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Moisturizers are at the center of your skincare routine. Your moisturizer has a defining role in how effective your skincare is. Surprisingly, most of us know very little about what makes a moisturizer. And because of that, we fail to find the right one for our skin type. This causes different issues for different skin types like greasy-looking skin or moisturizer pilling. To help you take control of your skincare, we’ll be deep-diving into all things moisturizers. We’ll be explaining the different types of moisturizers in our new segment called “oh, that makes sense”.
What Do Moisturizers Do?
Basic moisturizers treat and prevent transepidermal water loss, aka TEWL. They do that by hydrating the skin and coating it to keep the water in (1).
They support the skin barrier function. As a result, moisturizers make the skin more resilient and less prone to external skin aggressors.
Moisturizers eliminate dryness, flakiness, and roughness by softening the skin and smoothing its texture. So a basic moisturizer has a lot to do with keeping the skin hydrated.
But other than that, moisturizers can also be therapeutic. For example, there are moisturizers that are formulated with active ingredients like chemical exfoliants or retinoids. You can use them to treat skin issues besides moisturizing your skin too.
What Are The Different Types Of Moisturizers?
Basically, there are three different types of moisturizers: humectants, emollients, and occlusives.
Commonly known as humectant moisturizers, these types of moisturizers contain humectants like hyaluronic acid, glycerin, panthenol, sorbitol, or lactic acid (AHA).
The most notable characteristic of humectants is their ability to attract water to the outer layer of the skin (2). They do this by drawing water either from the environment if the humidity is right or from the deeper layers of the skin to the outer layer.
Humectants hydrate the skin like no other. Our skin gobbles them up. The plumping effects are instantly visible. The reason is their low molecular size, which makes them more penetrative.
They’re amazing for replenishing dry skin, and dehydrated skin. They’re also amazing for hydrating oily skin, minus the grease.
But when it comes to moisturizing the skin, a simple humectant is not enough. These are hydrators. They hydrate the skin by keeping the outer layer moist. However, they lack the ability to retain water.
That’s why they’re usually combined with emollients (see below) so that they can attract and retain moisture, thus preventing TEWL. The job of “hydrating” has been dumped onto serums, i.e. hyaluronic acid serum.
Emollients usually contain lipids and oils like ceramides, fatty acids, cholesterol, castor oil, squalane, or jojoba oil. Emollients, unlike humectants that disappear into the skin, actually soften and smooth the surface of the skin (3).
They hydrate the skin and lubricate, so to speak, the cracks of the skin. In doing so, they eliminate scaly and flaky skin. These are the ones that have barrier-improving benefits on the skin.
They hydrate the skin, keep the moisture in, and restore the lipids to repair the skin barrier function.
Occlusives form a physical barrier on the surface of the skin (4). The most common occlusive types of moisturizers are petroleum jelly, mineral oil, beeswax, and carnauba wax.
Occlusives make it almost impossible for the skin to lose water. They don’t really hydrate the skin, but they make sure the existing water doesn’t evaporate. But some occlusives feel very heavy on the skin and aren’t cosmetically pleasing for most.
And because of the blockade, there’s a risk of bacteria getting trapped inside the skin that has the potential to cause breakouts.
For that reason, the occlusive action is usually delegated to face oils. The ingredients in facial oils are usually lighter and more skin-friendly and they have added skincare benefits.
In sum, we have 3 different types of moisturizers. And from the lightest to heaviest, they’re humectants, emollients, and occlusives.
Which Type Of Moisturizer Is The Best One For Your Skin Type?
As you can gather from the list, an ideal moisturizer for most people contains a bit of all 3. It should attract water with a humectant, smooth the skin with an emollient, and keep the water in with an occlusive. The trick is to find the right balance between the 3.
The ingredients of the moisturizer will define its texture. So, by focusing on the texture (gel/cream/lotion), you can find your way to the best type of moisturizer for your skin type.
Best Type of Moisturizer For Oily Skin
If you have oily skin, your moisturizer should ideally be in a gel form and oil-free. This means that the moisturizer is mostly water-based, aka made with humectants. A gel moisturizer will replenish the skin and moisturize it without the heavy feel of occlusives.
As they contain mostly humectants, they’re super lightweight and absorb easily. They are free of added oils and can contain non-comedogenic emollients like squalane to create a protective layer on the skin without smothering it or making it sticky.
Best Type of Moisturizer For Dry Skin
Moisturizers in cream forms can accommodate the necessary emollients for dry skin. Besides humectants to bind water to the skin, a moisturizer for dry skin mostly needs oils and lipids that dry skin lacks.
These can be ceramides and/or fatty acids from shea butter/jojoba oil etc. The cream form will keep the skin hydrated for longer and also help with dry patches and flakiness.
Best Type of Moisturizer For Normal Skin
Normal skin is the reference point. So, depending on your personal preference, you can go for different types of moisturizers.
But to be on the safer side, go for emollient creams that hydrate and moisturize with a little bit of everything. Keep it simple and keep it affordable. Go spend your money on a skincare device or something.
Best Type of Moisturizer For Combination Skin
You can have dry/combination skin or oily/combination skin. And depending on that, you can pick your moisturizer for oily or dry skin.
However, as “combination” is extremely subjective, you can consider using two different moisturizers; a gel one on the oily side and a cream one on the drier side.
If that gets confusing, look for “balancing” moisturizers that are made to regulate oil production without drying the skin.
Best Type of Moisturizer For Sensitive Skin
As moisturizing is one of the most important steps in your skincare routine, you can’t risk irritating your skin twice a day. It should hydrate and moisturize, but it should be free of irritants. For that reason, the ingredients are as important as the manufacturer.
Final Word on Different Types of Moisturizers
These are, roughly, what to look for in your daily moisturizer. Additional active ingredients can turn your moisturizer into an anti-aging cream or a brightening cream.
If you want something more targeted and use your moisturizer to improve some of your skin concerns as well, then look for added ingredients.
For example, oily skin can benefit from salicylic acid moisturizers to manage excess oil and acne. And for dry skin, look for restorative ingredients like lipids and ceramides to actually repair the damaged skin barrier.
And try niacinamide creams (vitamin B3) to prevent your skin from constantly losing moisture. Likewise, if you’re looking for an antioxidant-rich formula, look for moisturizers with active ingredients.
You can try vitamin C moisturizers to manage hyperpigmentation and wrinkles. Anti-inflammatory botanical extracts will up your moisturizer and turn it into a soothing treatment cream. The possibilities are endless.
How to Apply Your Moisturizer
- Get a little amount of your moisturizer and warm it up in your hands.
- Now that the cream is all over your hands, apply it onto your face in an upward motion.
- Start from the cheeks and massage the cream upwards.
- Apply the rest on your forehead and finally, on your neck. Always go upwards.
- Apply your moisturizer on your clean, damp face. Damp skin absorbs better.
- If you use serums, apply your moisturizer after your serums.
If this was all a lot to digest, take a minute and watch this SNL sketch on moisturizers. It’ll crack you up!
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- Harwood A, Nassereddin A, Krishnamurthy K. Moisturizers. [Updated 2022 Aug 21]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK545171/
- Crowther, J. M., Understanding humectant behaviour through their water-holding properties. Int. J. Cosmet. Sci. 43, 601– 609(2021). https://doi.org/10.1111/ics.12723
- Lodén M. (2003). Role of topical emollients and moisturizers in the treatment of dry skin barrier disorders. American journal of clinical dermatology, 4(11), 771–788. https://doi.org/10.2165/00128071-200304110-00005
- Purnamawati, S., Indrastuti, N., Danarti, R., & Saefudin, T. (2017). The Role of Moisturizers in Addressing Various Kinds of Dermatitis: A Review. Clinical medicine & research, 15(3-4), 75–87. https://doi.org/10.3121/cmr.2017.1363