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Understanding The Differences Between Emollients, Humectants, and Occlusives

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Moisturizing is important because it shields the protective barrier against damage and sensitivities, maintains skin hydration, and prevents the sebaceous glands from producing too much sebum. Ironically, more sebum is secreted when the skin lacks moisture to compensate for the loss, leading to possible clogged pores and breakouts. Plus, moisturizer makes the skin appear texturized, plump, and dewy.

Given the above, moisturizing is an unskippable step of any skincare regimen, yet there’s room for a lot of confusion when choosing the most suitable type of moisturizer for your skin type. This is because moisturizers can be classified into emollients, humectants, and occlusives, and some are more fit for specific concerns and skin types than others. Translation: picking an inappropriate moisturizer for you can cause more damage (like clogging your pores) than good, so we wrote this post to clarify it all.

Throughout this article, I’ll explain the differences between emollients, humectants, and occlusives, what concerns they address, and the best examples for each of them, so stay tuned. 

Emollients

Emollients serve as reparatory agents that help improve the protective barrier function and facilitate cell signaling, resulting in skin restoration.[1] Simply put, emollients aim to fix damaged skin, soothe, improve moisture retention and restore the barrier. Emollient moisturizers work by filling the gaps between the cells, making skin more elastic and allowing it to regenerate while also forming a protective layer that hinders transepidermal water loss (TEWL). Compared to humectants, emollients are slightly richer and heavier in texture (but not as heavy as occlusives), making them more suitable for night use, though they can be applied at any time of the day.

  • Best for: Emollients address dry, rough skin. Besides, since they help reinforce the barrier and lock moisture, emollients work great for mature complexions as well as for eczema-prone skin. 
  • Examples of emollients: The most popular emollients used in skincare are squalane, fatty acids, fatty alcohols, cholesterolceramides, shea butter, colloidal oatmeal, and oils rich in fatty acids.[1]

Humectants

Humectants are hygroscopic compounds; in layman’s terms, they attract water from their environment into the skin to increase hydration.[2] This way, humectants boost water levels in the skin, improve elasticity and firmness, prevent dehydration, and regulate sebum production.

Humectant moisturizers are usually lightweight, won’t clog pores, and get absorbed fast into the skin. In addition to their ability to pull water into the skin, humectants facilitate the desquamation process, meaning they help dead cells on the skin surface slough off and reveal softer skin.[3]

Interestingly, humectants attract water from the environment only when the humidity levels are above 70%.[3] If not, they draw water from the dermis (inner layer) to the epidermis (outer layer), which ironically may lead to dehydration. Hence, to prevent water loss, it’s essential to lock humectants with occlusives, reason moisturizers frequently have these compounds blended in their formulas.

  • Best for: Due to their water replenishing ability, humectants work best for normal, dry, oily, and acne-prone skin, but everyone can benefit from them.
  • Examples of humectants: Glycerin, hyaluronic acid, aloe vera, honey, lactic acid, glycolic acid, and urea are the most popular humectants used in skincare.

Related: Glycerin vs. Hyaluronic Acid: The Battle Between Humectants

Occlusives

Occlusives act like a physical barrier on the skin surface that hinders water evaporation from the skin while protecting it from external aggressors.[1] Due to their large molecules, occlusives don’t penetrate the skin but sit on top of it, and, as you may have guessed, occlusive moisturizers have a thick consistency. As a result of sealing moisture and hindering water loss, occlusives are excellent at soothing irritations, reinforcing the barrier, and preventing dehydration.

  • Best for: Occlusives are the best for dry and dehydrated skin (no, they are not the same), dermatitis, and eczema, and they are less suitable for oily and acne-prone skin as there’s a high chance of clogging pores.
  • Examples of occlusives: Occlusive ingredients you may see include mineral oil, petrolatum, beeswax, dimethicone, silicones, and olive oil. 

To end

Determining your skin type is essential when choosing a moisturizer. But equally important is knowing the difference between emollients, humectants, and occlusives, and now that you’re up to date, picking the ideal moisturizer for you should be a piece of cake. These compounds have functions that may benefit some more than others, and it’s crucial to be aware of those so that you always get the best out of your skincare products. Long story short, emollients soften and repair the skin addressing dry, damaged complexions, humectants are the go-to for dehydrated, oily, and acne-prone skin, while occlusives are the best bet for a dry skin.


Sources

Women’s Concepts uses reliable sources, including dermatologists’ insights, clinical trials, and scientific journals, to find accurate information and support all the facts shared in our articles. All statements and claims have clear and legit references. Read our editorial policy to learn more about our sources of information, our process of researching and fact-checking the content, and how our team strives to keep all articles updated, completed, and trustworthy.

References
  1. Purnamawati S, Indrastuti N, Danarti R, Saefudin T. The Role of Moisturizers in Addressing Various Kinds of Dermatitis: A Review. Clin Med Res. 2017 Dec, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5849435/
  2. Sethi A, Kaur T, Malhotra SK, Gambhir ML. Moisturizers: The Slippery Road. Indian J Dermatol. 2016 May-Jun, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4885180/
  3. Harwood A, Nassereddin A, Krishnamurthy K. Moisturizers. [Updated 2022 May 29]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Jan, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK545171/
Who wrote this?
Ana Vasilescu
Ana Vasilescu
Ana is a sociologist and feminist with a shared passion for literature, psychology, and skincare, the combo that made her determined to start Women's Concepts. With over five years of experience in dermatological research, she has now become a certified skincare consultant keen to convince others of the importance of a diligent routine. Her close relationships with dermatologists around the globe, along with years of researching, analyzing studies, and hand-testing products on a daily basis, made Ana one of the best persons you can get advice from.
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Women's Concepts relies on the latest scientific research to provide accurate, complete, and fact-based information in skincare, on which we're willing to stake our reputation. Our team includes skincare experts who are highly regarded in their fields and committed to upholding the best standards of research. We spend quality time vetting every single product we recommend and double-checking all the facts shared on Women's Concepts. We always stand on the side of inclusivity, and our mission is to help everyone fix their skin issues as they arise and leverage the products they buy to achieve their goals. You can view our expert review board and everything about our editorial guidelines here.
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