Moisturizers: The Difference Between Humectants, Occlusives, and Emollients
Good skin health is what we all strive for. To get there, we pay close attention to our skin care routine to help us achieve proper tone, texture, and moisture. For the latter, we rely on an arsenal of moisturizers. But did you know that moisturizers are classified in different groups, namely emollients, humectants and occlusives? It’s true! “Moisturizer is simply a generic term which 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 differences between humectants, occlusives and emollients.
WHY IT’S IMPORTANT TO MOISTURIZE YOUR SKIN
Your skin care arsenal may be stocked with moisturizers—and let’s face it: there’s no shortage of formulas out there to choose from—but it’s important to understand why this step is so crucial to a routine. It all 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,” Dr. Schmid explains. 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. We break down the meaning of all three, below.
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.
WHAT ARE HUMECTANTS?
Does your skin care routine feature products formulated with drying ingredients like soaps or alcohol? Look to humectants for help, since 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, and can be found in some of our favorite SkinCeuticals products. Here are two that Dr. Schmid recommends:
SkinCeuticals Metacell Renewal B3: Formulated with humectants such as glycerin and niacinamide, The Metacell Renewal B3 is a comprehensive daily emulsion that helps correct early signs of photoaging. The formula can help enhance surface cellular turnover while visibly reducing the appearance of fine lines.
SkinCeuticals Hydrating B5 Gel: Powered by hyaluronic acid and vitamin B5, this hydrating gel helps maximize the benefits of your daily moisturizer. As a result, it leaves the skin feeling soft and supple. Dr. Schmid names it one of his favorite topical hyaluronic acid moisturizers.
WHAT ARE EMMOLLIENTS?
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.
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. “When the barrier is intact, the skin cells turn over more efficiently, moisture is retained, and skin is less easily sensitized,” Dr. Schmid says. “Triple Lipid Restore 2:4:2 contains the skin’s natural ratio of ceramides, cholesterol, and fatty acids.” It can help improve the appearance of wrinkles and firmness impacted by advanced glycation end-products.
WHAT ARE OCCLUSIVES?
According to Dr. Schmid, occlusive 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.
SkinCeuticals Hydra Balm: If you have tramautized or severely dry skin, look to this hydrating occlusive ointment. Apply liberally to compromised or severely dehydrated areas as needed.