- How do moisturizers work
- Types of moisturizers
- Types of moisturizer formulations
- Water-based vs. oil-based moisturizers
- How to pick the right moisturizer
- How and when to use moisturizer
- How often to moisturize
- Best products
This article has been reviewed by Dr. Luisa Fanzani, a Los Angeles-based cosmetic chemist dedicated to educating people on skincare.
Everyone strives for a hydrated, plump, and soft complexion, and although it seems moisturizing is enough to get us there, the reality is a bit different. Whether you like it or not, achieving a glowy and quenched complexion is more complicated than just picking any moisturizer on the skincare aisle. It’s about understanding the different types of moisturizers, which one your skin needs most, when and how to use them, and how often. Do you need an oil-based formula or a water-based one? Does a heavy cream work better for your skin or a lightweight gel? What about occlusives, humectants, and emollients? To complete your quest of finding the perfect moisturizer match, you need these questions answered.
I know it sounds tricky, but it’ll become clear-cut what type of moisturizer is best for you by the end of this post, I promise.
How do moisturizers work
A moisturizer is basically any product that works to moisten the skin. It can be a cream, lotion, gel, or ointment and can provide hydration in various ways depending on the type of moisturizing agents it contains. For instance, a moisturizer can sit on the skin’s surface and form a protective film to trap moisture in and soften (emollients), it can reduce water loss (occlusives) or attract water from the environment and seal it into the epidermis (humectants).
Ideally, a moisturizer should use a combination of emollients, occlusives, and humectants to deliver both instant and long-lasting hydration as well as soothe and relieve skin. However, this doesn’t mean a product that contains all of the above is always the best. This is because emollients, occlusives, and humectants don’t work equally for all skin types and in all circumstances. Besides, the effectiveness of a moisturizer also depends on its type of formulation (be it cream, gel, or lotion) and if it suits your skin. Factors like pimples, a broken barrier, dryness, redness, sensitivities, and climate change also count heavily when choosing a moisturizer.
So assessing what type of moisturizer is best for your skin is deadly important to reap all the benefits and get the desired results.
Types of moisturizers
There are three main types of moisturizers, namely humectants, occlusives, and emollients, that can improve skin hydration and prevent dryness when used properly. Although they all share the same goal, each type of moisturizer works differently, and which one is most suitable for you depends on your skin needs and environmental factors.
- Humectants pull water from the environment into the skin and work best for all skin types, especially oily, acne-prone, and mature.
- Occlusives form a protective layer on the skin’s surface and reduce water loss, working great for dry, dehydrated skin.
- Emollients soften, consolidate the skin’s barrier, and hinder water loss by covering the skin with a protective film. They are most suitable for conditions like itchiness, eczema, and redness.
Occlusives are mostly oils and waxes that coat the skin surface to trap moisture and physically block transepidermal water loss. Because they have to sit on top of the skin to work efficiently, occlusives usually have large molecules that can’t penetrate into the deeper layers.
Common occlusives found in skincare include mineral oil, petroleum jelly, beeswax, shea butter, squalane, silicones, and zinc oxide. Of all, petrolatum is the most effective occlusive moisturizer. According to research, at a concentration of 5%, petrolatum can reduce water loss by more than 98%. Lanolin, mineral oil, and silicones are also great occlusives and can reduce transepidermal water loss by 20% to 30%.
Thanks to their moisture-sealing abilities, occlusives do best for dehydrated, cracked skin and are a go-to in cold winter months when the humidity levels are low. On the other hand, some occlusives aren’t suitable for people with oily and acne-prone skin since they are sticky, have a greasy feeling, and can potentially clog the pores.
Related: 9 Best Occlusive Moisturizers for Dehydrated Skin
Humectants are low-molecular-weight compounds that draw moisture from the environment and pull it into the skin, increasing water content in cells. They are lightweight, non-greasy, absorb quickly, and are ideal for every skin type, especially for oily, combination, and acne-prone. While they’re found in all forms, humectants are most often used in lotions and gels.
Common humectants used in skincare include hyaluronic acid, urea, panthenol, glycerin, alpha-hydroxy acids (glycolic acid, lactic acid), betaine, polyglutamic acid, aloe vera, and honey. Some humectants like hyaluronic acid are also part of natural moisturizing factors (NMF), which are responsible for the skin’s natural ability to retain moisture.
Interestingly, humectants only function properly and can hydrate the skin if the humidity level in the air is above 70%. When the humidity level is lower, humectants won’t draw moisture from the environment but from the skin’s deeper layers, resulting in water evaporation and excessive dryness. One way to improve humectants’ effectiveness in low-humidity areas is to use them with occlusives. Occlusives help by trapping moisture in the epidermis, preventing skin from losing too much water. Another solution is to use an air humidifier to increase the humidity level and maintain it above 70%.
Related: 8 Best Humectant Moisturizers
Emollients are mostly fatty acids and lipids with softening properties that work by filling all the cracks and spaces between the cells. They can be used by all skin types and are the MVPs for restoring the barrier, relieving redness and itchiness, and soothing. On top of that, emollients are great to be applied after a cosmetic procedure (such as chemical peel or microneedling) to soften and accelerate the recovery process.
Examples of emollients often used in skincare include vitamin E, ceramides, shea butter, cholesterol, squalane, and oils rich in fatty acids such as jojoba, castor, olive, and coconut.
Related: 11 Best Emollient Moisturizers for Dryness and Itchiness
Types of moisturizer formulations
- Lotions: are water-based, lightweight, non-greasy, spread easily, and mostly contain humectants.
- Creams: are made of heavier occlusives and emollients and are thicker than other formulas but not as thick as an ointment.
- Ointments: are oil-based, greasy, and leave a glossy look; they work great in areas with low humidity (under 60%).
- Gels: are water-based formulas that leave a smooth finish, absorb quickly, and are usually free of oils.
Water-based vs. oil-based moisturizers
Water-based moisturizers mean the base of the product (the first ingredient found in the highest concentration) is water. They can be creams, gels, or lotions and are usually lightweight, non-greasy, and have a thin texture that absorbs quickly. Thanks to that, water-based moisturizers are preferred by people with oily, combination, and acne-prone skin, but they work just fine on any other type.
By the same token, oil-based moisturizers have oils as the base. Compared to water-based formulas, oil-based are thicker, heavier, and mostly contain occlusive emollients. They are better at sealing moisture, softening, and relieving dryness than water-based products, being ideal for when you have dry, dehydrated skin or a broken barrier. Oil-based moisturizers are also perfect during the cold season or in places with low humidity, as their thick texture can better prevent moisture loss under unfavorable conditions.
How to pick the right moisturizer for your skin
- Normal skin: It can use any type of moisturizer, but usually, a lightweight gel or lotion is enough to maintain skin hydration. However, in case you’re experiencing excessive dryness, you should use a cream formula filled with emollients to soften and calm your skin.
- Dry skin: Creams and ointments are the best picks for dry skin as they are thicker and preserve more water than gel formulas. Also, people with dry skin should use a combination of occlusives, humectants, and emollients to increase moisture in deeper layers and reduce water evaporation.
- Oily skin: Humectants are best for oily skin. On the other hand, oily skin should avoid heavy emollients as they can clog pores. Instead, it should aim for non-comedogenic gel moisturizers as they are light and don’t feel greasy.
- Combination skin: It can use any type of moisturizer but should avoid putting heavy formulas on the T-zone.
- Sensitive skin: It’s not limited to any type of moisturizer, but it should avoid formulas with alcohol and fragrances.
- Broken barrier, aka redness, irritation, dryness: Regardless of your skin type, when you experience a damaged barrier, you may have to change the type of moisturizer to address your current skin needs. A broken barrier is seen as irritation, excessive dryness, and redness, and when that happens, it’s best to apply replenishing emollients like fatty acids, cholesterol, squalene, and ceramides. They work to relieve sensitivities and fortify the protective barrier. For instance, SkinCeuticals Triple Lipid Restore 2:4:2 contains all of these replenishers and is a great product to have on hand when your skin is troubled.
How and when to use moisturizer
The moisturizer should be applied twice daily — in your AM and PM routine — after the cleanser, toner, and serum. It’s a priority to use moisturizer before your skin is completely dry because it will make the product more spreadable and effective since it already has water to seal into the epidermis. Also, make sure the moisturizer is evenly spread across the face, and use sunscreen afterward, at AM.
Most experts recommend having two different moisturizers for the day and night routine. This is because the skin needs a lightweight, protective formula that gives long-lasting hydration for the day, while for the night, it needs reparative and replenishing ingredients.
How often to moisturize
Depending on your skin type and environmental conditions, you may need to apply moisturizer between one and three times a day. Only 50% moisturizer remains on the skin surface after 8 hours, so if you’re dealing with excessive dryness, it’s best to follow up with thrice daily applications.
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.
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- Harwood A, Nassereddin A, Krishnamurthy K. Moisturizers. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK545171/
- “Occlusives.” Cosmeceuticals and Cosmetic Ingredients Ed. Leslie Baumann. McGraw Hill, 2015, https://dermatology.mhmedical.com/content.aspx?bookid=2812§ionid=244978020.
- Ghadially R, Halkier-Sorensen L, Elias PM. Effects of petrolatum on stratum corneum structure and function. J Am Acad Dermatol. 1992 Mar;26(3 Pt 2):387-96. doi: 10.1016/0190-9622(92)70060-s. PMID: 1564142.