • Aim to drink plenty of water. A good goal is at least half of your body weight in ounces of water every day. So, if you weigh 150 pounds, shoot for 75 ounces of water per day.
  • Add water-rich foods such as watermelon, strawberries, and cucumber. These can help give your skin and body the hydration it needs to look and feel its best.

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.

So, final verdict, when it comes to keeping your skin hydrated, which is better: hydrator or moisturizer?

The answer is probably both.

As we mentioned above, it all depends on your skin type and most common creams do both. But if you’re a skin care aficionado who’s dabbling in single ingredients and 10-step routines, you could be doing it wrong.

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

IngredientMoisturizer (occlusive) or hydrator (humectant)
hyaluronic acidhydrator
glycerinhydrator
aloehydrator
honeyhydrator
nut or seed oil, such as coconut, almond, hempmoisturizer
shea buttermoisturizer
plant oils, such as squalene, jojoba, rose hip, tea treemoisturizer
snail mucinhydrator
mineral oilmoisturizer
lanolinmoisturizer
lactic acidhydrator
citric acidhydrator
ceramidetechnically neither: ceramides strengthen the skin’s barrier to help prevent moisture loss

It also doesn’t hurt to use both a moisturizer and hydrator. Just 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.

If you want a plump, hydrated complexion year-round, the answer is never just one or the other. After all, there’ll definitely be some point, like winter, where you’ll need to hydrate and moisturize — the key is knowing when.


Deanna deBara is a freelance writer who recently made the move from sunny Los Angeles to Portland, Oregon. When she’s not obsessing over her dog, waffles, or all things Harry Potter, you can follow her journeys on Instagram.