Understanding Moisturizer Ingredients

Weighing the Pros and Cons

A moisturizer is only as good as its ingredients. While some ingredients are extremely beneficial to the skin, locking in moisture and protecting the barrier function of the skin, others can be irritating, drying, or contribute to the development of acne.

Finding a good moisturizer not only increases the skin's water content but also encourages orderly desquamation (shedding of cells) that makes the skin appear smoother and younger-looking.

moisturizer
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There are numerous moisturizers on the market today, many of which make claims that may or may not be entirely accurate. Sifting through the claims can be difficult, but, by understanding what the various ingredients are and do, you can make a more informed choice as a consumer.

This article will cover the key ingredients in moisturizers—including humectants, occlusives, emollients, and topical antioxidants—and discuss not only their benefits but also their limitations and drawbacks.

1

Humectants

Humectants are substances used in moisturizers that draw water from the middle layer of skin, called the dermis, into the outer layer of skin, called the epidermis. This helps keeps the skin moist and plump. When the humidity is higher than 70%, humectants can also attract water from the atmosphere into the epidermis.

Humectants are the man-made equivalent of natural moisturizing factor (NMF), a substance naturally produced by the skin that keeps the outermost layer of cells (called the stratum corneum) moist.

There are several different humectants commonly used in commercial moisturizers:

  • Glycerin: Also known as glycol, this ingredient is most commonly derived from vegetable oils. Despite its effectiveness, glycerin can be quickly degraded by heat and humidity.
  • Hyaluronic acid: Also known as hyaluronan, this is a compound naturally produced in the body that can hydrate all skin types without being oily. Even so, hyaluronic acid can cause skin dryness in some people, particularly in drier climates.
  • Sorbitol: This is a sugar alcohol used as an artificial sweetener that also has a potent humectant and antibacterial properties. Sorbitol can also cause skin dryness in the same way as hyaluronic acid.
  • Urea: Urea is a component of NMF that is a powerful exfoliant and humectant. While effective, urea can cause irritation on sensitive skin types.
  • Alpha-hydroxy acids: This is a group of compounds derived from foods like citrus, sugar cane, and apples. In some people, particularly fair-skinned individuals, alpha-hydroxy acids can make the skin extra sensitive to sunlight.

Glycerin is by far the most commonly used humectant in moisturizers. In addition to its humectant effects, glycerin helps degrade the bonds between cells of the stratum corneum, allowing them to be shed more evenly. By doing so, the skin may have a smoother, more even texture.

2

Occlusives

Occlusives are a category of agents that increase the water content of the skin by slowing evaporation. These ingredients are often greasy and are most effective when applied to damp skin.

There are different occlusive used in moisturizers, each of which has its benefits and drawback:

  • Petroleum jelly: Also known as soft paraffin, petroleum jelly is very effective in keeping the skin moist by blocking exposure of the skin to air. With that said, it can feel and look greasy.
  • Mineral oil: Made from refined purified petroleum, mineral oil is often used because of its favorable texture, but it is not as effective at preventing evaporation as other occlusives.
  • Lanolin: This waxy substance is derived from sheep's wool, and, while effective, is expensive and can be irritating to the skin. Some people also experience allergic contact dermatitis.
  • Silicone derivatives: These man-made compounds (which include dimethicone and cyclomethicone) are not greasy but have a limited moisturizing effect. They are often added to petroleum jelly to make it feel less greasy.
3

Emollients

Emollients are agents that remain in the stratum corneum and function as lubricants, maintaining the soft, pliable appearance of the skin. Emollients are mainly made of oils and fatty compounds known as lipids.

Emollients may also "fill in the gaps" between cells that have been partially shed in the stratum corneum. This can give the skin a fuller, smoother texture.

Among the emollients commonly used in moisturizers are:

  • Isopropyl palmitate: This is a colorless and nearly odorless liquid made from palm oil and/or animal fats. While effective, isopropyl palmitate is quite thick and can block skin pores, increasing the risk of acne.
  • Stearic acid: This ingredient, derived from various animal and plant fats, is a major component of cocoa butter and shea butter. While generally considered safe, stearic acid can cause skin irritation or allergy in some.
  • Oleic acid: This is an ingredient derived from olive oil and other vegetable oils. While effective, the ongoing use of oleic acid can disrupt the skin barrier and cause skin irritation.
  • Linoleic acid: This is an ingredient derived from vegetable oils that is an essential building block for ceramides, one of the skin's main moisturizing elements. While gentle, it is less effective on acne-prone skin than oleic acid.

Some moisturizer ingredients, like lanolin and silicone derivatives, function both as an occlusive and an emollient.

4

Topical Antioxidants

Ingredients are sometimes added to moisturizers to reduce cell damage caused by oxidation. Oxidation is a process in which a chemical substance changes under the influence of oxygen, often with harmful effects.

Tocopherols derived from vitamin E and ascorbic acid (vitamin C) are two such ingredients that have antioxidant effects. They work by blocking the action of unstable atoms known as free radicals that damage cells at the molecular level, causing them to age prematurely. When used on the skin, these ingredients are sometimes said to have "anti-aging" properties

Citric acid, tartaric acid, and ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid (EDTA) do not have strong antioxidant properties but can enhance the antioxidant effects of other ingredients.

Topical antioxidants are generally well-tolerated, although some can cause irritation on different skin types. Tocopherols and ascorbic acid can also clog pores and make acne worse.

Summary

There are many different ingredients in moisturizers that can improve the quality, tone, and appearance of the skin. Each has its benefits, limitations, and drawbacks.

These include humectants that draw water from the middle layer of skin to the upper layer of skin. There are also occlusive and emollients that trap moisture on the skin in different ways. Some moisturizers also contain antioxidants that are thought to be "anti-aging."

A Word From Verywell

There is no perfect moisturizer for all people. Some may work well for some and not so well for others. Finding the right moisturizer can take time and, in the end, is a matter of personal choice.

With that said, if you have a skin condition like acne, psoriasis, or eczema, there may be some moisturizers than can cause more harm than good. To make an informed choice, speak with a skin specialist known as a dermatologist who can evaluate your skin and offer recommendations based on your skin type and condition.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is the most moisturizing ingredient for skin?

    Arguably the most effective ingredient in lotions is glycerin which keeps the skin soft by drawing moisture up from the inner layers of the skin. The moisture can then be trapped with ingredients called occlusives and emollients that slow water evaporation on the skin.

  • What ingredient should not be in lotion?

    Fragrances and perfumes have no real purpose in moisturizers and, for some people, can lead to skin irritation and respiratory allergies. Synthetic fragrances are also known to emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that contribute to, ozone contamination. To be safe, opt for fragrance-free moisturizers and lotions.

  • What is the most common ingredient in lotion?

    Lotions contain a plethora of ingredients like oils and emulsifiers that help hydrate and protect the skin. With that said, the single most common ingredient by weight is water, which not only delivers moisture to the skin but enables the absorption of active ingredients (such as humectants, occlusives, and emollients) into the skin.

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