On the World Wide Web, you might find a lot of conflicting and sometimes dubious advice on caring for dry skin. In a sea of recommendations, the number one tip that you should always keep in mind is to check the labels of skincare products for ingredients that could potentially worsen your dry skin. Sometimes a simple product switch can make things better. Read on to know the common skincare ingredients that could aggravate dry skin and the alternatives that you can use as advised by Dr. John Michael Dellariarte, a board-certified dermatologist and member of the American Society For Laser Medicine and Surgery.
What are the signs and causes of dry skin?
Before anything else, you have to first determine if you actually have dry skin. What are the signs to look out for? Dry skin, according to Dr. Dellariarte, is "characterised by dull colour (grey-white), rough texture, elevated skin ridges associated with skin tightness and/or itching". The loss of skin radiance, a common complaint of those with dry skin, is "due to the rough surface which is a poor reflector of light".
He further explained that the most significant factor that contributes to an individual having dry skin involves the stratum corneum skin barrier and its capacity to keep water locked inside. "The stratum corneum skin barrier is a bilayer lipid membrane formed from ceramides, fatty acids, and cholesterol. When these compounds are present in the proper amount and ratio (1:1:1), they help to protect the skin and keep it watertight, preventing transepidermal water loss and dryness," he said. This skin barrier can be damaged by several factors — including the use of products with ingredients that are too aggressive for the skin — resulting in transepidermal water loss that causes "abnormal shedding and clumping of skin cells".
The common skincare ingredients that can aggravate dry skin
As it turns out, ingredients that endanger the skin barrier are quite prevalent in skincare products that are readily available in counters. The three most common ones are detergents, acetone, and chloride. "Detergents are found in soaps and facial washes. No matter how mild, soaps can irritate the skin if not used properly," Dr. Dellariarte said. "Acetones can be found in astringents and toners. I will not suggest astringents and acetone/alcohol-based toners because they are very drying to the skin. Chloride can be found in antibacterial and preservative ingredients in cosmetics. Makeup removers may also contain benzalkonium chloride which is a documented irritant and can cause drying of the skin."
Salicylic acid, commonly found in washes and serums, are also best avoided by those with dry skin as it "extracts lipids hence dries the skin".
Lastly, here's an ingredient that might surprise you: water. Apparently, prolonged exposure to water can also lead to dry skin. "Water is an irritant. Prolonged washing of the face or long baths can actually cause the skin to dry," he cautioned.
Out of curiosity, we asked if there's a way to use products with these ingredients in a way that will not worsen dry skin. For one ingredient, the answer is yes. "Mild washes that have synthetic detergents are less irritating than ordinary washes," he said. "However, again, if the washing is done vigorously where the user is rubbing and massaging longer than 30 seconds, it will significantly dry out and irritate the skin."
Recommended skincare products for dry skin
Dr. Dellariarte emphasised to choose skincare products that promote balance; where the skin has a balanced sebum secretion, intact stratum corneum barrier, sufficient levels of Natural Moisturizing Factor (NMF) and Glycosaminoglycans (GAGs), and normal expression of Aquaporin-3 (AQP3)". Here are the skincare ingredients that can help alleviate dry skin.
In cleansers: Stearic acid and Linoleic acid
"Non-foaming cleansers such as an oil, cream, or milk cleanser are preferable for those with dry skin. Choose non-foaming cleansers that deposit fatty acids on the skin, thereby repairing the skin barrier. Stearic acid (a component of shea butter) deposits fatty acids on the skin and induces optimal barrier repair. Linoleic acid (found in safflower oil, argan oil) is anti-inflammatory and also has barrier repair properties. In contrast, avoid oleic acid (found in olive oil) which can disrupt the bilayer membrane of the skin barrier.
Be mindful of soap cleansers with high pH as these can disrupt the skin barrier. Those with dry skin require a neutral or acidic cleanser to maintain the normal facial skin pH which is around 4.7."
In exfoliants: Hydroxy acids
"Exfoliating cleansers aid in the renewal of the superficial layer of the stratum corneum. Hydroxy acids have humectant effect and can improve dry skin. However, I'm not a fan of lactic and glycolic acids because they are infamous for post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation especially in darker skin. Additionally, exfoliants should be used with barrier repairing moisturisers (more on this later). As for mechanical exfoliants, such as those made from crushed shells, microbeads, sugar or rice grains, and aluminium particles, and rotating brushes and fabrics, I don't suggest them because they lead to barrier impairment."
In moisturisers and emollients: Ceramides, Cholesterol, Fatty acids, Multilamellar Emulsion (MLE) technology
"Barrier repairing moisturisers will help correct underlying defects in the skin. However, it may take four or more days to yield noticeable results. Emollients, on the other hand, immediately soften and smoothen the skin. They do this by filling the spaces between dry, clumped, and loosened skin cells to create a smooth surface. Smooth skin reflects light better. This explains the immediate visible improvement seen with emollient use because emollients flatten the curled edges of dry skin cells."
In humectants: Glycerin, Sorbitol, Sodium hyaluronate, Urea, Propylene glycol, Hydroxy acids, sugars
"Humectants have high water absorption and attract water from the atmosphere. They are most effective when the atmospheric humidity is greater than 80%. Humectants draw water into the skin, causing stratum corneum to swell and gives the perception of smoother skin with fewer wrinkles. Examples of commonly used humectants include glycerin, sorbitol, sodium hyaluronate, urea, propylene glycol, hydroxy acids, and sugars. The effects of humectants usually last only less than 24 hours so it's important to reapply. I like Frezyderm Moisturizer because it is very light and works really well in patients living in tropical climates. But when I’m in cold countries like Canada, I like to use the Cetaphil Oil Control Moisturizer."
Other beneficial skincare services for dry skin
Aside from skincare products with ingredients that help bring balance back to dry skin, some services and supplements can also be availed for a more effective and holistic approach.
Oral supplementation: Hydrolysed collagen
"There are several randomised control trials showing the beneficial effects of oral supplementation with Hydrolysed collagen in improving skin elasticity and hydration. I particularly like the Genacol skin. I’ve seen my patient’s skin improve as fast as two weeks."
"My practice involves seeing patients with different skin concerns. Most of the time patients love to have faster results and wouldn’t mind the downtime as long as the treatment delivers what it promises. For patients who have dry skin and dry lips, I use the sub-ablative fractional resurfacing of PiQo4 to break down old and dry skin. This photoacoustic laser rejuvenation procedure produces no heat and is very safe compared to older laser resurfacing methods. Since there is no heat involved, collagen regeneration is more robust and the new skin is well-hydrated and youthful."
"Della Mist, a portable skin hydration mist designed for people with sensitive and dry skin creates a non-charged mist particle by atomization using a ceramic nanopore. This machine is able to atomise moisturising compounds and collagen into small particles so small that it can pass through intercellular spaces to be absorbed into the dermis where the compounds affect their biologic action. The particle size is less than 500 kilodaltons allowing immediate absorption, making it perfect for dry and sensitive skin and those who are hypersensitive to creams and other topicals."
Habits to break
Finally, Dr. Dellariarte advised that it can be beneficial to break lifestyle habits that may be contributing to making your skin drier. This includes staying too long in an air-conditioned room and using body scrubs, loofa, and rough bath towels. "Treat your skin gently like a baby. Makes sure you drink plenty of water especially in the summer or when doing activities or when training. We lose a lot of body water when we exercise and this will need replacement. The good old eight glasses a day remains a favourite advice of mine," he said.
Learn more skincare tips here.