There's an unbelievable amount of moisturizing products out on the market, each promising skin that is softer, plumper, and more dewy than the next. But sadly, more often then not, consumers are left wondering "why is my skin still so dry despite my decked out moisturizer routine?" The reality is that there isn’t just one “best” moisturizer for your face. Each of us has incredibly unique skin with its own quirks, and no one’s skin condition fits neatly into the dry/oily/combination skin type buckets either. However, with basic knowledge about effective, moisturizing ingredients, you can do a quick skim of the moisturizer’s ingredient list and pick out something that works from an ocean of products.
So let's dive into some of the best ingredients for skin hydration, how to crack the code for your skin type, and a few decoding examples.
Core Ingredient Components to a Moisturizer: The Moist Makers
As chemists, we categorize moisturizing ingredients into three core components: humectants, emollients, and occlusives. A blend of ingredients from each of the 3 categories make up a well-rounded moisturizer. Finding the right balance of these three types of ingredient for your particular skin type can be the difference maker between a "meh" moisturizer and a holy grail skincare routine staple.
These are water-based ingredients that grab and hold on to moisture. Some chemist favorites are glycerin, urea, sodium PCA, low level lactic acid, beta glucan, gycols and hyaluronic acid.
Emollients are lightweight oils serve to soften and smooth your skin texture, as well as add a little instant glow. This is a diverse ingredient product category that can include lightweight plant oils (argan, jojoba oil), plant-derived oils (coconut alkanes, squalane), silicones (dimethicone), and esters (isononyl isonanoate).
Water naturally evaporates from the skin in a process called transepidermal water loss (TEWL). If your skin barrier isn’t in tip-top shape, you may be losing a lot of water this way, which inevitably leads to more dry skin. Occlusives are ingredients that help correct this issue by sealing the moisture within your skin and forming a water-repelling barrier. Common occlusives used in skincare are petrolatum, lanolin, waxes, butters, and silicones.
Let's decode a few moisturizers together!
Don’t worry if this all sounds unfamiliar. The best way to understand this concept is by running through a couple of scenarios. Let’s practice! The goal here is to be able to pick out a few key ingredients that will help you decide if you’re a) getting the right amount of hydration, and b) getting a well-rounded moisturizer. Let's take a closer look at two different moisturizers from the same line: Cerave's Skin Renewing Night cream and Facial Moisturizing Lotion PM.
Example 1: Decoding Cerave's Skin Renewing Night Cream
Identifying the key occlusive (or occlusives) in a moisturizer is the most helpful thing you when you're shopping for a moisturizer. We recommend keeping an eye out for a product that contains the gold standard occlusive petrolatum as well as other great occlusive options like shea butter and beeswax. If you have dry skin, it might be a necessity to have at least one good occlusive higher up on the ingredient list. On the flip side, if you have oily skin, you might want to choose a product that doesn't have these heavier occlusives or have them lower on the ingredient list. Pro-tip! You might shop for moisturizers based on the texture and the "thickness" of the product. As cosmetic chemists, we can tell you that there are ways to manipulate the cream thickness without necessarily incorporating occlusives. It's always a good idea to do a quick decode.
For Cerave's night cream, we immediately spot occlusive shea butter in the 4th spot. This tell us that this cream should help with sealing in skin's moisture. We also spot water-loving humectant glycerin on the second spot. What this tells us that this moisturizer can be a one and done for most skin types. We do often see heavier creams with plenty of great emollients and occlusives but no humectants at all. Those can still be great creams to include, but if you have dry skin, it would be a good idea to include a humectant-heavy hydrating serum in your routine before the cream to avoid the dreaded "I'm moisturizing so much why am I still dry??" feeling.
Example 2: Decoding Cerave's Facial Moisturizing Lotion
Using the same logic as above, we’re going to first scan the ingredient list for Cerave's Facial Moisturizing Lotion. We still see hydrating glycerin in the second spot then light oil caprylic/capric triglyceride after. Then we have to go quite a bit further down the list before we spot dimethicone after the ceramides. Dimethicone is a silicone oil that could act as a lightweight occlusive. But given that this is the only occlusive on this list at a fairly low position, we wouldn't expect this moisturizer to be very good at sealing in moisture compared to the Renewing Night Cream. Based on decoding the ingredient list, we would say this is a moisturizer more suitable for those with normal to oily skin.
By doing a quick decode, not only can you quickly identify which moisturizer may be more suitable for your skin type from a line of products, it can also help you figure out what type of ingredient you may be missing in your moisturizing routine. Definitely worth a bit of research!
Long Term Skin Barrier Support
Once you’ve got your three core components sorted out, there are a group of ingredients we think fit perfectly into moisturizers, helping to support your skin barrier function in the long run. You can also checkout our blog post on comprehensive skin barrier care for more info. Think of these as the cherry on top!
Irritated, inflamed skin can cause an unfortunate cascade of compromised skin issues. Lower barrier function leads to the inability to keep moisture in and irritants out, which leads to more irritation. Having a solid dose of soothing ingredients can help protect skin from getting trapped in this vicious cycle.
Look for plant extracts like madecassoside (derived from centella asiatica), bisabolol (from German chamomile), rosemary, licorice root etc.
Ceramides and skin-identical lipids:
Ceramides are important components of your skin barrier, and occur naturally. As you age, your ceramide level drops. And though it’s unlikely that the ceramides present in your skin cream simply absorb and replenish those missing natural ceramides , there are studies that show topical ceramides, fatty acids, and cholesterol can improve skin barrier function in the long run.
Welp! We can write a novel about this ingredient. (Dedicated niacinamide blog post here!) Just 2% niacinamide can help promote a healthy skin barrier, and even help oily skin types with oil control.
Ah, the trendy, new(ish) skin topic that is all the rage right now. There is actually a lot of science behind a healthy microbiome’s role in skincare. Take any super fancy claims you hear with a grain of salt, and know that most microbiome-centric ingredients are really there to promote a healthy skin barrier.
While these aren’t necessary to keep skin hydrated, they’re definitely a major bonus in a moisturizer. They can be especially helpful for those who have sensitive skin, dry skin, and skin that is undergoing heavy treatments (like
high-level peels, strong acne regimens, etc.).
There are three components to a moisturizer: humectants, emollients, and occlusives. Everyone’s moisturizing needs can differ. What matters is finding the right balance of these three components.
Added ingredients can promote a healthy skin barrier in the long term, like soothing ingredients, ceramides, and niacinamide.
More on this subject can be found in our new book, Skincare Decoded.
For those of you shopping for your next moisturizer, we recently ran a moisturizer community poll. Check out our “shop my shelf” for the list of favorites and our chemist notes on these products.