Decoding Moisturizer Ingredients

Finding your holy grail moisturizer is probably one of the most defining aha moments in your skincare journey. Many don’t realize that simple healthy, moisturized skin is a fundamental part in age prevention. The downside to this category is that there is an unbelievable amount of moisturizing products out on the market, each promising more dewy, soft, plumpy skin than the next, and not all live up to their marketing claims. It really gets confusing fast!

The reality is that there just isn’t one best moisturizer for your face. Each of us has incredibly unique skin with their own skin quirks and no one’s skin condition fits neatly in these ‘dry’ ‘oily’ ‘combination' skintype buckets either.. However, with some ingredient knowledge, you can actually do a quick skim of the moisturizer’s ingredient lists to help pick out better fitting moisturizers from an ocean of products.

Core Components to a Moisturizer: The Moist Makers

As chemists, we categorize moisturizing ingredients into 3 core components that make up a well-rounded moisturizer: humectants, emollients, and occlusives. It’s simply a matter of finding the right balance of these three for your skin type.

  • Humectants: These are your water-based ingredients that grab and hold on to moisture. Some chemist favorite humectants are: glycerin, urea, glycols, hyaluronic acid, etc. 
  • Emollients: Emollients serve to soften and smooth your skin texture as well as add a little instant glow. These are usually your lightweight plant oils, squalane, and esters. 
  • Occlusives: water naturally evaporates from skin in a process called TEWL (transepidermal water loss). If your skin barrier is not 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 by forming a water-repelling barrier.  Common occlusives used in skincare are petrolatum, lanolin, waxes and butters.

These all probably sound pretty foreign. So the best way to understand this concept is by running through a couple scenarios for practice! The goal here is to be able to pick out a few key ingredients to help you decide if you’re: 1. Getting the right amount of hydration and 2. Getting a well rounded moisturizer.

Dry Skin

The most helpful thing for dry skin is to identify the key occlusive(s) in a moisturizer. We recommend choosing a moisturizer that contains gold standard occlusive petrolatum. Other great occlusives to look for are shea butter and beeswax.

Let’s compare two products here: Sephora’s own Firming Sleep Cream and First Aid Beauty’s Firming Sleeping Cream, both products in the “sleeping cream” category - which from what we deciphered is supposed to provide extra hydration so you wake up with a bouncy, juicy, ultra hydrated face. Really this is just a marketing move, ultimately think of these as heavier moisturizers, perfect for dry skin types... right???

Ok back to the comparison...A quick glance at the ingredient list you’ll see that shea butter is listed as the 4th ingredient in the FAB cream, while the Sephora cream doesn’t have any true occlusives and instead just has lighter oils. So with just one ingredient, we can guess that drier skin types should have better luck with the FAB sleep cream.

Oily Skin

Same logic as dry skin, it’s good to first scan the ingredient list for occlusives. This time because you may want to avoid the heavier petrolatum, butters and waxes. Instead, try to look for gel creams with ingredients like dimethicone. It’s also a great idea to look for products with humectants (glycerin, glycols) high up on the list or anything labeled as a “gel cream”. As an example, take a look at Neutrogena Hydroboost gel cream moisturizer.

The first 3 ingredients in this product are: water, dimethicone, and glycerin. Without going deeper into the list, this already hints at a lighter more water-based texture.

You might also think that oily skin people shouldn’t try to add more oil to your routine. But it’s actually a myth. Pure water gel formulas are often not hydrating enough and oily skin types can still benefit from lighter emollients to keep skin balanced and nourished. To avoid heavier textures, try staying away from oils like sesame, jojoba, or pure coconut oil and instead find lighter emollients like squalane.

Long Term Skin Barrier Support

Once you’ve got your 3 core components in check, there are a group of ingredients we think fit perfectly in your moisturizer to help support your skin barrier function for the long run. The cherry on top!

  • Soothers: Irritated, inflamed skin is an unfortunate cascade of compromised skin → lower barrier function → dryness & irritants getting in → more irritation. Having a solid dose of soothing ingredients can help protect skin from getting trapped in this vicious cycle. 
  • Ceramides and skin-identical lipids: though it’s unlikely that ceramides in your skin cream gets “added in” your skin barrier just like that, there are studies that show topical ceramides, fatty acids, and cholesterol can improve skin barrier function in the long run.
  • Niacinamide: Welp! We can write a novel about this ingredient. Dedicated niacinamide blog post coming soon… But all in all just 2% niacinamide can help promote a healthy skin barrier and even help oily skin types with oil control.
  • Microbiome: 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 super fancy claims with a grain of salt, and know that most microbiome-centric ingredients are really there to just promote a healthy skin barrier.

While these aren’t necessary to keeping skin hydrated, they are definitely a major bonus to a moisturizer. These can be especially helpful for those that have more sensitive skin, dry skin, and skin undergoing heavy treatments (high level peels, strong acne regimens, etc.).

Footnote: For those that are 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.


  • There are three components to a moisturizer: humectants, emollients, and occlusives
  • Everyone’s moisturizing needs can differ, it’s a matter of finding the right balance of these three components
  • There are ingredients that can promote a long term healthy skin barrier: soothers, ceramides, and niacinamide. 
  • More on this subject can be found in our new book Skincare Decoded

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