A Definitive Guide to Emollients, Humectants and Occlusives

August 01, 2022
Claire Rodgers
By: Claire Rodgers | skincare.com by L'Oréal
A Definitive Guide to Emollients, Humectants and Occlusives

Your skincare arsenal may be stocked with a multitude of moisturizers, but did you know that they can largely be classified into three different groups: emollients, humectants and occlusives?

“Moisturizer is simply a generic term that encompasses an extensive array of topical creams, gels, lotions, emulsions and ointments,” says Dr. Peter Schmid, a plastic surgeon, SkinCeuticals ambassador and Skincare.com consultant. “These formulas may contain humectants, occlusives or emollients in their combination of ingredients.”

In order to choose the best moisturizer for your skin and to treat dry skin effectively, it’s important to understand the difference between these terms. To help, we’re breaking down the difference between the three types of moisturizers, ahead.

Why It’s Important to Moisturize Your Skin

“Moisturizers make dry, tight skin feel better and plump up the surface skin cells to enhance the texture and glow of the skin,” says Dr. Schmid. “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,” he adds. 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 choosing the right formula is equally important.

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 or emollients. And the difference between emollients, humectants and occlusives boils down to the benefits.

What Are Humectants?

Does your skincare routine feature products formulated with drying ingredients like soaps or alcohol? If so, you should consider adding a humectant moisturizer to your routine.

Humectants can counteract the drying effects of soaps and alcohols 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 skincare. One of our favorite options is the Vichy Aqualia Thermal Hydrating 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 that addresses aggravated skin with a blend of hyaluronic acid and three essential ceramides. Another one of our hyaluronic acid-packed humectant product favorites is the SkinCeuticals H.A. Intensifier, a face serum designed to hydrate and plump the 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,” says Dr. Schmid. “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. We suggest trying the SkinCeuticals Triple Lipid Restore 2:4:2. The formula helps restore the skin’s natural lipid barrier that depletes with age and can improve the appearance of wrinkles and firmness. 

For a drugstore body-care option, try the La Roche-Posay Lipikar Baume Intense Repair Moisturizing Cream. This cream immediately soothes extra dry and eczema-prone skin.
la roche posay lipikar baume intense repair moisturizing cream

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 have 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.

Photo: Chaunte Vaughn

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