How to Keep Your Skin Hydrated (and Why It’s Important)

Our skin is a living organ made up of three layers: the epidermis, dermis, and hypodermis (subcutaneous fat layer). Each layer serves a different function.

The epidermis is continuously shed and contains melanocytes, which are involved in giving the skin its color. The dermis—the middle layer—gives the skin its strength and flexibility. It also contains pain and touch receptors. The hypodermis helps conserve the body’s heat and protects the body from injury by acting as a shock absorber.

Similar to the organs inside our body, our skin requires adequate moisture to function properly. Dry skin can interrupt the skin’s natural processes and cause it to become weak, which can lead to reduced elasticity and an increased risk of splitting, cracking, inflammation, and bleeding. This can elevate the risk of infection, especially in older adults.

While the body has natural mechanisms for keeping our skin hydrated and moisturized, our skin can become dry due to very cold weather, sun exposure, certain dietary factors, dehydration, and lifestyle choices. Fortunately, there are many ways to prevent dry skin and keep our skin moisturized and healthy.

woman putting on lotion

 FreshSplash / Getty Images

How Skin Stays Naturally Hydrated

The skin’s outer layer is called the stratum corneum. It is responsible for protecting the skin against exterior elements like weather and potential threats like bee stings.

The stratum corneum also reacts to changes in a person’s environment. In a humid place, for example, a person’s skin will take in water from the air to improve its hydration. That’s why the skin tends to swell in response to warm environments, like after a shower.

Hydrated skin is also more permeable, which boosts overall skin health and elasticity. This is important for maintaining the skin’s protective function while preventing tearing and infection.

Skin contains molecules referred to as natural moisturizing factor. These compounds play a role in boosting fluid retention in the outer layer of the skin when a person is exposed to dry conditions. Therefore, keeping your skin moisturized over time makes it more resilient against dry conditions.

Stay Hydrated From the Inside Out

The most important way to keep your skin hydrated is to drink plenty of water. The skin contains 30% water, which can be lost through sweat. That’s why it’s important to stick to water for optimum hydration. 

One study has shown that staying hydrated from the inside might be as effective as applying a topical moisturizer to your skin. Thus, in this study it is clear that higher water input in a regular diet might positively impact normal skin physiology, in particular in those individuals with lower daily water consumptions.

Drinks with diuretic properties, like alcohol and coffee, can dry out the skin even when you’re drinking more water.

Use the Right Products

There are four main types of topical products that people can use to hydrate their skin. These are lotions, creams, ointments, and gels.

Lotions are best for daytime moisturizers on the face and body. They work well when applied after shaving.

Specialty creams for the face differ from those for the body, but all creams are best used at night, when the heavier fats can better sink into the skin.

Ointments and gels are less common, but ointments, due to their greasy sheen, are beneficial for adding a protective layer in non-humid environments. Gels are most often used on the face because they’re quickly absorbed and noncomedogenic, meaning they won’t clog pores and cause breakouts.

Cleansers

It’s important to choose a cleanser that doesn’t dry out your face. Research shows that oily skin responds best to gel- and bar-based cleansers. This is also true for someone who struggles with acne.

In contrast, cream- and lotion-based cleansers are best for normal to dry skin. It’s especially important to use an oil-based cleanser if you struggle with dry skin regularly or if you live in a harsh climate with cold weather, which can zap the moisture from your skin. These same rules apply to body washes.

Moisturizers

Topical moisturizers can improve skin barrier function to ward off dryness and boost skin health. However, not all moisturizers are created equally. 

For example, products containing petroleum have been shown to immediately improve skin health by boosting moisture. Ceramide is another ingredient that has been shown to decrease water loss in the case of atopic dermatitis, commonly called eczema.

Eczema is a chronic skin disease that causes red, itchy, scaly skin that is extremely dry and at high risk of infection. Research has shown that ceramide creams are particularly beneficial for boosting skin hydration because they mimic the body’s natural skin barrier function to increase moisture absorption.

Additionally, urea is an ingredient that’s been proven to reduce irritation and calm rashes in children with eczema.

The best products for your skin type depend on your lifestyle habits, climate, and other factors. However, applying moisturizer directly after a bath can improve your skin’s uptake of the topical treatment, resulting in more moisturized skin.

Control Your Environment

Environmental factors and weather play a major role in skin health. For example, low temperatures and low humidity contribute to dry, itchy skin because they decrease skin barrier function and make them more susceptible to mechanical stress.

Cold and dry weather also makes the skin more vulnerable to skin irritants and allergies, and can increase the risk of an eczema flare-up. A humidifier is a great way to combat dry skin if you live in a cold or dry climate because the droplets increase the skin’s water uptake to strengthen and soften it.

Avoiding hot showers is also recommended for dry skin since it makes it worse.

Wearing sunscreen can protect the skin from extreme dryness in a hot, dry environment. Dermatologists recommend a minimum of SPF 30 for sunscreen.

Specifically, sunscreen helps prevent premature aging in response to excessive sun exposure, which results in skin sagging, loss of skin elasticity, and a rough surface.

Caring for Your Skin

The most effective way to care for your skin is to stay hydrated. Eating healthy foods, using a topical moisturizer, and avoiding smoking and tobacco use can also greatly influence the health of the skin for years to come.

Moreover, avoiding prolonged exposure to extreme weather environments—particularly those that subject the skin to UV rays—can prevent sun damage and promote long-term skin health. Wear hats and clothing to protect your skin when you are outdoors. Also, try to take breaks indoors when you are staying outside for a long time.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Hahnel E, Blume-Peytavi U, Kottner J. Associations of dry skin, skin care habits, well-being, sleep quality and itch in nursing home residents: results of a multicentre, observational, cross-sectional study. Nurs Open. 2019;6(4):1501-1509. doi:10.1002/nop2.351

  2. Everett JS, Sommers MS. Skin viscoelasticity: physiologic mechanisms, measurement issues, and application to nursing science. Biol Res Nurs. 2013;15(3):338-346. doi:10.1177/1099800411434151

  3. Popkin BM, D'Anci KE, Rosenberg IH. Water, hydration, and health. Nutr Rev. 2010;68(8):439-458. doi:10.1111/j.1753-4887.2010.00304.x

  4. Palma L, Marques LT, Bujan J, Rodrigues LM. Dietary water affects human skin hydration and biomechanics. Clin Cosmet Investig Dermatol. 2015 Aug 3;8:413-421. doi:10.2147/CCID.S86822

  5. Sethi A, Kaur T, Malhotra SK, Gambhir ML. Moisturizers: the slippery road. Indian J Dermatol. 2016;61(3):279-287. doi:10.4103/0019-5154.182427

  6. Rodan K, Fields K, Majewski G, Falla T. Skincare bootcamp: the evolving role of skincare. Plast Reconstr Surg Glob Open. 2016;4(12 Suppl):e1152. doi:10.1097/GOX.0000000000001152

  7. Lodén M. Role of topical emollients and moisturizers in the treatment of dry skin barrier disorders. Am J Clin Dermatol. 2003;4(11):771-788. doi:10.2165/00128071-200304110-00005

  8. Sohn A, Frankel A, Patel RV, Goldenberg G. Eczema. Mt Sinai J Med. 2011;78(5):730-739. doi:10.1002/msj.20289

  9. Spada F, Barnes TM, Greive KA. Skin hydration is significantly increased by a cream formulated to mimic the skin’s own natural moisturizing systems. Clin Cosmet Investig Dermatol. 2018 Oct 15;11:491-497. doi:10.2147/CCID.S177697

  10. Purnamawati S, Indrastuti N, Danarti R, Saefudin T. The role of moisturizers in addressing various kinds of dermatitis: a review. Clin Med Res. 2017;15(3-4):75-87. doi:10.3121/cmr.2017.1363

  11. Engebretsen KA, Johansen JD, Kezic S, Linneberg A, Thyssen JP. The effect of environmental humidity and temperature on skin barrier function and dermatitis. J Eur Acad Dermatol Venereol. 2016;30(2):223-249. doi:10.1111/jdv.13301

  12. Ohno H, Nishimura N, Yamada K, et al. Effects of water nanodroplets on skin moisture and viscoelasticity during air-conditioning. Skin Res Technol. 2013;19(4):375-383. doi:10.1111/srt.12056

  13. Geoffrey K, Mwangi AN, Maru SM. Sunscreen products: rationale for use, formulation development and regulatory considerations. Saudi Pharm J. 2019;27(7):1009-1018. doi:10.1016/j.jsps.2019.08.003

  14. Hodges AL, Walker DK. Skin care for women. Nurs Womens Health. 2016;20(6):609-613. doi:10.1016/j.nwh.2016.10.001