The Difference Between Moisturizing and Hydrating

by Jade Shutes

The Difference Between Moisturizing and Hydrating: What Your Skin Really Needs

When it comes to skincare, the terms “moisturizing” and “hydrating” are often used interchangeably. However, they actually refer to two distinct processes that address different issues in the skin. Understanding the difference between moisturizing and hydrating, as well as the role of emollients and humectants, can help you better care for your skin and keep it looking healthy and radiant.

Let’s start with some basics about skin anatomy and physiology. Your skin is made up of three main layers: the epidermis (the outermost layer you can see), the dermis (the thick middle layer), and the hypodermis or subcutaneous layer (the deepest layer made of fat and connective tissue).

The epidermis itself is composed of five sub-layers, with the stratum corneum being the topmost layer exposed to the environment. The stratum corneum is often described as having a “brick and mortar” structure, with the “bricks” being dead, flattened skin cells called corneocytes, and the “mortar” being a matrix of lipids (fats) surrounding the cells.

This structure is essential for the skin’s barrier function. It helps prevent excessive transepidermal water loss (TEWL) from the deeper skin layers, while still allowing the skin to “breathe.” It also protects against external threats like irritants, allergens, and pathogens. Proper levels of hydration and moisturization are critical for maintaining the health and integrity of this barrier.

So what exactly is the difference between hydration and moisturization? To put it simply:

Hydration = water content of skin

Moisturization = oil content of skin

If your skin is dehydrated, it lacks water. It may feel tight, look dull, and show accelerated signs of aging like fine lines. Factors that can lead to skin dehydration include low humidity, not drinking enough water, excess caffeine or alcohol intake, and skin care products that strip the skin.

If your skin is dry, it lacks oil. This is often a skin type you’re born with due to underactive sebaceous glands. Dry skin produces less sebum (skin’s natural oils) so it’s prone to flakiness, rough texture, and irritation.

It’s possible for skin to be both dehydrated and dry at the same time. But you can also have dehydrated skin that is still oily.

Proper skin care requires addressing both the hydration and moisture levels in the skin. This is where humectants and emollients come in.

Humectants, like hyaluronic acid, honey, glycerin, and aloe vera, attract water to the skin. They can draw moisture from the environment or from the deeper layers of your skin. Humectants hydrate and plump up the skin, smoothing fine lines.

Emollients, on the other hand, are moisturizers that work by filling in the gaps between skin cells, replacing natural lipids, and softening and smoothing the skin. They include ingredients like plant oils, shea butter, cocoa butter, fatty alcohols, and ceramides. Some emollients also have occlusive properties, meaning they form a protective layer on top of the skin to prevent transepidermal water loss (TEWL).

When it comes to supporting your skin’s hydration and moisture, carrier oils can play an important role.

Carrier oils are derived from the fatty portions of plants, as opposed to essential oils which are produced from the aromatic portions. While often used to dilute essential oils, carrier oils also have their own unique therapeutic properties

Face Cream or Facial Oil?

Understanding Face Creams

At their core, face creams are designed to hydrate and protect your skin. They’re typically a blend of water, oils, and active ingredients, with a water content ranging from 60-80%. This high water content allows the cream to deeply hydrate your skin cells, plumping them up for a smooth, supple appearance.

But hydration isn’t the only benefit of a good face cream. Many also contain ingredients like glycerin, which attracts and locks in moisture, and nourishing oils that prevent that moisture from evaporating. This combination of hydration and moisture-locking is key to maintaining your skin’s healthy glow.

The Power of Face Oils

Face oils have exploded in popularity in recent years, and for good reason. These botanical powerhouses are packed with nourishing fatty acids, antioxidants, and vitamins that can transform your skin.

Unlike creams, which are primarily water-based, face oils are 100% oil. This allows them to form a protective seal over your skin, locking in moisture and nutrients while keeping environmental stressors out.

Carrier Oils that Nourish Your Skin

When topically applied, carrier oils and their fatty acid and vitamin constituents can:

    • Support the skin’s natural lipid barrier and prevent TEWL
    • Restore moisture to dry, flaky skin
    • Provide nourishing antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds
    • Soften and smooth the skin’s texture
    • Potentially enhance absorption of other skincare ingredients

Some helpful carrier oils for supporting the health of the skin include:

    • Baobab oil: Baobab oil can improve the skin’s elasticity, relieve inflamed skin conditions such as dry eczema and psoriasis, and can be an excellent cell-regenerative oil, as the fatty acids in its profile support epithelial tissue regeneration.
    • Argan oil: A great oil for mature, aging, or damaged skin. Cutaneous application of argan oil can improve skin elasticity and skin hydration in post-menopausal women.
    • Raspberry seed oil: An excellent enhancer carrier oil that benefits the skin by improving hydration, reducing TEWL, and softening the skin.
    • Jojoba oil: Mimics skin’s natural sebum and is appropriate for acne-prone skin to dissolve and remove substances clogging pores. 
    • Coconut oil: Has occlusive and emollient properties to prevent moisture loss

Beyond topical application, supporting your skin also means practicing good lifestyle habits like drinking enough water, eating a skin-friendly diet, protecting skin from the sun, and avoiding harsh skincare products that can compromise the lipid barrier.

By understanding the unique functions of moisturizers, humectants, emollients, and carrier oils, you can better create a holistic skincare routine that keeps your skin optimally hydrated, moisturized, and healthy.

Carrier oils can be a wonderful tool in this process, delivering beneficial nutrients and sealing in much-needed moisture.

Interested in learning more about Carrier Oils?

Order our book “The Carrier Oil Palette here“!

Or take a deep dive into carrier oils with our Online Carrier Oil Palette Course.