The Difference Between Humectants, Occlusives and Emollients
“Moisturizer is simply a generic term that encompasses an extensive array of topical creams, gels, lotions, emulsions and ointments,” says plastic surgeon, SkinCeuticals ambassador and Skincare.com consultant Dr. Peter Schmid. “These formulas may contain humectants, occlusives and/or emollients in their combination of ingredients.” In order to choose the best moisturizer for your skin, it’s important to understand the difference between them.
Why It’s Important to Moisturize Your Skin
The difference between emollients, humectants and occlusives boils down to the benefits. “Moisturizers make dry, tight skin feel better and plump up the surface skin cells to enhance the texture and glow of the skin,” Dr. Schmid says. “They hydrate the outer surface of the skin and help resolve dryness, flakiness, redness and itchiness.” Moisturizers also serve an important anti-aging purpose. “It is clinically proven that as we age, our skin loses natural moisturizing factors such as hyaluronic acid, and lipids like ceramides, cholesterol and fatty acids that keep our protective barrier intact.” By reintroducing these key moisturizing elements to your skin daily, you are helping to not only improve the appearance of your skin but also prevent damage as a result of a compromised skin barrier.
It’s clear to see why incorporating a moisturizer into your routine is so crucial but equally important is choosing the right formula. As Dr. Schmid explains, there is a key difference between moisturizers that solely hydrate the skin and those that can offer skin protection. Depending on your needs and concerns, you’ll want to choose a moisturizer formulated with humectants, occlusives and/or emollients.
Ahead, we break down the meaning of all three.
What Are Humectants?
Does your skin-care routine feature products formulated with drying ingredients like soaps or alcohol? Look to humectants for help becase they can counteract those drying effects by extracting water molecules from the air and pulling them into the skin’s surface. Keep in mind the term “humectant” isn’t typically plastered on product labels, which is why you should look for specific humectant ingredients. “Humectant ingredients you may see include amino acids (urea), sugar alcohols (glycerol and sorbitol), honey, molasses, egg white and yolk, aloe vera gel, ceramides, alpha hydroxy acids (lactic acid), glycerin, hyaluronic acid and others,” says Dr. Schmid. Glycerin and hyaluronic acid are two of the more commonly used humectants in skin care. Try the Vichy Aqualia Thermal Face Serum. This serum recharges dry, dehydrated skin with 48 hours of moisture. It’s formulated with hyaluronic acid, and Vichy’s mineral-rich thermal water to leave skin feeling supple. We also love the CeraVe Moisturizing Cream. The CeraVe barrier-reinforcing moisturizing cream addresses aggravated skin with a blend of hyaluronic acid and three essential ceramides. Apply liberally as often as needed to dry skin.
What Are Emollients?
Emollients come in the form of creams, gels, lotions and ointments and work to help the skin feel more comfortable and less itchy. “Emollients have a tendency to spread on the skin and increase the rate of skin barrier restoration,” Dr. Schmid says. “Lipid application is beneficial for aging skin where natural lipids have been depleted by makeup removers, astringents, soap, showering, environmental exposure, UV radiation and time.” According to Dr. Schmid, common emollients include lipids and oils, colloidal oatmeal, shea butter and isopropyl palmitate. Our recs? The SkinCeuticals Triple Lipid Restore 2:4:2. Consider this formula if you’re looking to help restore the skin’s natural lipid barrier that depletes with age. It can help improve the appearance of wrinkles and firmness. Another goodie is the La Roche-Posay Lipikar Baume AP+. This cream immediately soothes extra dry and eczema-prone skin. In addition to restoring your skin's protective barrier, it helps re-balance its microbiome to address irritation.
What Are Occlusives?
According to Dr. Schmid, occlusives serve as a physical barrier to help prevent water loss from the skin’s surface, while protecting the skin from external irritants. “The effect is retained skin moisture, reduced irritation and skin barrier restoration,” he says. Common occlusive agents include waxes (carnauba and beeswax), silicone, oils (olive and soybean), dimethicone, lanolin, mineral oil and white petrolatum. Occlusives often boast a thick, heavy consistency when used topically, making them an ideal pick for very dry skin. If you have traumatized or severely dry skin, look to the SkinCeuticals Hydra Balm. Apply liberally to compromised or severely dehydrated areas as needed. The Kiehl’s Ultra Facial Deep Moisture Balm is another nourishing facial moisturizer formulated for extremely dry skin. It contains Edelweiss Flower Extract, a plant known for its ability to strengthen the skin’s barrier to lock in hydration.