If you've ever wandered through the skincare aisle and felt overwhelmed, you're not alone. Those shelves are crowded, and it's hard to trust the bold claims on the packages or understand the jargon on their labels. It seems like every other product solves a problem you didn't even know you had, and there are a dizzying number of formulas on offer, particularly when it comes to moisturizers.
A good moisturizer can be a holy grail, leaving your skin looking supple. The wrong moisturizer, though, can be a nightmare, causing breakouts, clogged pores, and — believe it or not — dry patches. While your search for the perfect skincare products may still be in progress, understanding the basic agents that make up moisturizers can help you narrow down your options, understand why a certain product works for you, and know when it's the perfect time to apply it. Here's what you need to remember about emollients, humectants, and occlusives, all of which are considered moisturizing agents.
Think of humectants like magnets that attracts water molecules. They pull moisture from the air and into the upper layers of the skin. As a result, humectant-based moisturizers can be hydration heroes. Whether they're expensive products or more affordable options, leading moisturizers are often stacked with humectants like glycerin, propylene glycol, urea, and hyaluronic acid. Some humectants come from natural sources, such as aloe vera, while others are produced synthetically.
While you might assume that all types of dry skin will benefit from humectants, remember that humectants react to their environment. "Since humectants are hydrophilic (attracted to water molecules), they can draw moisture from anywhere or anything, as long as it is nearby," chemist Danusia Wnek tells Good Housekeeping. "So there is some debate about their use in dry environments, as they may absorb water from the skin since there is little in the air, which can increase skin dryness."
Over-applicating a humectant can also cause dryness, as it might extract water from the skin's deeper layers. For these reasons, the best time to apply a humectant-heavy moisturizer is when your skin is already damp, or after splashing some water on your face.
Just like humectants, you'll find emollients in most moisturizers on the market. They're the perfect salve if you have rough patches or uneven textures on your skin, since emollients seal off cracks in the skin barrier; they're especially helpful in driving essential oils back into the skin and subduing redness or irritation. "When skin is dry and flaky, there are open spaces in your skin cells. An emollient can help to fill those spaces and smooth out the skin," dermatologist Marnie Nussbaum tells Byrdie. Butters, oils, esters, lipids, ceramides, and fatty acids are all considered emollients.
For the most part, all skin types benefit from emollients — yes, even oily skin or combination skin types. Apply an emollient-based moisturizer following a hot shower or bath, after shaving, or when your skin feels a little tight and taut. There is, however, such a thing as too much. If your moisturizer makes your skin feel greasy, you might want to skip it for a few days and let your skin breathe on its own.
Remember when you couldn't scroll through TikTok without seeing people going through an elaborate skincare routine, then "slugging" by slicking on Vaseline or Egyptian Magic at the end? There's a reason for that. Occlusives like petroleum jelly are similar to emollients, but sit on top of the skin rather than soaking in, creating a barrier that keeps moisture in and irritants out. They're also not as ubiquitous as emollients, so if you're shopping for a facial cream, make sure to look specifically for brands that contain occlusives, if that's what you're after. Petrolatum, mineral oil, lanolin waxes, and silicones are all occlusives.
However, while there's always room for Vaseline in your beauty routine, these moisturizing agents aren't right for every skin type. They're heavy products, and can clog pores and worsen congestion. "Occlusives can be beneficial for wounds, heels, elbows, and infants with very dry skin or eczema, but ... occlusives can be too much for the face or other acne-prone areas of the body," dermatologist Caren Campbell tells Well & Good. Definitely skip the slugging and ditch the occlusives if you're suffering from breakouts.
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