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Why Is My Skin So Dry When I'm Moisturizing?

Imagine that things are just swell with your skincare regimen. You’ve managed to overcome the oiliness or extreme combination skin of your youth. You have products, finally, that work. 

Until one day, they don’t. You begin to notice a lack of radiance in your skin; later on, you discover flaking. Your skin becomes dry, maybe even crepe-like 

Alright, you think. This isn’t ideal, but you can deal with it, right? You just need a heavier moisturizer. The lightweight lotion that served you well for so many years just needs an upgrade; you find a cream-based moisturizer made by the same brand you’ve always used. Easy-peasy.

Right away, something feels off. Your skin seems to drink up the moisturizer, but within an hour or two, it’s dry again. “Give it time,” you’re told. “Skincare products need time to work.”

You grit your teeth and wait. Two weeks later, the needle still hasn’t moved. What gives? 

Our skin changes with age and environment. Keeping up with those changes can be a challenge you buy a moisturizer, you expect it, at a minimum, to moisturize. So why is your skin still dry after you’ve anointed it with one costly moisturizer after another?

Skin deep

When we talk about our skin being dry, we’re really referring to our stratum corneum (SC), the thin, outermost layer of the epidermis. In this layer, skin cells called keratinocytes die and are flattened into tough, interlocking cells called corneocytes (also known as squames, from the Latin word for “scale”). 

These “scales” interlock and overlap in a brick-and-mortar pattern. The “mortar” between the tough, keratin-rich corneocytes consists of a protein called filaggrin, which, like keratin, is secreted by keratinocytes, and lamellar bodies that secrete lipids. 

All together, this system of interlocking cells, proteins, and lipids is known as the skin barrier. Dry skin is usually caused by problems with the skin barrier.


healthy skin barrier

Nature’s own moisturizer


In the stratum corneum, filaggrin degrades into a blend of fatty acids, amino acids, and urea (among other things). These chemicals are known collectively as the natural moisturizing factor (NMF).

The NMF is hygroscopic, meaning it draws water into the skin cells. This keeps the skin soft and elastic. 

By itself, the NMF would be inadequate. The lipids produced by the lamellar bodies soften skin cells and prevent moisture from evaporating. 

What moisturizers do

Dry skin can be caused by inadequacies of the NMF, dysfunctional lipid production by the lamellar bodies, or both. Most moisturizers on the market today attempt to replicate one or more aspects of the NMF or the lipids produced by the lamellar bodies. 

Ingredients in moisturizers function in different ways depending upon what needs are being addressed: 

  • Occlusives are heavy lipids that sit on the skin’s surface and prevent water from evaporating from the surface of the skin. Occlusives tend to have a thick, creamy or oily consistency; petrolatum (petroleum jelly or VaselineⓇ), beeswax, mineral oil, and dimethicone are all examples. 

The first commercially-produced moisturizers consisted mostly of occlusives.These products address problems with the lipids produced by the lamellar bodies.  

  • Emollients: Emollients are also lipids, but they are not so heavily occlusive; they soften the skin and allow water molecules to enter skin cells more easily. Emollients include some of the first topical moisturizing substances used by humans: vegetable oils such as coconut oil, olive oil, argan oil and shea butter are all readily-available emollients. Like occlusive ingredients, they are designed to fill in for inadequate lipid content in the SC.

  • Humectants are chemicals that draw water molecules into the skin cells. They include hygroscopic substances such as glycolic acid, lactic acid, urea, and hyaluronic acid. These ingredients are meant to address inadequacies in the NMF produced by filaggrin degradation. 

  • Moisturizer mismatch

    If your moisturizer is not formulated for your particular needs, you won’t get the results you desire. Consider whether your problem is one of inadequate NMF, problems with lipids and proteins, or a combination of the two.

  • Excessively thirsty skin that feels dry or crepe-like even after moisturizing usually indicates inadequate lipid or protein production by the lamellar bodies. A moisturizer rich in humectants may draw moisture to the skin, but without adequate occlusives, the moisture will evaporate rapidly. 

  • If this describes your skin, try a product containing more occlusives, such as petrolatum, oils, or dimethicone. These moisturizers tend to have more of a slippery, oily or creamy consistency. Excessive dryness usually responds best to  heavier moisturizing ointments or creams. 

    • If you’re applying heavy creams and your skin is still dry, your NMF might need a helping hand. Look for products containing both humectants and emollients. After adding humectants you may find that you’re better served by a light moisturizing lotion than heavy creams.

    • Persistent flaking and dry, lackluster skin could indicate that your issues are a little deeper. Some skin disorders are rooted in dysfunctions with the production, development, and shedding of keratinocytes; when this is the case, dead skin cells prevent the absorption of emollients. They may need a gentle push.

    • Moisturizers containing alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) exfoliate while also hydrating your skin and preventing moisture loss. Glycolic acid, lactic acid, and mandelic acid are all AHAs that you might look for. Lactic acid is the gentlest AHA, while glycolic acid is one of the strongest; you may want to start out with a moisturizer containing lactic acid first.

      AHAs are humectants, but you’ll want to ensure that your moisturizer contains other humectants, also, as well as emollients to soften your skin cells and prevent moisture loss.

    How you apply your moisturizer matters. For best results, apply when skin is still damp from a shower or cleansing. If you’re using serums or other treatments, allow time for each layer of product to be absorbed before adding the next. 

    Give your moisturizer time to soak into your skin before you apply makeup or leave your house.

    If you’ve started “slugging” or using oils in your moisturizing regimen, use them on top of your moisturizing cream–not in lieu of it. Petroleum jelly and oils do not contain the humectants needed to hydrate your skin, although they will prevent loss of moisture.

    Most skin responds best to products that contain a combination of humectants, emollients, and occlusives, balanced in accordance with your most pressing needs.


    woman using moisturizer

    Drying skincare practices

    If you’ve changed moisturizers a few times and your skin is still dry, examine your skincare routine for these common practices that contribute to dryness: 

  • Overzealous cleansing.  Your skin should be cleansed gently, and it shouldn’t be cleansed too frequently. Most people are fine with cleansing twice a day–once in the morning after waking, and again before bedtime. Many of us use products that are far too harsh or drying; look out for high alcohol content as well as cleansers containing salicylic acid.

  • Excessive exfoliation. Exfoliating too often can damage your skin barrier, causing dryness. So can using products like strong acids and gritty scrubs. Most people should avoid exfoliating more often than once ever 3-4 days. Once weekly is a good baseline for those with sensitive skin.

  • Inadequate exfoliation. Disorders such as psoriasis cause excessive production of keratinocytes or abnormal development of keratinocytes. With these disorders, corneocytes cannot shed quickly enough to make way for new cells. The dry, flaky skin inhibits the absorption of moisturizing products. 

  • Even in these cases, there’s a balance to be had with exfoliation. Consider skin cycling; designed by dermatologist Dr. Whitney Bowe, this process involves exfoliating at four-day intervals. Exfoliation is never done on the same days as retinoid or salicylic acid treatments. 

    A typical cycle involves exfoliating on day one, applying retinoids/resurfacing acids on day two (salicylic acid works well for many with disordered keratinization), then allowing the skin to rest on days three and four. You should moisturize every day at least twice a day, regardless of which day in the cycle you’re on.

  • Using harsh skin treatments. Many of the products we use for wrinkle repair, tone evening,  and acne control (I’m looking at you, tretinoin) can dry your skin. You may need to scale back, using them once every few days (see skin cycling, above) or cutting them out altogether. You might also make sure you’re using it with the appropriate moisturizer.

  • The right combination of product and practice

    Dry skin is usually the result of compromised barrier function. Skin barrier problems can be rooted in problems with the NMF, problems with lipid production, or both. Moisturizers are designed to address one or more of these problems, utilizing occlusives, emollients, humectants or a combination of the three. Your ideal moisturizer will address your particular needs. 

    Good skincare practices can prevent or relieve dryness. Steer clear of harsh cleansers and exfoliators, and avoid excessive cleansing and exfoliating. Make sure your aging, acne, and skin-evening products are not too harsh for your skin. Moisturize properly, while your skin is still damp. If you’re layering products, give your skin time to absorb each layer before applying the next. 

    The road to soft, radiant skin

    Board-certified dermatologist Steve Harlan, MD knows from his years of study and practice just how important moisturization is for healthy skin. 

    For years, Dr. Harlan has treated patients with eczema and other inflammatory skin disorders. His experience led him to develop SmartLotionⓇ, a highly-effective steroid cream that does not cause skin atrophy and topical steroid withdrawal when used properly. 

    Dr. Harlan has always recognized that moisturization is key in healing flares of eczema and other skin disorders. He now offers  HarlanMD Perfect Repair™ moisturizing cream, a complete solution to complicated moisturization needs. 

    Each ingredient in Perfect Repair™ was chosen to prevent irritation and improve skin barrier function. It is fragrance free and does not use harsh emulsifiers. 

    Perfect Repair™ isn’t just good for people with skin disorders. It’s loaded with natural ceramides that keep skin soft, and it contains coconut oil, a healing occlusive. Glycerin allows Perfect Repair™ to hydrate and soften the skin. These ingredients are good for anyone who wants to protect or repair their skin barrier

    Because it leverages Dr. Harlan’s intimate knowledge of the skin barrier and the NMF, Perfect Repair™ benefits a wide variety of skin types. It is non-comedogenic and hypo-allergenic. It is neither heavy nor oily, but it is still an exceptional defense against moisture loss. Like SmartLotionⓇ, Perfect Repair™ incorporates prebiotic ingredients to balance your skin’s microbiome. 


    perfect repair

    Perfect Repair™ offers skin-softening emollients, occlusives, and moisture-adding humectants in one easy-to-use product. Containing no harsh fragrances or emulsifiers, it’s the perfect way to support your skin’s natural softness and radiance. 




      Cee Van

      Medical Writer


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