The ability to conserve water is fundamental to terrestrial life. A number of organs such as the kidney and the bladder have important roles in the regulation of body water balance. The epidermis of skin is also fundamental to this process, and it is in a constant battle to prevent loss of water to the external, dry environment. Given this important role of the epidermis as a barrier to water loss, it is perhaps surprising that many of the cellular mechanisms by which human keratinocytes achieve cell volume homoeostasis, maintain epidermal hydration and adapt to biological effects from environmental stressors such as ultraviolet radiation are poorly understood. This article reviews what is known thus far and speculates about other potential mechanisms through which skin conducts water homoeostasis, with a particular emphasis on the putative role of organic osmolytes.