Can Water Be Bad for Your Skin?

We definitely need it but maybe not so much

Water has amazing benefits for the skin. Internally, that is. Externally, not so much.

A woman's legs in a pool
Vanessa Gren / EyeEm / Getty Images

You would think that by putting water on your skin you would be moisturizing it. It's certainly something we have been taught since childhood: wash your face with plenty of soap and hot water. What we are now learning is that the opposite is true. While bar soap is bad enough, drying out skin with its detergents and chemicals, water on its own can also be damaging.

Here are the simple facts: when water comes into contact with the skin, it quickly evaporates and takes many of the skin's natural oils — called the natural moisturizing factor (NMF) — with it. The more frequently skin is washed this way, the drier it can get, especially if the water is heavily chlorinated or excessively hot.

Avoid Dry Skin by Limiting Its Exposure to Water

Water is just one of the many things that can cause dry, flaky skin but, unlike soap, is pretty unavoidable in our daily lives. We shower, swim, and use things like saunas and hot tubs where there can be plenty of chlorine. But that doesn't mean we can't be "water smart" when it comes to our own, daily skin care routine.

Here are a few tips you should always bear in mind:

  • Water temperature should be tepid. As wonderful it is to take a good, hot shower on a cold winter's night, hot water strips the skin of NMF even more effectively than tepid water. "Tepid" doesn't mean "cold." You should certainly make the water temperature comfortable, but the minute your skin starts turning red, you're probably overdoing it.
  • Keep showers short and sweet. Long, hot showers transform our bathrooms into a virtual spa-like experience, and that might seem like a good thing as it is meant to "open up and clean out our pores," right? Wrong. Long showers do little more to undermine the skin's NMF, stripping its natural moisturizers and making it drier. Wash just enough to get your skin clean.
  • Use soap strategically. Unless you literally have dirt and grime on you, you don't really need to use soap each and every time you shower. It's perfectly fine to confine soap us to those parts of your body, like armpits and genitals, where there are plenty of bacteria. When it comes to the rest of your body, be aware that most bar soaps contain detergents and ingredients that are downright damaging. To treat your skin gently, consider switching to either a soap formulated for dry skin or a liquid body wash containing plenty of emollients.
  • Pat the skin dry. When drying off after showering or swimming, pat the skin dry with a towel until skin is not dripping. Rubbing vigorously, as if you're trying to exfoliate it, is not advised
  • Moisturize, moisturize, and moisturize more. Does your skin ever get that dry, tight feeling after taking a shower? If so, you probably need to change your cleanser. At the same time, showering on its own can dehydrate the skin, so after patting your skin dry, immediately apply a good moisturizer to lock in hydration.

Dry skin can plague us during any time of year but is particularly common during winter months when temperatures drop and humidity plummets. Keep these "water smart" guidelines in mind, whatever the season, to keep your skin in its best possible condition.

3 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. Barel AO, Paye M, Maibach HI. Handbook of Cosmetic Science and Technology, Fourth Edition. CRC Press; 2014.

  2. Kenet B, Lawler P. How to Wash Your Face, America's Leading Dermatologist Reveals the Essential Secrets for Youthful, Radiant Skin. Simon and Schuster; 2002.

  3. Mukhopadhyay P. Cleansers and their role in various dermatological disorders. Indian J Dermatol. 2011;56(1):2-6. doi:10.4103/0019-5154.77542

Additional Reading
  • Coderch, L.; et al. "Efficacy of stratum corneum ​Lipid Supplementation on Human Skin." Contact Dermatitis. 2002; 3:139-146.

  • Johnson, A. "Overview: ​Fundamental Skin Care - protecting the barrier." Dermatologic Therapy. 2004; 17:1-5.
  • Mukhopadhay, P. "Cleansers and Their Various Roles in Dermatologic Disorders.' Ind J Derm. January-February 2011; 56(1):2-6.

By Heather L. Brannon, MD
Heather L. Brannon, MD, is a family practice physician in Mauldin, South Carolina. She has been in practice for over 20 years.