In the bevy of all skincare terms, moisturizer may as well be one of the most ambiguous ones. Moisturizers come in many forms and functions, but their fundamental role should be keeping the skin supple by adding more moisture to your skin, preventing moisture loss, or both. They accomplish this by acting as humectants, occlusives, emollients, and rejuvenators.
So how should you choose between these? It’s simple - raise enough capital that can support a small country’s national economy and start experimenting. However, if you don't have an infinite amount of cash, worry not, WE GOTCHU!! Below are some of the guidelines to narrow down the list of products you want to experiment with.
What are humectants [ hyoo-mek-tuhnt ]?Humectants are a chemical family that adds moisture to the skin by latching onto water molecules. However, because they attract water molecules, sometimes they do the reverse of what we want them to do – extract water from the skin. If you’re in a dry climate, humectants can pull moisture from deeper layers of your skin and lose it into the dry atmosphere. This is the reason humectants are layered with occlusives (more on them below) that seal the moisture content from the skin and prevent the humectant agent from going rogue!
Common examples of humectants are glycerin, hyaluronic acid, propylene glycol, and urea. They all serve the same function but one particular family of humectants may be more effective for your skin - as always, buy trial sizes and experiment! Hyaluronic acid does wonders for my skin while glycerin does nothing, so my personal favorite moisturizer is the Youth to the People's Superfood Air-Whip Moisture Cream.
What are occlusives [ uh-kloo-siv ]?
Oclusives repel water and are, therefore, effective barriers against water loss from the skin. Their chemical composition makes them greasy and heavy on the skin but when used on damp skin, they are quite potent!
A good example of an occlusive is petroleum jelly (like Vaseline) – feels gross to apply on my face but I can’t survive without it! Not only does it reduce moisture loss by 99%, but it also helps with healing dehydrated, cracked skin and reducing fine lines. Since petroleum jelly acts as a sealant, I layer it with a humectant and use it as the last step in my routine.
If petroleum jelly is not for you because of its icky texture, lighter occlusives that you may want to try out are squalene and cetyl alcohol.
What are emollients [ ih-mol-yuhnt ]?Emollients serve a similar function as occlusives – attack and fill fine lines in your skin but lack the sealing efficacy of occlusives. They usually have an oil-like consistency and have different reactions to different types of skin and different individuals. These are usually high-risk, high-reward ingredients because they can be comedogenic. Once you find an emollient that doesn’t break you out, it can work magic on dry or dehydrated skin. Examples of emollients are ingredients that soften and smoothen the skin, such as plant oils, mineral oil, shea butter, cocoa butter, and fatty acids.
What are rejuvenators [ ri-joo-vuh-neyt ]?
Rejuvenators are chemicals (such as collagen, keratin, and elastin) that replenish skin proteins and maintain elasticity. It’s important to note that rejuvenators are usually bigger molecules and have a limited ability to penetrate deeper layers of skin. I’ve personally never been a fan because all my moisturizing needs are met by using a combination of humectants, emollients, and occlusives, and have yet to find a rejuvenator that adds any value.
Ok, so now what? Should one use all 3, should one pick and choose? I know, that was a lot, so you should use your current routine as the starting point.
- If your current moisturizer is not breaking you out and you don’t find it inadequate, you should continue with it.
- If it’s leaving your skin dry, try replacing it with emollients and/or occlusives. Look for thicker consistency products (e.g. Apoterra's Night Regenerative Balm, Avene Hydrance Rich Hydrating Cream, Farmacy's Sleep Tight Firming Night Balm, CeraVe Healing Ointment).
- If your current moisturizer is making your skin feel oily, you may not even need a moisturizer but if you need one, light consistency humectants would be a good choice (Ren's Glow Daily Vitamin C Gel Cream Moisturizer, Neutrogena Hydro Boost, Aveeno Calm+Restore Oat Gel).
- And if you have sensitive skin, seek moisturizers with a simple-and-short list of ingredients so it’s easy to identify and eliminate those pesky ingredients that break you out.
I personally prefer a minimal routine, which is why I also reach out for products with a short ingredients list when I’m trying something new, even though my skin is not super sensitive. However, what works for me doesn’t necessarily work for everyone, so do your own experiments and have fun with it!
Meet Iffat, the writer, and a skincare nerd!
Iffat is a Chicago resident trying to find a balance between enjoying the outdoors and not freezing her face. A lifelong battle with acne and academic interest in chemistry are the driving forces behind her skincare nerdiness. She loves to talk about tennis, history, and all things skincare. She was made in Allahabad, India.