What Is the Difference Between Moisturizing and Hydrating?

Wait a sec, is a hydrator the same as a moisturizer? If not, which one should I be using?

November 6, 2021 5 minutes read
Moisturizing cream texture

In This Post

Water and hydration are the key to keeping your skin healthy and bouncy. But what are the benefits of hydrating the skin vs. moisturizing it? Have I been doing it all wrong the whole time?

The problem is, these two terms – hydrator and moisturizer – are often used interchangeably. But in truth, these two products are vastly different and have different benefits for the skin. So keep on reading to find out what exactly the difference is and which one your skin needs.

Hydrating vs. Moisturizing: What's the Difference?


Both moisturizing and hydrating your skin are important skincare steps, providing your skin with that much-needed water and nourishment, preventing dehydration and dryness, and postponing skin aging. But these usually contain entirely different ingredients, achieving these results in two completely different ways.

What Is a Hydrator?

hydrating serum

Generally, moisturizing is an umbrella term used to describe different moisturizing (as well as hydrating) types, such as emollients, occlusives, oils, and humectants. This is why everything might get a bit confusing.

Hydration refers to the moisture level inside our skin cells, making them healthy, plump, and bouncy. Therefore, hydrators usually contain humectants that draw the water from the environment and bind it inside the skin. Humectants or hydrating ingredients are hyaluronic acid, glycerin, urea, aloe vera gel, honey, as well as certain types of acids, such as AHAs or alpha hydroxy acids (glycolic, malic, and lactic acid).

So, to sum up, these humectant ingredients grab onto water from our environment or the surface of our skin and hold onto it, keeping the skin hydrated.

But how do we keep all this water inside our skin? This is where moisturizers come in.

What Is a Moisturizer?

moisturizing cream

To keep all that hydration inside our skin and prevent it from evaporating, we need something that will act as a barrier on top of everything – a moisturizer.

Moisturizers usually contain occlusive ingredients that nourish the skin and protect its natural barrier by sealing or trapping the water inside the skin and preventing transepidermal water loss. These products often contain occlusive agents, such as silicones, petrolatum jelly, lanolin, beeswax, fatty alcohols, and mineral oil. In addition, these are likely to contain plant oils and butters, like jojoba oil, rosehip oil, shea butter, and argan oil, to name a few.

However, there are also lighter moisturizing ingredients with silky and emollient formulas that also create a protective layer on top of the skin, but are not as heavy as, say, silicones. These contain fatty acid esters that act as conditioning agents, softening the skin without leaving it greasy. These types of moisturizers usually include ingredients such as fatty acids or triglycerides (linoleic acid or omega-6 fatty acid, oleic acid or omega-9 fatty acid, palmitic acid, caprylic acid, lauric acid, and others), emollient esters (Decyl Oleate, Alkyl Benzoate,Triolein, Isopropyl Palmitate, Isopropyl Myristate, and Glyceryl stearate) as well as ceramides.

So, Do I Need a Hydrator, Moisturizer, or Both?

woman holding a hydrator and a moisturizer

You'll need both a hydrator and a moisturizer no matter your skin type because one is not good without the other. A hydrator will provide all the necessary water and hydration, while a moisturizer will seal that hydration in. After all, most products on the market today are formulated with both moisturizing and hydrating ingredients, a win-win combination for any skin type.

However, depending on your current skin needs, you may boost your skincare with either an additional hydrating serum or a bit more occlusive and nourishing moisturizer. So if your skin is dehydrated, it's usually a sign that it lacks water. Therefore, choose serums that contain hyaluronic acid, aloe vera, or glycerin.

On the other hand, if your skin is dry, it's usually a signal that your skin is not producing enough oils and lipids and is, therefore, unable to hold onto water. In this case, you should focus more on oil-based moisturizers that will nourish your skin and create a protective barrier.

And finally, if your skin is flakey and wrinkly and you're dealing with a lackluster complexion, you might benefit more from products formulated with AHAs, such as glycolic acid. These will hydrate and exfoliate your skin at the same time, removing dead skin cells from the surface of your skin and making way for new and healthy cells from underneath.

How to Pick the Right Moisturizer or Hydrator for My Skin Type?

woman applying a face cream

Humectant ingredients in hydrators are generally suitable for any skin type. So you can choose either natural humectants, such as honey, aloe vera, marine extracts, hyaluronic acid, or AHAs. On the other hand, there are synthetic humectants that are just as effective and powerful, like urea, glycerin, and propylene glycol.

When it comes to moisturizers, though, the story is a little bit different, and you should pay attention to their ingredients as well as texture.

So if you have dry skin, choose oil-based and thicker moisturizers with a creamy texture. For extremely dry skin, especially during cold and dry winter months, moisturizers with nourishing and occlusive ingredients should be ideal. Go for products containing shea butter, coconut oil, soybean oil, and petrolatum jelly.

If you have dehydrated skin, besides your hydrating serum, you may greatly benefit from moisturizers containing glycerin, fatty acids and ceramides. These ingredients will deeply hydrate your skin while sealing the moisture in at the same time. Also, don't forget to hydrate from the inside as well and drink plenty of water throughout the day and eat water-rich fruits and veggies, such as watermelon and cucumbers.

If you have oily skin, pick lightweight and water-based moisturizers with gel, fluid, and non-comedogenic formulas containing emollient esters. In the case your skin is oily and dehydrated at the same time, boost your skincare routine with hydrators and moisturizers with aloe, hyaluronic acid, glycerin, esters, ceramides, and fatty acids, like linoleic and oleic acid.


Hopefully, now you have a better picture about hydrators and moisturizers and their role in your skin care. All in all, if you want healthy, plump, and bouncy skin, you should certainly use both – focus on some extra hydration if your skin is dehydrated and boost your moisturizing routine with some oils if your skin is dry. Also, don't let your shiny complexion fool you – oily skin also needs water and some nourishment, so don't skip on your moisturizing and hydrating routine no matter your skin type.

If you're a fan of all things simple, you can make it easy for you and choose a two-in-one product containing all the humectants and emollients your skin needs. To get the best results out of your skincare, apply your hydrator first and moisturizer second (or hydrator/moisturizer) in the morning before your SPF as well as in the evenings before going to bed.


Which is better moisturizing or hydrating?

No matter your skin type, your skin will likely need both moisturizing and hydrating. Hydrating ingredients help your skin hold onto moisture, while moisturizing ingredients will prevent that moisture from escaping your skin.

Do you moisturize first or hydrate?

Ideally, you would first use hydrating serums and then seal the deal with a moisturizing cream. The serum will hydrate your skin by drawing water into your skin, and the moisturizer will lock all that hydration in.

How do you know if your skin is hydrated?

If your skin feels tight and parched, it's likely dehydrated. You can also do the pinch test. Pinch your skin, then release - if your skin bounces back, it probably doesn't lack water; if it takes some time to bounce back, it's likely dehydrated.

What is the best way to hydrate your skin?

Hydrate your skin by drinking enough water throughout the day and using skincare with strong humectants, such as glycerin, glycolic acid, hyaluronic acid, urea, honey, and many others. These will draw the water from the environment and bind it inside your skin.

What does putting Vaseline on your face do?

Traditionally, Vaseline has been used for healing wounds and burns. It's also a great occlusive ingredient that, when applied to the skin, creates a moisture barrier and prevents water from evaporating. Additionally, it can heal dry and chapped lips, especially during cold winter months.

Is it OK to sleep with moisturizer on face?

It's not only OK, but it's a must. It's best to use a bit richer and heavier moisturizing cream before bed because transepidermal water loss usually happens when we sleep.

...Liked what you read?