(Skin Care)

Is Your Skin Prematurely Aging Or Is It Just Dehydrated?

Here’s how to tell where those extra fine lines are coming from.

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When it comes to skin care, some things — like sun damage — are preventable. On the flip side, there are a few that are inevitable, with fine lines and wrinkles landing at the top of that list. That being said, if you’re noticing an onslaught of lines along your brows or underneath your eyes, it might not necessarily be premature aging — dehydration may be to blame. Says board-certified dermatologist Dr. Dendy Engelman, “Many of the features that we associate with aging skin (lines, wrinkles, uneven tone and texture) appear more prevalent when skin is dehydrated. Dehydrated skin is often mistaken for aging skin because it refers to skin that lacks moisture, which is what gives skin the bounciness, plumpness, and even texture that we associate with youthful skin.”

So before you reach for every anti-aging product you own, know that what you’re experiencing could be fixed with a hefty dose of hydration.

Rapid Aging Vs. Dehydrated Skin: The Causes

Rapid aging (aka premature aging) refers to the premature appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, hyperpigmentation, and uneven skin texture — meaning they appear earlier on in your life. Several factors contribute to the appearance of rapid aging in the skin. One of them being the loss of fat beneath the skin, combined with muscle or tissue loss. This can give skin a “collapsed” and aged appearance, according to Karen Fernandez, lead aesthetician at SkinSpirit. She adds that when the production of collagen and elastin fibers has plummeted and the epidermal layer thickens, the skin will appear dull, lifeless and more prone to wrinkles. And, it goes without saying, but UV/UB rays from the sun can contribute to rapid aging, too.

Dehydrated skin? A whole other story. Simply put, dehydrated skin lacks water, which can occur after something as simple as a night of drinking alcohol (hi, puffy eyes). Dr. Engelman says low humidity levels as well as abrasive weather conditions (think: wind and frequent temperature changes) can also contribute to dehydrated skin. And lastly, skin care products that contain drying ingredients such as alcohol, retinol, and benzoyl peroxide are common culprits as well.

But here’s the thing: rapid aging and dehydration are a Catch 22. If your skin constantly lacks water, it can actually exacerbate skin aging. Fernandez explains: “Chronic dehydration will literally ‘suck the life’ out of your skin. If the tissues are not maintained with healthy levels of water, the reproduction cycle of your skin’s cells is impaired. Your skin will not function as normal healthy skin, and the reproduction of collagen and elastin fibers will be the first to go.” Bottom line: Over time, dehydrated skin can become a catalyst to signs of aging.

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Rapid Aging Vs. Dehydrated Skin: The Appearance

Skin that’s prematurely aging will feel chronically “tired,” thin, and dull, says Fernandez. “It might also feel oily or congested underneath layers of dry, tough, skin.” On the other hand, dehydrated skin can appear chapped, cracked, inflamed, red and/or sensitive. But here’s where it gets tricky: because dehydrated skin is not as bouncy, firm, or bright as hydrated skin, it can accentuate fine lines, making it easy to mistake your dehydration for premature aging. When skin is hydrated, it’s naturally plumper and firmer, so fine lines are less obvious or disappear altogether, explains Dr. Engelman.

While fine lines can be a sign of both premature aging and dehydration, wrinkles are in their own camp. “Wrinkles are [deeper set] and generally caused by repetitive movement, which causes skin quality to break down in that specific area,” says Fernandez. “Fine lines are more temporary and occur more in the epidermal tissues, appearing in places like the forehead, around the eyes and mouth, and in the larger cheek area.” Whereas fine lines may disappear when your face is expressionless, wrinkles are often visible even when we’re not showing emotion.

Rapid Aging Vs. Dehydrated Skin: The Treatment

Time for some good news: Dehydration is an easy fix, and well-hydrated skin will appear smooth and happy pretty quickly after hydration is achieved — just think of old or dried up sponges that come back to life when you simply run them under water, says Fernandez. Your best bet here is to combat dehydrated skin with humectant ingredients (such as hyaluronic acid), as they help the skin retain moisture.

Drinking water is another way to clear dehydration, but probably not in the way you think. “Drinking more water doesn’t directly mean more hydrated skin, but our skin still needs water to carry out a variety of functions like flushing out toxins, keeping cells healthy, and helping with circulation,” notes Dr. Engelman. Having trouble getting in your daily recommended 11.5 cups of H2O per day? Try upping your intake of water-dense fruit like cucumber, watermelon, peaches, and oranges.

Now, for those premature signs of aging. Unfortunately, these involve the breakdown of collagen, elastin, and reduction in fibroblasts, which means chugging a gallon of water won’t necessarily be the fix. To put off age-related fine lines and wrinkles, make sure you’re applying SPF 30 rain or shine, whether you’re spending the day poolside or running errands. Also, load up on moisturizing skin care products that contain ceramides and collagen. And above all else, commit to a daily skin care routine and stick to it.

Ready to tackle both premature aging and dehydration? Read on for some expert-approved picks.

We only include products that have been independently selected by TZR's editorial team. However, we may receive a portion of sales if you purchase a product through a link in this article.

When washing your face, Dr. Engelman says to avoid facial soaps, as they can strip the skin of its natural oils. Instead, she recommends cleansing oils like this one from Elizabeth Arden, which nourishes the skin while removing makeup, grime, and traces of pollution from the day.

One of Dr. Engleman’s favorites for ramping up skin hydration is this moisturizer from Glo Skin Beauty, which “multi-tasks to moisturize skin while giving a brighter, smoother complexion.”

Fernandez is a fan of this daily serum, which she says “will rebuild the epidermal layer, especially when using harsher actives like HQ-hydroquinone.”

Looking to be sun-kissed and sun-protected? Luckily, you can have both with this tinted moisturizer from Josie Maran. The formula features 100% pure argan oil along with green tea to soothe and SPF of 47 for UVA/UVB protection.

Suffering from dehydrated skin? Try using a humidifier. “Our skin is prone to water loss due to things like extremely hot or cold climates and whether or not your air conditioner or heater is running, a humidifier can be beneficial to the skin’s health and appearance since it re-hydrates the air,” says Dr. Engelman.