Doesn’t it seem like there are way too many different types of moisturizers out there?
If you’re trying to put together a skincare routine but don’t know what kind to use then you’re at the right place.
In this post we’ll cover the various ingredients commonly found in moisturizers. They can be classified in different ways but they basically fall into one of four categories.
They are the following:
Once you know how each one works, you’ll be better equipped to choose the right product for your needs.
Conversely, they can also be grouped based on their chemical composition, intended body part for use, intended skin type for use, whether they’re for an AM or PM routine, and so on. We’ll explain the differences between these types too.
The important thing to remember is that everyone’s skin is different. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution here. Even though all moisturizers have the same function, namely to create a barrier that protects the outermost layer of skin, the stratum corneum, which is already made of about 30% water. This is why they’re so useful for dry skin and conditions like eczema (atopic dermatitis). They improve the appearance of your skin by helping it retain water.
Now let’s explore how each kind is different.
Table of Contents
Humectants are ingredients capable of absorbing moisture from the air and drawing them up from the lower layers of your skin to the outermost layers — the epidermis and stratum corneum.
For this reason they’re potent skin hydrators because their chemical composition allows them to easily attract and bind water molecules to themselves.
That’s also why they work particularly well in humid climates where they have a steady supply of moisture in the air to utilize.
An important caveat to remember is IF your skin’s natural moisture barrier is compromised, meaning you likely have chronically dehydrated skin, these can accelerate moisture loss from the dermis (one of the lower layer of your skin) because once the water reaches the epidermis it evaporates into the air. In other words these ingredients becomes counterproductive!
That’s why humectants are commonly paired with occlusives (another class of moisturizers we’ll cover further below) which prevent this from happening. Store-bought moisturizers are already formulated taking this into account but just keep it in mind if using single ingredient products.
Overall, these work well for all skin types including sensitive skin but are particularly effective for those with dry skin.
Examples of Humectants
- Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs)
- Glycerin / Glycerol
- Hyaluronic Acid
- Lactic Acid
- Propylene Glycol
The most commonly used humectant is glycerin (aka glycerol). You’ll find it in the majority of commercial moisturizers and even other skincare products.
We also highly recommend reading our in-depth guide on hyaluronic acid, a powerful humectant ingredient capable of holding 1000 times its weight in water! Check it out here.
Emollients are ingredients that improve the texture and appearance of your skin by filling out its tiny crevices making it softer and smoother.
They are derived from plants and minerals that contain lipids (aka fatty acids) which already naturally help form the structure of your skin.
A subclass of emollients are those sometimes called ‘rejuvenators’ which provide essential skin proteins like collagen, elastin, and keratin. Due to the size of these proteins they rarely ever penetrate into the deeper layers of the skin but are also able to fill the spaces of the uppermost layer improving skin elasticity.
Emollients and rejuvenators are best suited for dry, dehydrated, and/or mature skin. If you’re interested in making your skin appear younger by reducing the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, or crow’s feet then these are for you.
Examples of Emollients and Rejuvenators
- Cocoa Butter
- Colloidal oatmeal
- Isopropyl palmitate
- Linoleic acid
- Oleic Acid
- Shea Butter
- Stearic Acid
If you’re familiar with the specifics of the OCM (oil cleansing method) some of these like oleic and linoleic acid might sound familiar. Read our guide to learn more about these essential fatty acids and the benefits they provide.
Occlusives create a protective seal over your skin preventing moisture loss. They are the ‘heaviest’ of moisturizers and will feel greasy when applied.
A common complaint with this type is essentially that they’re too effective. They trap water underneath the barrier they create but also grime, grease, and anything else that’s on your face. This means they can trigger breakouts in some people by clogging pores. The way to get around that is to always cleanse beforehand to make sure you’re applying to a clean slate.
For the same reason it’s also a good idea to dampen your skin so there’s actually water it can seal underneath. Like we mentioned earlier, using a humectant that attracts water and then sealing it with an occlusive will help prevent transepidermal water loss. As you might imagine this comes in handy if the climate is of low humidity.
There’s also been research that shows occlusives like petrolatum are just as effective at treating mild symptoms of eczema than more expensive prescription creams. Most can also double as emollients sharing properties of both types.
Overall they can be used for all skin types but are particularly effective for dehydrated skin serving as an artificial moisture barrier until the skin is able to repair itself.
Examples of Occlusives
- Avocado Oil
- Carnauba Wax
- Hazelnut Oil
- Mineral Oil (ex. petrolatum)
- Olive Oil
- Silicones (ex. dimethicone)
Petrolatum (sometimes known by the generic name mineral oil) is the most common occlusive found in skincare products. To learn more about mineral oil check this article out.
The second most common is dimethicone which is a silicone ingredient also commonly found in hair products. Dimethicone is non-comedogenic and often found in oil-free moisturizers.
For more on dehydrated skin, see this article.
Ceramides are not technically moisturizing ingredients but they’re very similar and are often included within formulations. You can think of them as the family of lipid molecules acting as the “glue” holding the structure of your skin together. They make up about 50% of your skin’s natural moisture barrier and also help regulate cellular activity.
If you have eczema it’s likely your skin possesses lower levels of ceramides than it’s supposed to. They’re often added into moisturizers to help treatment for this reason. They’re also oil-soluble due to being lipids which makes it easy to do so. That’s one of the reasons they’re so common.
Contrary to popular belief, there hasn’t been much evidence pointing to them as anti-aging ingredients in the strict sense of the term but rather a hydrating ingredient helping it retain moisture. This often produces the same effect but they don’t provide antioxidant or collagen benefits.
Overall, ceramides are best used for sensitive or damaged skin but again, ANY skin type can benefit.
Examples of Ceramides
Usually on product labels they’ll be labeled as simply “ceramides” and sometimes with a number between 1 and 9 following it to signify which of the 9 types it contains.
Gels vs. Lotions vs. Creams vs. Ointments
Now let’s cover the difference between these four classes of moisturizers.
Remember that a product can be any one of these four in addition to the four we already discussed. In other words, you can have a lotion that is also an occlusive or a gel that’s also a humectant (and maybe another type mixed in too).
All of these products are mixtures of lipids (fat) and water.
- Gels usually use a mixture of ingredients like water, alcohol, and a liquid lipid base to dilute the active ingredients of the moisturizer. They feel cool on the skin because the base evaporates quickly after application. Typically, gels are the lightest and least greasy-feeling of all moisturizers
- Lotions are a little more greasy than gels but still feel relatively light and usually absorb quickly. The ratio of water to lipids is higher and they will need to be applied more frequently to maintain proper skin hydration. Lotions are more commonly used on the body than face but both types exist.
- Creams will feel heavier than both gels and lotions. But that’s precisely the reason they’re better at moisturizing and protecting the skin in most cases. Creams are made of water and an oil emulsion. That’s often what gives them the sticky and greasy feeling.
- Ointments are the thickest preparations of all and have the highest concentration of oils and lipids compared to water. This makes them the stickiest overall. A common example of an ointment is petroleum jelly otherwise known as Vaseline, which is 100% lipid.
Water-based moisturizers (which contain smaller amounts of oil dissolved in water) are lighter and non-greasy, but don’t last as long as oil-based moisturizers. You’ll need to find a balance between protection and duration (preferably one that has both!)
So overall, the “heavier” a moisturizer the better it will be at preventing water loss. But they can also clog pores if they use the wrong ingredients and trap dirt, oil, bacteria which can cause breakouts. A non-comedogenic moisturizer is key if acne is a problem for you.
For Specific Skin Types
Ever seen a moisturizer labeled for a specific skin type and wondered how it’s any different than a regular old moisturizer?
The ideal amount of moisturizer you use or how often you apply it depends on your skin type profile. But overall, every skin type (even oily types) can benefit from some type of moisturizer.
For oily skin, moisturizers are usually designed to use minimal amounts of oil in their ingredients. As you might imagine, this is done to prevent clogged pores.
On the other hand, moisturizers for dry skin usually contain oil-based ingredients with a high concentration of lipids and ceramides like petrolatum. Double for lotions designed to treat dermatitis.
Moisturizers for sensitive skin should avoid common irritants like fragrances, dyes, lanolin and other common offenders of irritation.
You should also keep in mind the environment and seasonal changes to the weather. For example, you’ll probably moisturize more often in the winter or dry climates compared to the summer or humid climates.
Body vs. Facial Moisturizers
Moisturizers for the body often come in the form of lotions or ointments because the skin is thicker and can tolerate them better.
But here’s the most important thing to remember:
It’s okay to use your facial moisturizer on your body BUT the reverse is usually not true. Body lotions designed for troublesome areas like the elbows or knees are oftentimes too heavy for regular use on the face. Most are not designed for use around the eyes or on thinner skin so you could be doing more harm than good.
Keep facial moisturizers on your face and body lotions on the body.
You’re also more likely to find SPF protection on facial moisturizers since ordinary sunscreens are more likely to be used on the body.
AM vs. PM Moisturizers
AM moisturizers are those designed specifically for your morning skincare routine while PM moisturizers are for your evening routine.
Why the difference?
AM moisturizers are more likely to offer UV protection since the sun is out during the day. No need for sun protection at night right? They also tend to feel “lighter” when applied and are less greasy. This helps when applying makeup. Meanwhile, night creams and PM moisturizers need to prevent water loss over the length of your sleep so they’re usually designed to last about eight hours.
It’s unlikely you’ll find a moisturizer explicitly labeled for AM or PM but if you’re looking for one to fill the role these are the most important differences.
We hope you learned a thing or two about moisturizers today! For more information about creating a basic skincare routine read this article next which will give you a broad overview of everything you need to know about skincare basics.