Ask a Beauty Editor: 4 Best Ingredients for Dry Skin (and the 2 Worst)

It’s time to give your skin-care labels a scan.


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Ever wanted to pick the brain of a beauty editor? Or get beauty product recommendations from someone who has tried them all? You've come to the right place. In our weekly series, beauty editor Hana Hong answers your biggest skincare, hair care, and makeup questions, all submitted by Real Simple readers. Tune in every Tuesday and submit your own burning beauty questions here for a chance to be featured.

Reader question: What should I be using for a dry skin-care routine? —Marissa Griffin

Building a stellar skin-care routine can often feel like a game of product Tetris, especially when you have a chronic condition like dryness that needs to be addressed. Although trial and error is inevitable since everyone’s skin is unique (alas, what works for your mom might not work for you), there are some ingredients that should be universally applied to all dry skin types

But first, to prove that I’m not spitballing random substances, let me explain why you need all of these. "There are three musts: humectants, occlusives, and emollients," says Neal Schultz, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist in New York City and founder of Humectants work by extracting water molecules from the air and pulling them into the skin's surface. Occlusives serve as a physical barrier to help trap water in and prevent moisture loss from the skin's surface. And emollients smooth over the skin and increase the rate of skin barrier restoration." For an ideal routine, you need all three working in conjunction to treat and prevent dry skin.

With that in mind, these are the names you should be scanning your current products for (and if you can’t find them, add them!).

01 of 06

USE: Hyaluronic acid (or polyglutamic acid)

I’m sure I sound like a broken record at this point, but ICYMI, hyaluronic acid is the cardinal substance for dry skin sufferers. This humectant pulls water into the outer layer of the skin and holds up to 1,000 times its weight in water, says Joshua Zeichner, M.D., board-certified dermatologist in New York City. The substance naturally occurs in our bodies, which is why it works so well to both attract and seal water into the skin.

Alternatively, you can try polyglutamic acid (an amino acid biopolymer that is found in natto, a sticky Japanese dish made from fermented soybeans), which is essentially HA on steroids. “Depending on the source, polyglutamic acid holds 4,000-5,000 times its weight in water,” says cosmetic chemist Cara Bondi. That being said, keep in mind that it also tends to be a bit more expensive than HA, as it is more difficult to source.

02 of 06

USE: Ceramides

When your complexion seems to stay dry and irritated no matter what, the problem could lie within your skin's barrier. By incorporating more ceramides into your skin-care regime, you can simultaneously repair that barrier and reduce inflammation. 

According to Laurel Geraghty, M.D., board-certified dermatologist of Dermatology & Laser Associates, ceramides are fatty molecules naturally found within the skin that work like occlusives—and they're the key to maintaining a healthy skin barrier and keeping the complexion protected against the outside world. "Ceramides help to seal and trap hydration within the skin," she explains. Although ceramides naturally occur within the skin, such as collagen and elastin, the production of the vital fatty molecules slows with age, which is why a topical boost is so important.

03 of 06

USE: Glycerin

Glycerin is a clear, odorless liquid that has the consistency of syrup. It can come from animal or plant fats, or even petroleum (think: slugging with Vaseline). "The syrup-like substance mixes easily in water and attracts water from deep in the skin and the air," says Snehal Amin, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist of MDCS Dermatology

Like HA, glycerin is a humectant because it works by drawing and retaining moisture to keep the skin hydrated. However, it’s a thicker substance (read: great for eczema or other dry skin-related conditions). “It forms a coating to protect the skin from losing water, and it also fast-tracks soft skin by allowing dead and damaged surface skin cells to shed off the skin faster," says Azadeh Shirazi, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist and founder of AziMD Skincare.

04 of 06

USE: Shea Butter

When it comes to creams, shea butter is key. An excellent emollient that hydrates and creates a barrier that locks moisture in, "it's extremely rich in fatty acids, antioxidants, and vitamins, which works well to improve tone, soften and plump skin, and even slow the breakdown of collagen," says Morgan Rackley, celebrity esthetician and owner of Luminous Skin Atlanta. "Additionally, shea butter can be incredibly calming and healing, and has wonderful anti-inflammatory benefits—it has a smooth and creamy consistency that is particularly soothing for very dry and irritated skin types."

05 of 06

DON’T USE: Alcohol Denat

If you’ve ever used mattifying products, chances are it has alcohol denat (i.e. ethanol with additives). It’s largely used in skin care for its formulation benefits (helps products spread and penetrate more easily), even though it doesn’t have any actual positive effects on the skin. Although the ingredient has absorption benefits, it’s best to stay away if you have dry skin since it removes natural oils. Remember, you’re trying to add more, not take out.

06 of 06

DON’T USE: Salicylic Acid

A substance derived from willow bark, salicylic acid works to penetrate the sebum (an oily, protective barrier on your skin), unclogging pores and cleaning out the bacteria that lead to breakouts. But what’s a superpower for acne sufferers can be a curse for people with dry skin. This breaking down of skin cells promotes a lot of exfoliation, and the drying ingredient is said to be too harsh and irritating for people with an already compromised skin barrier (i.e. dry skin types).

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