How I Fixed My Dehydrated Skin

Left: March 2016 Right: March 2017 (both photos taken with makeup, in same sunlight)-
see the difference in texture and aggravation in both acne and dryness

I have hormonal acne from high testosterone. It's quite annoying and I definitely have overdone it in the past trying to treat the acne. While hormonal acne has no topical treatment that 100% works, that hasn't stopped me from trying every acid out there along with prescription tretinoin.

During Summer 2016, I re-introduced tretinoin after a yearlong break, and in my infinite hubris, figured I could immediately jump into the same old concentration with no special buffering or precautions. I was very wrong. Turns out, no matter what your skin withstood in the past (and I know the rest of you also slathered your teen faces with Noxzema and pink grapefruit scrub it wasn't just me) the only thing that matters is what your skin is like in the here and now.

Factors like age, hormones, weather and general skin chemistry (which is baffling and not static) can alter the way that your skin handles harsh treatments. While chemical actives are an amazing tool for achieving certain skincare goals, they need to be undertaken carefully and slowly. And if you are like me, and you overdid it, you might experience the nastiness that is dehydrated skin. This post will explain the techniques and practices that helped me repair and recover from my severe dehydration.

Please remember that everyone's skin and environment will impact their journey differently. I don't give plain advice and expect you will have the exact results as me. I can only say what worked best for my skin at this point in time. I am going to describe principles and best practices, not recommending specific products that will "fix" you.

No Exfoliation Whatsoever

Nobody's perfect but the left picture shows the results of prioritizing actives over hydration, and the right side shows the opposite- see the difference in aggravation and spread of acne? 

I stopped all actives cold turkey for a month- this was the biggest thing that helped. You cannot fix dehydration if exfoliation is still on the table. I even stopped using a konjac sponge. I essentially left my face alone, moisturizing and cleansing only for a month. I had been basically knocking back any repairs my skin was making on itself every time I sought to eliminate a flake or bump here and there. I resisted stopping cold turkey for months, convinced I could just fix/mitigate with the right products. But nothing helped liked just swallowing the bitter pill.

I like to use the example of a wall. A healthy moisture barrier is a finalized, sturdy brick wall. You can quite easily knock off a layer or two of bricks from the top without destroying the wall. However if someone is in the process of laying bricks, and you come along to remove those same bricks, the wall can never be built up and given the chance to set and solidify.

Exfoliating, even "gently" while you're in the active process of rebuilding the "wall" of your moisture barrier is not only tricky to navigate, it's quite simply counterproductive. People (myself included) want to believe they can have their cake and eat it too, but if your exfoliants target acne or pigmentation, those goals will need to be sacrificed in the short-term to accomplish the more foundational and significant hydration goal.

Layering Principle

Besides cutting out exfoliation, I emphasized layering my skincare at all times. My morning routine when actively working on my moisture barrier included:

  • No cleanser, or splash with water only
  • Hydrating toner
  • Facial oil
  • Cream
  • Something heavy to mix into my cream- either a thick oil or a silicone blend
The result of a heavy morning routine is, unfortunately, a more prominent shiny appearance. Most of us prefer to have a selectively dewy finish to our faces and no extreme oil breakthrough. However, it's not possible to have all the things you want when you're dealing with a problem like dehydration. My advice is to take a few weeks off from makeup and try to not be self-conscious about an oily daytime finish in the short-term. This is a reparative, targeted solution, not a forever routine. Learn more about beauty trade-offs and read my thoughts here.

For an evening routine, I throw any little reservation about skin appearance out and concentrate on layering the heaviest items I own to make the most of the time spent sleeping. This is something I do even now when my skin is recovered, since I live in a dry climate and often use a drying heating system at night.

Emphasize Occlusives not Humectants

While my skin looked nice first thing in the morning, by afternoon my base broke down as the moisture left my skin

While most people in the Asian beauty community will laud the wonders of Korean and Japanese hydrating products, which are somewhat of an unexplored niche in Western skincare, these products were not key to my improvement. What helped the most was to add extremely heavy occlusive moisturizers at night, and to compromise some of my preferred satin-matte skin appearance in the daytime for the short-term by using a richer, more protective moisturizer in the morning.

While I allow that everyone's skin is different, I feel that I was fooling myself buying so many watery hydrating products, when what my skin really required was thick, occlusive layers. I think the skin has the capacity to repair itself with no topical products, but that the main short-term symptom of dehydration is the inevitable water loss that occurs daily. A weak moisture barrier leaks out water all day long. Adding water sounds appealing, like a good solution, but what good is the water if it just leaks out continuously?

I think there is something highly seductive to a dehydrated person in a water-based product. The copy and pictures included in ads and reviews offer a vision of quenching and hydrating which seems to be the ultimate solution. In fact I think the skin does a fine job on its own of bringing up moisture from the lower layers of the skin...but that a damaged barrier cannot properly hold the moisture inside. Therefore, it makes much more sense to me to temporarily "restore" or imitate the protective barrier function in the form of an occlusive property than it does to continually inject water-based hydrating products in an effort to replace what is being lost.

Avoid Barrier Disruption at All Costs

I always get pushback for saying this, but for me, sheet masking and severe dehydration do not make good companions. Despite the claim of most sheet masks that they restore hydration and plump the skin, when your skin is already compromised, they can do more harm than good. The majority of sheet masks are formulated and designed for maximum penetration and absorption. They are expected to provide dramatic, immediate results, so they contain so-called "penetration enhancers," like alcohol or butylene glycol to achieve those speedy results.

If you are interested in masking, a better option would be a DIY honey mask or a creamy moisturizing mask that you apply from a tube. A sheet mask relies on ingredients which are problematic for particularly irritated or dehydrated skin. They are not bad, they can just be counterproductive if you use them regularly and you struggle with your moisture barrier. 


Moisture barriers which have suffered some damage are not easily or quickly fixed. Many people try a regimen for a week and give up or change products because they are frustrated at their lack of progress. But skin takes at least a month to properly turn over and show the full results of any routine change. Therefore, once you have implemented the above practices, you should not expect to see a dramatic turnaround in your skin immediately. It's better to wait a month, using a very heavy moisture-trapping routine, and see what the results are after a month.

Just remember- your timeline is 1-2 months after introducing a good routine and sticking to it. Not 1-2 months from the point you first thought you might have dehydrated skin, not 1-2 months of constant switching and experimenting with a routine. 1-2 months of stability should be enough to see good results from a solid and gentle routine.

What to Expect

Left: 8 am with makeup Right: 5 pm with makeup

I find now that my moisture barrier had a chance to recover, everything I use is impressive in terms of hydration. When I was struggling with dehydration, I had to cut out all actives, all physical exfoliation, and all sheet masks until I was back at a baseline. And even the most raved about products when I was dehydrated basically made zero difference- I would try an expensive, universally beloved product and find it equivalent to applying water. But now that I'm "normal," I see the difference all those products made. This also means that I purchase fewer products, because I'm not constantly chasing a silver bullet solution to my dehydration. I enjoy the cheaper, effective products and am less tempted to "upgrade" to pricier options which sound like they might do the trick.

I've observed many cascading positive effects since my moisture barrier has gotten in better shape. I enjoy more of a comfortable feel and look throughout the day. My face doesn't look tight and stretched or flaky with the addition of makeup, even powder products that would have dried me out before. My acne is quicker to heal and less likely to become very inflamed. I noticed when I was dehydrated that my acne would form in groups of 5 or 6 irritated bumps. I feel that because my barrier was depleted, the surrounding pores were affected more by an infected neighbor, and my acne was likely to spread in irritated patches. Nowadays I find that breakouts are confined to a single pustule in one area, and they resolve before becoming a widespread issue.

In terms of keeping up a baseline while dehydrated, my routine was always like treading water. I had to keep doing it, or I would drown, but it's not like it was comfortable or perfect. Nowadays I can easily skip a few days of my multistep routine and suffer no ill effects. I can experiment more with new exfoliants, using harsh treatments more frequently, and generally being more adventurous, and my skin is hardy enough to take it on without breaking down completely.

Product Recommendations

I am loath to attribute success to individual products- not only is everyone's skin chemistry and response different, but I truly do believe the methods and habits described above are the key to the success, not the products by themselves. That being said, many of my favorites have the characteristics necessary for building a robust dehydration-fixing routine. Just remember that if you buy all these products and don't heed the above warnings about exfoliation and patience, you will not be solving any problems. With that out of the way, here are the products that helped me on my journey:

  • Klairs Supple Preparation Toner: This is a lovely, medium-viscosity watery toner which sinks in quickly, has many anti-inflammatory ingredients, and overall works to soothe my acne-prone skin. Since I had to skip out on my regular acne treatment items during my recovery period, this at least helped keep irritation at bay. It is not as hydrating as something like Hada Labo Gokujyun Lotion Moist but that lovely product breaks me out. If you have no issue with the ingredients, the Hada Labo could be a good choice.
  • Dr. Jart+ Ceramidin Liquid: Another toner, this has a thicker, almost essence-like texture when you dispense it. You only need a very small amount and it sinks in lightning-fast due to the alcohol content. If you are easily irritated by alcohol and dehydrated, skip this item. I am not sensitive, so it worked for me even when my skin was feeling its driest.
  • La Roche Posay Cicaplast Baume B5: This is a slightly sticky-feeling and very rich balm cream, which features the soothing ingredient panthenol (Vitamin B5) and the rich texture which adheres to the skin makes it ideal for protecting against moisture loss. The zinc can be slightly drying if used to excess, so balance this with the use of other moisturizing products.
  • La Roche Posay Cicaplast Pro Recovery Gel: This is an example of a daytime-appropriate occlusive. Like the Baume, it emphasizes panthenol, but it utilizes silicone ingredients to provide a smooth, non-sticky finish. Good as a primer too if you can't give up makeup while recovering.
  • Cerave Moisturizing Cream: This has been my staple moisturizer for many years. I found while recovering from dehydration that it was not enough alone, but served as a cheap and effective mixer for heavy oils or balms.
  • Cerave Healing Ointment: This product is loaded with skin-repairing ingredients and its unique silicone/balm texture makes it both heavy and pleasant to wear. This can be worn as an effective sleeping pack/final layer at night or mixed into a cream. You can even try to use a small dab mixed into another item for daywear, but be warned, it is dense and rich.
  • Microfiber towels: These are just soft, slightly-water-repellent cloths which, when forcibly dampened (squeeze under tap several times to aid absorption) are the quickest and gentlest way to remove even waterproof makeup. I have issues using foam cleansers even at the best of times, so these are an indispensable part of my gentle cleansing routine.


  1. Hey I wanted to thank you so much. After realizing I could mix my occlusives to make them less sticky and more spreadable, I've been able to wear them more, and already I've seen a noticeable improvement in my skin. Your advice is always so helpful! (majoline on Reddit)

    1. I'm so glad it helped your skin! I've seen a crazy improvement since starting my mixing occlusives thang as well, which is why I wanted to share. It always felt like i had to compromise comfort or efficacy but you can definitely blend the two and get the best outcome for any given day. I'm actually writing up a post right now about all the ways I mix items in my routine :)

  2. Where do you get your La Roche Posay Cicaplast Gel? I've been looking for it and can only seem to find the baum?

    1. It's exclusive to European markets, however you can find it on eBay if you're in the USA. I got mine for about $14 with free shipping, USA seller. If you search "Cicaplast Recovery Accelerator" there should be a bunch of results :)

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Can you please post your exact morning and night routine?? I realllly need help my face is so tight and flaky it makes me sad. I feel like I've tried everything! Do you use face wash??

    1. I know you don't want to hear this but it really was the principles and not the products that were magic in my opinion. But while I was recovering my AM routine was:

      - Rinse with water in shower

      - Klairs Supple Preparation Toner

      - CosRX Snail 96 Essence or Benton Snail Bee Essence

      - Cerave Moisturizing Cream mixed with tsubaki oil OR mixed with La Roche Posay Accelerator or other silicone based occlusive

      - Sunscreen

      And my PM routine was:

      - Wash with oil cleanser + microfiber towel (NO FOAMING CLEANSER)

      - Klairs Supple Preparation Toner

      - CosRX Snail 96 Essence or Benton Snail Bee Essence

      - Tsubaki oil

      - Dr. Jart Ceramidin Cream

      - Optional squalane oil mixed with lanolin oil

      - Cerave Cream MIXED with Cerave Healing Ointment (sleeping pack)

    2. I currently use the cosrx essence and am looking for something else just for a change of pace. I have tried the Benton essence but found it didn't do much for me and I felt like it irritated my skin a little, although that was a few years ago and my skin condition has since changed. Do you think the Klairs toner can replace it, or are they really for two different steps? I'm looking for something like Cosrx that hydrated/healed my skin.

    3. It's hard to say- the Benton is an HG for me and so is the Klairs. I don't think they have much in common so I don't know that the Klairs would irritate you necessarily...or be as great for you as it is for me.

      I think the Klairs toner and the snail product (Benton) work synergistically as a hydrating/soothing combo. Both do quite a bit of the heavy lifting for me and I think the Klairs is really good and more hydrating/more anti-inflammatory than the CosRX Snail 96 in my personal experience. But I would use the Klairs in the toner step as it's not a substitute for toner, essence, cream. It's very much a first step for me!