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Do humidifiers help with dry skin?

A woman reaching for a humidifier
(Image credit: Getty)

Whether you battle with dry skin because of the elements or your skin tends to err on the dry side, the chances are you’ve searched for things that help. From lotions and creams to elaborate skincare routines, there are many topical solutions for dry skin – and you’ve probably also wondered, do humidifiers help with dry skin? If that’s the case, then what relief can lifestyle adjustments provide? 

Dry air is an enemy of dry skin, so it would seem logical that a good-quality humidifier would help alleviate symptoms of dry skin. Read on if you need help to banish that tight skin feeling after a warm shower and instead get glowing, soft, and hydrated skin. 

We’re going to explore what humidifiers do and how they work. Then we’ll reveal how they can help you care for your skin and, finally, we’ll look at how you can incorporate the best humidifier into your routine to look after your dry skin. 

What do humidifiers do?

In simple terms, humidifiers transform water into mist that can increase the humidity levels of air in an indoor space. Humidifiers come in different forms: from central humidifiers built into buildings’ heating and cooling systems to simple steam vaporizers that heat water to create steam before cooling it and sending it out into the air. The goal of each of these devices remains the same: to increase humidity levels.

As well as central humidifiers and steam vaporizers, types of humidifiers include:

  • Evaporation humidifiers – these work by blowing air through a fan system, which then releases humidified air into the atmosphere.
  • Ultrasonic humidifiers – which create ultrasonic vibration to form a vapor that then humidifies the air.
  • Impeller humidifiers – these devices use a rotating disc to produce cool vapor.

The machines all aim to increase air humidity. But how do you know if the air in your space is too dry? The easiest way to track the humidity levels in your home is by installing a hygrometer (a humidity monitor). They are affordable devices that look like a thermostat and measure the room’s air temperature and humidity. Ideally, you will be looking for a humidity level of 30%-50%, according to the Mayo Clinic (opens in new tab). Suppose you can’t find a monitor or would like to try another method. In that case, the American Chemical Society (opens in new tab) advises a trick that uses just a glass and some ice to determine how humid the air is in your home. You will need two glasses, water, ice, a resealable zipper storage bag, some paper:

  1. Fill two glasses with half ice and half water.
  2. Place one of the glasses in the zipper storage bag.
  3. Wait for around 20 minutes.
  4. Place a piece of paper on the side of the cup that was not in the zipper storage bag.
  5. If the paper is wet, it would indicate the air in your room is humid. If the paper is not wet, the air is too dry. If the paper is a little damp, it’s just right.
  6. To control the experiment, place a piece of paper on the side of the cup that was in the zipper storage bag. It should be dry.

If you find the air in your home is too dry, regardless of the method you used, you may find you’re also suffering from a range of symptoms linked to low air humidity. 

Your skin may feel dry or tight. You might also find you have a cough when you wake up in the morning, and if you or your relatives have asthma, you may find their symptoms flare up.

Close-up of woman using humidifier at home

(Image credit: Getty)

How can humidifiers help with dry skin?

Low humidity levels are linked with xerosis (dry skin), and artificially increasing humidity levels with a humidifier has improved symptoms. Findings published in the Research In Dermatology (opens in new tab) journal explained that humidity levels lower than 10% can dry out the outer layers of skin in elderly people, while levels of more than 70% can help to hydrate skin. This doesn’t mean you need to live in a space with 70% humidity all the time to have hydrated skin. It means that if you use a humidifier, you can avoid the humidity levels going below 10% and causing dryness in the first place. 

Hydration is the best way to help avoid getting dry skin, and to treat it if it has already settled in. While moisturizers and other topical treatments may help, many find that applying products only gets them so far when taking care of very dry skin. This is evident in winter when the humidity levels are naturally lower, and we spend time going from the cold outdoors into warm, heated spaces. 

Using a humidifier can help soothe dry skin by reducing the chance of air pulling hydration out of your skin, which happens when humidity levels are below 10%. Beyond that, exposing your skin to high humidity (more than 70%) can help increase hydration levels. Using a humidifier may help relieve uncomfortable symptoms of dry skin, including itchiness, cracking and flaking, as well as potentially helping with allergies.

How to use a humidifier to help dry skin

If you think a humidifier might be what you need, then there are ways you can integrate one into your routine. First, you will need to find a humidifier that works for you. Most models on the market use cold water, but some do heat water up. These heating devices are usually known as steam vaporizers. If you have young children or vulnerable people in your household, you might want to avoid using one of those in case of dangerous spillages. 

Once you have purchased your humidifier, you’re going to want to look at the type of water you will use in it. Each manufacturer will have its own instructions, so check those before getting started. Humidifiers tend to be challenging to keep clean, so some brands advise using distilled water as opposed to water straight from your faucet or regular bottled drinking water.

Use your humidifier for a few hours every day, or leave it running overnight. If you find you often wake up with your skin feeling particularly dry or with a dry throat and cough, then leaving your humidifier running overnight in the room where you are sleeping could be the best option for you. You can use a humidifier daily, but remember to check humidity levels in your room using one of the methods mentioned above: as much as low humidity can affect your skin and your overall health, so can too much moisture.

Keeping your humidifier mold-free is essential, so you will also want to clean it regularly. Ensure you unplug your humidifier whenever you are cleaning it, and don’t ever put electronic parts in water. Most manufacturers recommend cleaning and drying your humidifier after each use. Depending on your machine’s design, you may be able to place the non-electronic parts of the device in a dishwasher. Usually, using dish soap and warm water with a soft cloth will do the trick.


References

White-Chu, E. F., & Reddy, M. (2011). Dry skin in the elderly: complexities of a common problem. Clinics in dermatology, 29(1), 37–42. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.clindermatol.2010.07.005 (opens in new tab) 

Stettler, H., Crowther, J. M., Brandt, M., Lu, B., Boxshall, A., de Salvo, R., Laing, S., Hennighausen, N., Bielfeldt, S., & Blenkiron, P. (2021). Targeted dry skin treatment using a multifunctional topical moisturizer. International journal of cosmetic science, 43(2), 191–200. https://doi.org/10.1111/ics.12680 (opens in new tab)  

India Bottomley is a health and beauty writer whose work has been published in the likes of Cosmopolitan, Forbes, and Dazed Magazine. A lifelong skincare aficionado, India has been writing research-led pieces on trending skincare, makeup, and cosmetic procedures since 2016. She takes particular interest in the growing connection between tech and beauty, and has had pieces on the topic published in American Healthcare Journal. When not writing she can be found exploring national parks or at the beach chasing sunsets.