Thanks to the countless products available today, you could have a 20-step skin care routine if you so desired. Would they all be absolutely necessary? Probably not. But, there is one part of everyone’s regimen that’s non-negotiable: keeping it moisturized. It might seem as straightforward as applying a daily face cream, but in order to properly care for your skin (and any lingering dehydration, irritation, and texture issues), it’s important to become acquainted with the three main categories of moisturizing and hydrating ingredients: humectants, occlusives, and emollients. If you’re unfamiliar with these terms, don’t panic — TZR enlisted a few skin care experts to break them all down.
While these three types of ingredients are similar in terms of what they do for your skin, they don’t all function in the same way. For starters, Dr. Zeichner, MD, FAAD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York, says that humectants are ingredients that act like a sponge. “They bind to water to pull it into the outer skin layer,” he tells TZR. As for emollients, he says the main goal of these is to help soften rough cells on the surface of the skin, as well as prevent water loss. Lastly, he adds, “Occlusives are ingredients that form a protective seal over the outer skin layer, preventing loss of hydration to the environment.”
With winter around the corner and the increased likelihood of dry, dehydrated skin, it’s a good time to brush up on when you should be using products that contain humectants, occlusives, and emollients — and yes, there is a time and a place for all three. Below, get the low-down on everything you need to know about each.
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“Humectant ingredients absorb water so that it stays [locked] into the skin” says Dr. Michelle Henry, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York, which helps to keep the skin hydrated. Popular options for normal to dry skin include hyaluronic acid, glycerin, lactic acid, and aloe vera, which often appear in both serums and moisturizers, but Dr. Macrene Alexiades MD PhD, a triple board-certified dermatologist in New York, clarifies that you’ll find some type of humectant in most products that make moisturizing claims.
An easy way to find out if your skin is dehydrated and could therefore benefit from a humectant? Dr. Alexiades recommends pinching your skin and “if the skin tents, which means it comes up and it takes a while to go back down, you’re dehydrated.” And yes, even if you have oily skin, you can be slightly dehydrated — in fact, overproduction of oil often means your skin is lacking hydration— and can benefit from using a product with humectants. Skin that is lacking water but hasn’t reached the point of extreme dehydration (with painful cracking, for example) would be best suited for using this type of ingredient. Daily use is also helpful for maintaining your skin’s moisture levels and preventing dryness
If you’re using a serum with humectants (which is arguably the most popular delivery method) NYC-based esthetician Sofie Pavitt says you’ll need to sandwich it in-between your bare skin and an emollient product (more on that later). Put it this way: You’re probably not going to just slather on a hyaluronic acid serum and call it a day. You need a moisturizer on top to further prevent water loss.
Now, more on emollients. They’re similar to humectants, but with some key differences. First off, this category of ingredient is all about adding moisture to the skin by preventing water loss. As noted above, they work best on top of a humectant to lock in water. In other words, Pavitt says, “they're like the blanket that holds all your products in place.”
And because emollients work to repair cracks in the skin’s barrier, they can also soften the skin. Dr. Zeichner adds that, “Emollients are soothing ingredients that are great for people who have dry skin and flakes. They can be used across all skin types.” Like humectants, you’ll want to use these regularly to preserve hydration. Think of them as your moisturizers or creams, which are the formula types you’ll typically spot them in.
“Ceramides are the most common [emollients],” Dr. Henry notes. Simply put, ceramides are lipids (or fat) that make part of the skin barrier. They come with a long list of benefits, some of which include keeping skin looking dewy, smooth, and moisturized. Additionally, the expert cites argan oil (which promotes smooth skin) and vitamin E (a godsend for decreasing wrinkles) as two especially popular emollients.
Another common emollient option is lanolin, which Dr. Zeichner says is an oily compound that comes from the wool of sheep, and is often available as a moisturizer or balm. “It is the ingredient responsible for providing a waterproof seal on the sheep’s coat and performs a similar benefit when applied to human skin to soften and protect,” he explains.
Whichever product type you prefer, the ever-popular emollients should definitely be on your radar this winter to keep your skin supple and irritation-free.
Compared to the previous two categories, occlusives have a similar functionality (they help to prevent water loss), but are used mainly for more extreme cases of dryness and dehydration. As Dr. Alexiades explains, “Occlusives are the heaviest and the most moisturizing because they work to form a protective layer, almost like a shrink wrap on the skin’s surface to create a barrier.” Common occlusives include petroleum, petrolatum, and dimethicone, as well as most waxes, oils, and types of butter.
Obviously something like a petroleum jelly wouldn’t be ideal sitting under makeup (at least compared to a typical moisturizer), and because they’re generally comedogenic (meaning they’ll clog your pores), people with oily or acne-prone skin shouldn’t necessarily reach for an occlusive option first.
However, Dr. Alexiades notes that occlusives are really necessary for people with a compromised skin barrier, like eczema or psoriasis. “Anyone who has a really compromised skin barrier requires occlusives because they need help getting [it] intact [again],” she says. And if a humectant or emollients isn’t cutting it for your severely dry skin, you could definitely benefit from an occlusive since it provides a stronger physical barrier for the outer layer of the skin to prevent water loss. Pavitt adds, “Occlusives are helpful in colder weather because they stop environmental factors [like cold air and pollen] from coming in and drying your skin out as well.”
With winter looming, and with it dropping temperatures, steam heat, and low humidity — all of which can dry out your skin — knowing how to navigate these different categories of moisturizing and hydrating ingredients might just be the key to keeping your skin happy, healthy, and irritation-free.