Decoding Moisturizer Ingredients

Finding your holy grail moisturizer is probably one of the most defining a-ha moments in your skincare journey. Many don’t realize that healthy, moisturized skin is a fundamental part in skin aging prevention. The downside is that there are an unbelievable amount of moisturizing products out on the market, each promising skin that is softer, plumper, and more dewy than the next. It’s not surprising that not all live up to their marketing claims. It gets really confusing,
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 ingredients, you can do a quick skim of the moisturizer’s ingredient list and pick out something that works from an ocean of products.

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.

Core Components to a Moisturizer: The Moist Makers

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

● Humectants: These are water-based ingredients that grab and hold on to moisture. Some chemist favorites are glycerin, urea, gycols and hyaluronic acid.
● Emollients: Emollients serve to soften and smooth your skin texture, as well as add a little instant glow. These are usually lightweight plant oils (argan, jojoba oil), plant-derived oils (coconut alkanes, squalane),silicones (dimethicone), and esters (isononyl isonanoate).
● Occlusives: 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 and butters.

Practice Time!

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.

Scenario #1: Dry Skin
Identifying the key occlusive (or occlusives) in a moisturizer is the most helpful thing you can do if you have dry skin. We recommend choosing a product that contains the gold standard occlusive, petrolatum. Other great occlusives to look for are shea butter and beeswax.
Let’s compare two products here: Sephora’s Firming Sleep Cream, and First Aid Beauty’s Firming Sleeping Cream. Both products are in the “sleeping cream” category, which are supposed to provide extra hydration so you wake with bouncy, juicy, ultra-hydrated skin. This is honestly just a marketing move - ultimately, think of these as heavier moisturizers, perfect for dry skin types.A quick glance at the ingredient list will show you that shea butter is listed as the fourth ingredient in the First Aid Beauty cream. The Sephora cream doesn’t have any true occlusives, and instead contains lighter oils. From looking at just one ingredient, we can guess that drier skin types will likely have better luck with the First Aid Beauty sleep cream.
Scenario #2: Oily Skin
Using the same logic as above, we’re going to first scan the ingredient list for occlusives. For oily skin, you’ll 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 find products with humectants (glycerin, glycols) high up on the list, or anything labeled as a “gel cream”. Let’s take a look at Neutrogena’s Hydro Boost gel cream moisturizer.

The first three ingredients in this product are water, dimethicone, and glycerin. Without going deeper into the list, this already suggests a lighter, more water-based texture.
It may seem like people with oily skin shouldn’t be adding more oil to their routine, but this is 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, stay away from oils like sesame, jojoba, or pure coconut oil,and use lighter emollients like squalane.

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. Think of these as the cherry on top!
● Soothers: 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 Germanchamomile), 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.

● Niacinamide: 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.

● 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 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.

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