Hydrating vs. Moisturizing: What's the difference?

In skincare we use the terms hydrating and moisturizing seemingly interchangeably, but is there a difference between these two skincare buzz-words or are they just different ways of saying the same thing? 

While they essentially serve the same purpose, these two terms actually represent two different steps towards a shared goal.

“So, what’s the difference?” 

Hydration refers to the process of water entering our cells and plumping them up. Moisturisation is when a product, typically an oil, is applied to keep the water in our skin from evaporating. In short, step one is to hydrate by adding moisture, and step two is to moisturize by helping the skin retain that moisture

“Can’t I just hydrate my skin by drinking more water?” 

Getting enough water is extremely beneficial to our bodies, and is unfortunately a step that is often neglected in our wellness routines. Most experts agree that getting enough water is helpful to the skin, but that it’s not the be all and end all of skin hydration. The outer layer of our skin seems to be most affected by factors outside of our bodies. Environmental factors like reduced moisture in the air or chlorine in our water supply can lead to dehydrated skin. As can the consistent application of products that include drying ingredients like alcohol. By all means, it’s important to keep your water consumption consistent and sufficient, but for truly glowing, happy skin, topical supplementation can provide the greatest results. 

“So what should I use to hydrate?” 

Good hydrators are referred to as humectants and these are ingredients that can actually attract moisture from the environment to your skin. Humectants can bind themselves to water molecules in the air and allow those molecules to penetrate the skin. 

Our favourite humectants are glycerin and hyaluronic acid which can be found in our Nourishing Facial Toner. Glycerin is also an emollient which is a substance that can fill in the spaces between dead skin cells which allows the skin to appear and feel smoother. Hyaluronic acid is a natural substance produced by our bodies, like collagen, and similar to collagen, our skin produces it less and less of it as we age, making topical supplementation a necessary step. 

“I already have oily skin. Can I lock moisture in with something other than an oil?” 

A common concern of those who struggle with excess sebum production (sebum is our skin’s natural oil) is that using oil based products will only make the problem worse. But producing more oil is the body’s natural response to dry skin, and when we take steps to keep the skin moisturized, we can actually balance the overproduction of oil over time.

Furthermore, oils attract oil, so using an oil-based cleanser is really ideal for oily skin types. By extracting the excess oil from your skin with an oil-based cleanser, you’re allowing for a clear canvas to penetrate with hydration. Applying a moisturizer will lock that hydration in, and also help prevent the skin from overproducing oil later on.  

That said, those with acne prone skin generally prefer a water-based moisturizer.  These include enough oil and/or butters to lock in hydration, but because they are water-based vs. oil-based, they are less likely to contribute to or cause a break out.

A weekly exfoliation or clay mask ritual can also assist with the clearing of pores, and help your skin better absorb moisture, as well as prevent any build up that might lead to acne break outs.

“What’s the difference between a facial oil and a moisturizer?” 

A ‘facial oil’ is a type of moisturizer that is typically heavier than a traditional moisturizer and these potent potions are loved for their additional healing and skin rejuvenating benefits.

While they are excellent for locking moisture in, they do not actually add hydration.  Whereas a traditional moisturizer will often include ingredients that both hydrate and moisturize, a facial oil will typically include emollients, which fill in the cracks and create that smooth surface mentioned above, or occlusives which create a layer on the surface of the skin, keeping moisture in and pollutants and bacteria out

Our facial oil's base is rosehip oil, which is a ‘dry oil’ meaning it does not leave a noticeable residue on the skin’s surface.  Rosehip oil also has high levels of linoleic acid, an essential fatty acid that is believed to be less present in acne-prone skin, and a possible contributor to blemishes.  So for those with acne concerns, their best bet for including a facial oil, might be to try something based in rosehip oil.

Since facial oils offer an array of benefits beyond moisturization, it's worth researching the oils they are composed of, especially if you have oily, acne-prone, or sensitive skin.  

When shopping with us, keep in mind that our Moisturizer and Facial Oil include a lot of the same ingredients, but in different quantities. For men especially, who already have oiler skin than women, we typically will recommend the water-based moisturizer.  Though the rose water toner makes an excellent after shave alternative, the minimalist man (or woman) can get hydration and moisturization from this one product. For those who are particularly concerned about dry skin, it might be worth it to invest in our hydrating Toner and our Facial Oil, so that you're targeting both steps individually with products that are designed to double down on each part of the process.  Those who want to cover all the bases, enjoy our GLOW Bundle, which includes all three of the above at a discounted price, and leaves the skin refreshed, rejuvenated, and oh-so-glowy!

“What if I’m on a tight budget?” 

There are also some ingredients you might have already have in your pantry that can get either hydrate or moisturize on their own. Raw honey, for example, is an excellent humectant. You can use it on its own as a face mask and wear it into a steamy bath or shower. It will attract some of the moisture in the air to your skin, plus it is antioxidant rich. We often suggest blending in some honey with our Rejuvenating Green Tea Mask for this very reason. 

To lock moisture in, a good quality olive oil can do the trick, and indeed has been used for centuries in skincare practices. We also love using pure shea butter. On its own, it can be a little too thick to wear long term, which is why we have it in three of our skincare products, but it can be applied and left on like a mask for an hour or two while you hang out around the house - and the benefit of it is well worth it! This is a secondary use of our Cleansing Balm as well. It can left on as a moisturizing mask or treatment to keep moisture in when skin is feeling dry. The addition of lemon will also add a brightening effect to dull looking skin that is in need a boost! 

A Note on Ritual 

Lastly, keep in mind that our bodies can do everything better when we are in a state of calm. Make your skincare routine a sacred time, free from interruptions (when possible!) and free from intrusive thoughts. Try to practice self gratitude and take time to smell the scents and feel the textures of the products you use. Massage them in, instead of ‘applying’ them. Breathe deeply. And remember, you already have beautiful, hardworking skin. You’re just giving it the tools it needs to do what it already knows how to do. 

Woodlot xo 

Photo Credits

Cover image and photo of toner on model's hand by Carolyn Tanaka (@_carolyntanaka)

Image of model using cleansing balm and holding toner by Sheena Zilinski (@sheenazilinski)