A good skincare regimen is vitally important, but for people with sensitive, eczema-prone skin it’s even more critical–and an essential part of any skincare regimen is an appropriate moisturizer. Many skincare experts agree that most people should start moisturizing around age 12; as important as moisturizers are, however, choosing one can feel like diving into a jumble of esoteric verbiage.
All moisturizers are not created equal, and skincare companies are eager to tell you why their moisturizer is the best. Scientific jargon is enlisted to give their claims a whiff of credibility, often without explaining the importance of the terms used. How, then, is a consumer to decide which moisturizer is right for them?
The first step towards that answer is not found in more marketing verbiage, but in your skin itself. Your skin might tend towards dryness, oiliness, or have a combination of dry areas and oily areas. Your skin might be sensitive. Pre-teens, teenagers, twenty-somethings, perimenopausal people, and people over age 60 will all have different needs to address.
As complicated as this seems, there are some important universals to look for regardless of skin type, age, or lifestyle. You might consider it this way; all skin has some basic needs that need to be met. What differs is the delivery of those needs.
How Do Moisturizers Work?
The role of moisturizer is multi-faceted; it must hydrate skin, but it also must allow the skin to maintain that hydration. The constituents of a moisturizer should work on both those fronts.
There are a few different kinds of substances you’ll find in moisturizers, each with their own role to play: occlusives, which sit on the outermost layer of skin and serve to keep moisture locked in; emollients, which are lighter than occlusives and are meant to fill in around and sometimes penetrate the skin cells; humectants, which draw moisture to the skin; and finally, prebiotics, which foster a healthy microbiome for your skin to prevent the loss of moisture that arises from an unbalanced microbiome.
Some chemicals play multiple roles at once. Your skin’s unique needs will determine which kinds of occlusives, emollients, and humectants are best for you. A quick run-down of these agents can help you better understand the labels as you decide which formulation most closely meets your needs.
For years, if you said the word “moisturizer,” most people would think first of occlusives–vegetable oils and/or animal fat spread on the skin to either protect it from harsh conditions or to soften it. In ancient Greece, for example, olive oil was widely used. More recently, your grandmother or great-grandmother might have used “cold cream” nightly. More recently still, the practice of “slugging” enlists occlusives.
Occlusives are fats that sit on the skin’s outermost layer, the stratum corneum. They prevent water from evaporating from the skin. Some common occlusives found in moisturizers are dimethicone, petrolatum, mineral oil, squalane, cholesterol, and beeswax. Glycerin (an all-around moisturizing MVP) also has occlusive properties.
Moisturizers high in occlusives are good for people with skin that dries easily. Typically, these moisturizers will have a creamier consistency than others. Excessively dry skin often requires a moisturizer with a high petrolatum content, with petrolatum listed as one of the first ingredients. People with oilier skin might find that this causes or aggravates acne.
Slugging, an old skin-care trend that recently gained popularity on TikTok, relies upon an occlusive agent to seal in moisture as a last step in a nightly skincare routine. The occlusive is spread over skin that has been cleansed and moisturized, then left on overnight to be removed with cleanser upon waking. Petroleum jelly is a popular slugging agent; people with sensitive skin or acne-prone skin usually get better results with a therapeutic moisturizing ointment such as CeraVe Healing Ointment.
Like occlusives, emollients are typically lipids (oils, fats, or waxes). Some emollients, in fact, also have occlusive properties. However, the primary purpose of emollients in moisturizer formulations is to soften the skin (its root word literally means “to soften”), and this is accomplished when the skin absorbs the emollients. Some of them fill in spaces between skin cells and help retain moisture. Some make skin cell membranes more penetrable for hygroscopic (water-attracting) molecules.
Ceramides are lipids that occur naturally in our skin. They are important in maintaining barrier function, which is important for defending the skin against outside irritants. In moisturizers, they are added to give a boost to the skin where the barrier function is compromised, which helps even out the skin and make it softer.
From age 25 onwards, we produce fewer ceramides naturally, and skin can become dry as a result. This also happens with atopic dermatitis. In these cases, a moisturizer high in ceramides, such as CeraVe Moisturizing Cream, is a must. Everyone can benefit from ceramides, though; a 2021 study found that ceramides seem to give the skin a power-up against harmful UV rays in addition to softening the skin.
Ceramides are not the only emollients. Glycerin, mentioned with the occlusives above, is also an emollient. A moisturizer that lists glycerin among its first ingredients is more likely to help you soften your skin and protect it from drying. Glycerin is also well-tolerated by sensitive skin. Moisturizers formulated with both glycerin and ceramides improve skin’s softness, luminosity, and elasticity.
Oats contain several emollients that are used in products for sensitive or inflamed skin. These emollients can be found in Aveeno moisturizers, which are highly recommended by dermatologists.
Those prone to acne might be tempted to forego moisturizers, but this is not advisable. Instead, they should look for a moisturizer higher in emollient agents and lower in occlusives. Moisturizers made with oat products, such as Aveeno, can help calm acne outbreaks and relieve any discomfort they cause without clogging the pores.
Humectants are ingredients that draw water from the environment into the skin’s upper layer. They have become more and more prominent in anti-aging creams and serums in recent years.
Hyaluronic acid is one example of a humectant. The word “acid” often gives consumers a start–but fear not. Hyaluronic acid is a gentle and effective ingredient. While the best results come from consistent use, many people find that their skin begins to benefit from it immediately. This is one reason that hyaluronic acid is used so frequently in anti-aging products.
By now, you can probably guess the next humectant we’ll discuss–glycerin. Glycerin provides occlusive, emollient, and humectant properties. It’s the hardest-working agent in skincare (it confers yet another benefit to the skin, which we’ll discuss shortly).
Humectants alone are inadequate as moisturizers. They are best used in concert with emollients and/or occlusives. Even trusty old glycerin should be used with other emollients or occlusives. Once again, CeraVe Moisturizing Cream comes out ahead of the pack with not one, but two humectants in its ingredient list, along with its highly effective emollients.
You might think I mistyped “probiotics,” which has become something of a catchphrase in the health and beauty industry. Probiotics are live organisms added to products to multiply beneficial bacteria in the microbiome; they’re usually used for the gut. More recently, as the importance of the microbiome has become clearer, cosmetics manufacturers have begun to advertise their use of probiotics–which is usually inaccurate, as bacteria cannot survive in the conditions needed to make a safe skincare product.
By contrast, prebiotics are not live organisms. Instead, they are agents that foster conditions in which a healthy microbiome can flourish. A healthy skin microbiome must have adequate moisture. Glycerin is a marvelous prebiotic because of the properties we listed above (are you surprised?).
While some ingredients might kill off beneficial bacteria (this happens often with heavier occlusives), glycerin does not. The importance of this humble giant is often overlooked or understated. While it cannot carry the day on its own, it is an important ingredient in most moisturizers for sensitive or damaged skin–not only because it improves barrier function or softness, but because it promotes a balanced microbiome.
Putting It All Together
Well-hydrated skin looks and feels better, and it does not age as rapidly as drier skin. Armed with some essential insights into the ingredients of good moisturizers, you can begin to make a more educated choice about your skincare. In addition to the agents discussed above, here are some other ingredients you might want to consider:
- Vitamin C, which brightens the skin, confers greater UV protection, and can reduce hyperpigmentation, is popular with anti-aging moisturizers;
- Niacinamides, which have brilliant anti-aging properties by improving skin tone and brown spots.
- Retinol, which can help with acne and can also diminish the appearance of fine lines.
Extremely dry skin will likely need more occlusive benefits. Those with oilier skin, however, should usually avoid these heavier products in favor of emollient-rich formulas. All skin benefits from humectants and prebiotics.
A final consideration to make is the product’s reputation with dermatologists. A dermatologist’s approval means that there is evidence of the product’s safety and viability. The products mentioned in this article have been recommended by Dr. Harlan and other dermatologists.
- Zula Elwood