Creams, lotions, oils — moisturizers come in many shapes and forms. Maybe you’ve experimented with a variety of moisturizers and noticed that your skin seems to like some more than others — and there’s probably a good reason for this.
You see, the ingredients in certain types of moisturizers will be better suited to your skin than others. For example, one moisturizer might work well on oily skin, while another might make oil even worse. And if you have sensitive skin, certain moisturizers will be better for soothing your skin and reducing irritation.
Now, there are actually four types of moisturizers — occlusives, humectants, emollients, and ceramides — and each type of moisturizer works differently on the skin and provides unique benefits.
It’s helpful to know how each type of moisturizer works and interacts with the skin — that way, you can make an informed decision based on your specific skin needs.
A moisturizer that’s right for you will work to help balance the water and oil in your skin. Striking this balance will help to reduce the appearance of wrinkles, protect the your skin from damage, prevent blemishes and breakouts, and soothe any irritation or redness you might have.
Ready to get the most out of your hydration routine? Here’s a breakdown of these four types of moisturizers.
Of the four types of moisturizers, occlusives tend to be the heaviest and thickest in texture. Some of the most common occlusive agents are petroleum jelly, cocoa butter, jojoba oil, and lanolin. These hefty ingredients work by forming a film on top of the skin — a process known as “occluding.” This film physically traps the water in your skin and prevents it from escaping into the air — effectively sealing in moisture.1
Occlusives do a great job of locking in moisture, but they’re definitely on the heavy side. For this reason, occlusive-based moisturizers are ideal for extra dry or post-procedure skin. They can also be used as a spot treatment for dry areas on combination skin.
And because occlusives form a true barrier on the skin, they can be a bit heavy if you have oily acne-prone skin. In these cases, it’s best to combine occlusive agents with lighter ingredients like glycerin to avoid the potential for breakouts.
Humectants are agents that actually draw moisture to dry skin. Sort of magically magnetic, right?
Humectants draw this moisture from two places:
1. The dermis — a thick layer of skin underneath the surface of the skin.
2. The environment — specifically from any humidity that exists in the air.2
This moisture is then deposited on the top layer of the skin — the epidermis — as well as to the tough outer layer of the epidermis known as the stratum corneum. Since humectants often draw on the skin’s naturally-existing dermal water, they’re often combined with occlusives or emollients to prevent unnecessary dry skin.4
Many humectants also provide nourishing benefits to dry, damaged skin. For example, hyaluronic acid is a naturally-occurring humectant that helps diminish the visible signs of aging5. Aloe vera is another natural humectant known for its ability to help soothe redness, sensitivity, and irritation6.
Some humectants even do double duty — working as moisturizers and chemical exfoliants. So if you struggle from skin dullness, a humectant with alpha-hydroxy acids — like lactic acid or glycolic acid — can help keep your skin moisturized and bright.
Humectants are great for dry skin, but they also work well on oily skin, since they don’t clog pores or lead to potential breakouts.
Emollients are lipids (fats) and oils that “imitate” the lipids and oils found in your skin.
You see, your skin has a natural layer of lipids that cover the surface of the skin. These lipids are made up of elements like fatty acids, cholesterol, sebum, and ceramides. They work to fill in the space between your skin cells — almost like the mortar between bricks.7
These lipids also help strengthen your skin barrier. Also known as the “stratum corneum function,” the skin barrier prevents skin water loss and keeps out irritants that could lead to irritation.8
Unfortunately, the lipids in your skin decrease with age,9 as does your body’s natural sebum production.10 This lipid and oil decrease can impair your body’s skin barrier function and lead to dry skin that’s more prone to irritation.
Emollients work to replace those missing lipids and oils, filling in the gaps between your skin cells. The result is an increase in skin softness, flexibility, and smoothness.11
Some of the most common emollient agents include linoleic and oleic acids, as well as argan oil and shea butter.
Emollients are great for all types of skin, and they’re especially beneficial to dry skin, sensitive skin, and skin that’s prone to irritation.
Ceramides are one of the main lipids that are naturally produced by the body and exist on the surface of the skin. So ceramides are actually a type of emollient.
Ceramides are particularly important to the skin barrier — in fact, studies have shown that a lack of ceramides is strongly associated with dry, irritated skin and an impaired skin barrier function.12
Fortunately, you don’t have to rely solely on your own skin for ceramides — because they can also be synthetically or plant-derived. (In fact, synthetic and plant-derived ceramides are identical to the ceramides found in your skin!) They’re able to penetrate the skin easily to help seal in moisture. A good dose of topically-applied ceramides can really go a long way in helping strengthen your skin’s barrier.13
And the stronger your skin barrier — the better able your skin will be able to retain moisture. A strong skin barrier also means fewer potential pollutants and pathogens that might invade your skin and cause redness and irritation.14
(Plus, well-moisturized skin helps diminish the appearance of wrinkles.)
Like emollients, ceramides are ideal for sensitive skin that tends to be dry and prone to irritation. But since ceramides are natural moisturizers — they really work for all skin types.
Moisturizers: The More You Know
Oily skin? Dry Skin? Sensitive skin? There are moisturizers that will work specifically in your skin’s favor. And now that you know how each of these four moisturizing agents works, you can find a product that will give you lasting hydration, smooth skin, and a noticeable decrease in fine lines and wrinkles.