If you consider yourself a member of the dry-skin-type tribe, you know a thing or two about tightness, flakiness, itching and ashy skin tone. These are some of the hallmarks that come along with this skin type.
Dry skin is nothing harmful — it just means that your skin is more prone to producing less sebum, or the oil that helps build the skin barrier and shield your skin against environmental factors such as dirt, humidity and temperature, according to Michael Somenek, MD, Washington, D.C.-based plastic surgeon. “Due to the lack of sebum, the dry skin lacks the lipids (fats) needed to retain moisture and build a protective shield against harmful external or environmental factors,” he explains. “Dry skin also lacks the natural moisturizing factors that help the skin have water, therefore producing sebum.”
Because dry skin does not retain water or moisture as well as other skin types, it can be tricky finding the right skincare ingredients to do the job. In fact, when a certain skincare product is not efficient at delivering a sufficient amount of hydration to the top layer of skin, the barrier function of the skin may not work as well, which may predispose the skin to infection or irritation, warns Brendan Camp, MD, an NYC-based dermatologist at MDCS Dermatology. What’s worse: He points out that certain skincare ingredients may cause or contribute to dry skin. “Using them in the setting of pre-existing dry skin can exacerbate the issues people with dry skin already have,” he adds.
If you identify as having dry skin, here are some of the skincare ingredients skincare pros recommend steering clear of — and what to look for instead.
Meet the Experts
Brendan Camp, MD, is an NYC-based dermatologist at MDCS Dermatology.
Marisa Garshick, MD, is a dermatologist at Medical Dermatology & Cosmetic Surgery (MDCS) in New York.
Michael Somenek, MD, is a Washington, D.C.-based plastic surgeon.
If you’ve ever used a cleanser or a moisturizer and experienced significant tightness in your skin directly, or a few hours, after using, it may contain harsh soaps that can be particularly drying and disrupt the skin barrier, according to Marisa Garshick, MD, a dermatologist at Medical Dermatology & Cosmetic Surgery (MDCS) in New York. “Soap refers to a type of surfactant that is known to be very basic, and as a result can be harsh on the skin and strip the skin of its natural oils.
What can you use instead? “It is best to opt for gentle cleansers that often use gentle surfactants and pair that ingredient with other hydrating and nourishing ingredients, so your skin won’t feel dry or stripped.”
This might not sound like an ingredient you’d find in a product meant for your skin, but you’d be surprised. If you look at the ingredient labels on your skincare products, you’re likely to find a bevy of alcohols, often starting with words “methanol,” “ethanol,” or “ethyl.” While alcohol can be a useful ingredient in skincare, as it helps get rid of dirt and oil buildup in pores, it can be particularly drying for those with dry skin and lead to subsequent irritation which can appear as redness, itching and sensitivity of the skin, according to Dr. Garshick. For this reason, she recommends that dry-skin types look for skincare products that are alcohol-free.
“Some products contain certain types of alcohol, known as fatty alcohols, which may be derived from palm oil or coconut oil and can be added to help thicken the consistency of a product,” she says. “Certain alcohols that can be found that may not be considered harsh on the skin include cetyl alcohol and stearyl alcohol, and these can have emulsifying or emollient properties.”
Fragrance is one of the most common ingredients used in skincare to make the product smell appealing. While it’s usually harmless in most skin types, those with dry skin tend to be more susceptible to irritation or allergy to fragrance. This, Dr. Garshick explains, can lead to redness, flaking, scaling, and itching. She recommends looking for products that are fragrance-free, however, points out the fact that products that are “unscented” are not considered fragrance-free. “These products often have a masking fragrance that makes it unscented, which someone can still react to,” she adds.
Salicylic acid, a beta-hydroxy acid, is a lipophilic compound, meaning it easily mingles with oil like sebum, according to Dr. Camp. “It is effective as an acne medication because it helps remove oil within pores that can contribute to the formation of a pimple, however, someone with dry skin may find that salicylic acid-containing products make their symptoms of dry skin, like redness and flaking, worse,” he says. As an alternative to a salicylic acid cleanser, he recommends using an oil-based cleanser, which can gently lift and remove other oil-based impurities from the skin without over-drying it.
Hailed as one of the best acne-fighting ingredients out there thanks to its antibacterial nature and ability to remove dead skin and excess oil, Dr. Camp warns that some of its side effects include redness, dryness, irritation, and bleaching fabric. This can be particularly problematic for someone suffering from dry skin. An alternative that he recommends for benzoyl-peroxide products is sulfur-containing products, like Sunday Riley Saturn Sulfur Spot Treatment Mask. “While sulfur products can also be drying, they tend to be better tolerated,” he adds.
Retinols and retinoids are notorious for causing dry skin and peeling, which can limit their utility as part of a skincare regimen, warns Dr. Somenek. “Because retinoids are so helpful at addressing acne-related skin concerns and photoaging-related concerns, like fine lines, wrinkles, and dark spots, I usually coach my patients to start with a small amount of retinoid when they first start using it and to use it only a few nights a week for several weeks to allow their skin to develop a tolerance to it,” he adds. Consider trying a product that contains a tolerable dose of retinol coupled with ultra-hydrating ingredients like Sunday Riley’s Luna Sleeping Night Oil.
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