Dehydrated Skin: The Skin’s Natural Barrier

Published: Nov 2015 Updated: Jun 2021
Dr. Ailynne Marie Mendoza Vergara-Wijangco

Depending on your skin type and the season, dry, dehydrated skin can seem like it's here to stay. In this guide, our research team explains why it's not, and what you can do about it.

The search for an effective moisturizer is not a new one. In Ancient Egypt, people used sesame, almond and olive oils to care for their skin in the dry climates of the desert. In the late 1800s a patent was filed for pure petrolatum. This household product, now known as Vaseline, is still used worldwide.  Over time our understanding of ingredients and the skins natural barrier has advanced significantly. The result: a wide range of products that boast such a variety of benefits, that there is a high potential for confusion and – even worse – miseducation.

As a Canadian skincare company, we are experts when it comes to dry, dehydrated skin. Extreme temperatures are a regular part of our lives in North America and the tendency to turn up the heat in our homes during the coldest months of the year goes hand in hand with the search for an effective moisturizer. In this article we present our research surrounding the causes and cures of dry compromised skin to help you maintain a well-balance radiant complexion year round. 

What Causes Dehydrated Skin?

The main reason your skin becomes dehydrated is damage to the skin’s natural barrier, which prevents your skin from regulating normal moisture level. Once this natural barrier is compromised the result is often: rough, scaly, itchy, chapped, red, tight and uncomfortable dry skin.

Scientific surveys show that the factors most commonly associated with dry skin include advanced age, frequent bathing with scrubbing, wrong skin care products, and high temperatures and dry climates often created by home heating in the winter.

How the Skin Controls Hydration

Proper hydration is crucial for normal function of the skin. Hydration is regulated and maintained by the top most layer of the skin. This outer layer – also known as the stratum corneum - protects against dry skin and over-hydration. In order to function in different environments, the stratum corneum must maintain an adequate amount of water. This layer of skin is flexible, absorbent, adaptable and capable of regeneration. The tightly packed cells in this layer create a tortuous path for water molecules to pass.  When the stratum corneum is intact and healthy, water is successfully retained and the skin’s hydration is preserved.

The skin is also responsible for creating an efficient, natural, moisturizer referred to as Natural Moisturizing Factor (NMF).   Most of the water in the skin comes from the body, but under ideal conditions, the NMF may absorb water from the external environment.  There are a number of factors that cause reduced Natural Moisturizing Factor in the skin.  Some common causes include the use of the natural age-related decline, inappropriate cleansers, and excessive sun exposure which can stop its production. 

Skin Versus the Environment 


Human skin must adapt to a diverse range of environmental conditions. This adaptability is especially important in North America given the extreme seasonality that most parts of the region experience. The amount of water vapor in the air is one of the most significant environmental factor affecting barrier function and skin hydration. Dry conditions are thought to cause dry skin by reducing the capacity to produce Natural Moisturizing Factor. The body reacts to dry conditions with skin thickening and increasing the molecules that help retain water in order to reduce water loss and the effects of dry conditions. These natural reactions, or compensation mechanisms are remarkably efficient. For example, time spent in a dry environment leads to accelerated barrier recovery when compared to the time spent in a humid environment.


Temperature also has an impact on barrier function. Barrier recovery is accelerated while the skin surface temperature is maintained around our normal core temperature (37 degrees Celsius). Outside of this range the rate of recovery is delayed. Despite protective mechanisms, the skin will become damaged and require treatment in extreme conditions. Additionally, protective mechanisms become less effective with age and the presence of disease states.


In addition to affecting the activity of the skin’s defense mechanisms, water is responsible for many of the physical properties of healthy skin. Giving shape to the skin’s layers and allowing for their deformation and suppleness, water is one of the most important components.

Excessive bathing with harsh soap often leads to the depletion of the Natural Moisturizing Factor essential to maintaining the skin’s natural barrier. Hot water is also known to strip the natural oils from the skin. Fortunately, there are some simple and effective solutions to maintain a healthy skin barrier. Showers and baths should be kept short and hot temperature should be avoided.  Additionally, the use of appropriate cleansers (see below) should be a priority with the avoidance of excessive scrubbing. 

How to Alleviate Dry, Dehydrated Skin

 *While this article was written as an unbiased educational resource, this section highlights Riversol products and their benefits for dry skin.

Use Mild Cleansers

Traditional body soaps are harsh on the skin and can cause damage to the natural moisture barrier of the skin. Soap works by removing natural oils from the skin and with those oils go the unwanted debris. This is problematic because it can cause dry skin to become even drier. Synthetic detergent cleansers or other mild cleansers are preferred. Ideally, cleansers should have a low pH consistent with the normal acidic pH of the skin. These cleansers tend to be more gentle on skin than traditional soaps and have been found to optimize skin barrier function and help to trap moisture in the skin, while removing the surface dirt.  There is also evidence to suggest that slightly acidic cleansers are easier on skin. Information about the Riversol hydrating cream cleanser, formulated specifically for individuals with dry skin, can be found here.

Use the Right Moisturizer Regularly

Daily use of moisturizers, which contain substances that promote skin hydration and/or substances that reduce water loss from the skin, is a crucial component of dry skin management. Moisturizers should be applied immediately after bathing and gentle drying of the skin.  Read more about more about selecting an appropriate moisturizer below. 

Avoid Excessive and Aggressive Skin Washing

Excessive washing can worsen dry skin, particularly when hot water is used to bathe. Lukewarm or warm water is preferable for bathing, and patients should be instructed to avoid aggressive scrubbing of the skin. 

Get a Humidifier

Increasing the humidity of indoor air during the winter is beneficial for patients who are prone to dry skin. 

Moisturizing Basics 

To the average consumer, the term moisturizer may be misleading. One might assume the term implies the product is actually putting moisture back into the skin. However, moisturizers put very little external water back into the skin. Moisturizers simply attempt to slow the rate of water loss and create an optimal environment for the skin to repair itself back to a healthy state. There are four stages commonly used to describe re-hydration. In order to ensure the maximum impact of moisturizers, it has become common practice to use them at every stage of the skin-care process. This means that there are moisturizing cleansers, moisturizing bath additives and topical moisturizers which are left on the skin.

  1. Allowing the the skin’s protective barrier to repair itself;
  2. the reduction in moisture loss;
  3. the onset of moisture movement from the deeper to the top most layers of the skin; and
  4. stimulating the production of natural moisturizers.

Moisturizers are formulated to perform one or more of these steps.

Choosing a Moisturizer

 *While this article was written as an unbiased educational resource, this section highlights Riversol products and their benefits for dry skin

Facial moisturizing products must be safe and free of stinging, burning or itching. There are countless moisturizers which vary in color, consistency, fragrance and active ingredients.  Most fall under the category of either a concentrate, cream or a lotion.  They can be differentiated by their physical properties and chemical composition. Concentrates are the thickest of all formulations. Creams are less thick than concentrates yet more occlusive and thicker than lotions. Concentrates are for very dry flaky skin.  Creams are preferred for night application and are favored for treating special areas like around the eyes and neck. Lotions contain more water and have lower oil content than creams. Lotions are less occlusive, absorb into the skin easily and are pourable. Many people use lotions in the day time and are often preferred by people with oily acne prone skin.

Oily Skin

Patients with oily skin are often troubled by their appearance, discomfort and a sense of uncleanliness. Harsh over-cleansing to remove excess oil will result in barrier damage and excessive dry skin.  Many moisturizers created for oily skin types are also designed to help control the appearance of oily skin. This is typically accomplished by adding mattifying agents to absorb oil. See Riversol products for oily skin here.

Aging Skin

There are a number of features associated with aging. Some are related to chronological age, but many can also be attributed to sun damage over time.  Both age and sun damage affect the skin’s natural barrier and its ability regulate moisture. To reduce the look of aging skin and sun damage, the use of either a concentrate or regular cream is recommended. Many anti-aging formulas will include active ingredients like vitamin C, vitamin E or other antioxidants to specifically target the appearance of wrinkles, fine lines and sun damage. 

Eye Cream

Eye creams are specially formulated moisturizers used to target eye area concerns including the appearance of dark circles, puffiness and fine lines.  The active ingredient of choice are ingredients called peptides. There are many different types of peptides most which encourage firmer and younger looking skin. Learn more about the Riversol eye cream here


There are countless options when it comes to the treatment of dehydrated skin. As evidenced above, understanding the causes of dry skin makes it easier to mitigate the effects. Slight adjustments to daily skin care regimens, an awareness of the seasonal effects on your skin and being knowledgeable and practical about your choices of moisturizer(s) will lead to more hydrated and healthier skin.


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  7. A guide to the ingredients and potential benefits of over-the-counter cleansers and moisturizers for rosacea patients. Levin J, Miller R. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol; 2011
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  1. What Causes Dehydrated Skin?
  2. How the Skin Controls Hydration?
  3. Skin Versus the Environment: Humidity, Temperature and Water
  4. How to Fix Dry, Dehydrated Skin
  5. Moisturizing Basics
  6. Choosing a Moisturizer
  7. References