Skin Health Skin Care & Cleansing Products Print Understanding Moisturizer Ingredients By Heather Brannon, MD Updated June 21, 2018 More in Skin Health Skin Care & Cleansing Products Anti-Aging Skin Care Hair & Scalp Care Acne Psoriasis Eczema & Dermatitis Fungal, Bacterial & Viral Infections More Skin Conditions Cleansing and moisturizing are the key components to maintaining healthy, youthful skin. Cleansing removes dirt, grime, and dead skin cells, but cleansers also have a harmful effect on the skin by drying it out. Moisturizers not only increase the skin's water content, but they also protect the skin and encourage an orderly desquamation (shedding) process that makes the skin appear more smooth. The number of moisturizers on the market is astounding and most claim to have properties that no other moisturizer has. In this article, we will cover the key ingredients in moisturizers - humectants, occlusives, emollients, and miscellaneous ingredients - and discuss their effects on the skin. Imagine being able to read and understand a moisturizer ingredient label. Grab your moisturizer bottles, jars, and tubes and we'll get started. 1 Moisturizer Ingredients - Humectants Humectants attract water from the dermis into the epidermis, increasing the water content in the epidermis. When humidity is higher than 70 percent, humectants can also attract water from the atmosphere into the epidermis. Humectants can be thought of as the cosmetic equivalents of Natural Moisturizing Factor (NMF). The terms in bold are the most commonly used humectants, and the starred ingredients are the most effective. Recent studies have shown that glycerin helps degrade the corneodesmosome that hold skin cells together. The end effect of this degradation is more consistent desquamation (shedding of the outer layer of skin) and ultimately smoother-looking skin. 2 Moisturizer Ingredients - Occlusives Occlusives increase the water content of the skin by slowing the evaporation of water from the surface of the skin. These ingredients are often greasy and are most effective when applied to damp skin. Mineral oil is often used because of its favorable texture, but it is not as effective at preventing evaporation of water as many other occlusives. Lanolin is expensive and potentially irritating. Silicone derivatives (dimethicone and Cyclomethicone) are not greasy but have a limited moisturizing effect. They are often added to petroleum to make it feel less "greasy." 3 Moisturizer Ingredients - Emollients Emollients are ingredients that remain in the stratum corneum to act as lubricants. They help maintain the soft, smooth, and pliable appearance of the skin. Emollients are often thought of as "filling in the crevices" between corneocytes that are in the process of desquamation (shedding). The type of emollient used in a moisturizer plays a key role in its "skin slip," which is the smooth feeling imparted to the skin after application. 4 Moisturizer Ingredients - Miscellaneous These ingredients are sometimes added to moisturizers to create a special effect on the skin such as enhancing the appearance of dry or damaged skin. Chemicals that slow oxidation by reacting with free radicals include tocopherols and ascorbic acid. Citric acid, tartaric acid, and EDTA do not have strong antioxidating properties but enhance the antioxidant effects of other ingredients. Was this page helpful? Thanks for your feedback! Sign up for our Health Tip of the Day newsletter, and receive daily tips that will help you live your healthiest life. Email Address Sign Up There was an error. Please try again. Thank you, , for signing up. What are your concerns? Other Inaccurate Hard to Understand Submit Article Sources Del Rosso, James. "Cosmeceutical Moisturizers." Procedures in Cosmetic Dermatology - Cosmeceuticals. Ed. Zoe Diana Draelos. Elsevier, 2005. 99-102. Fluhr, Joachim, et al. "Clinical Effects of Emollients on Skin." Skin Moisturization. Ed. James J. Leyden and Anthony V. Rawlings. New York: Marcel Dekker, 2002. 222-243. Johnson, Anthony. "The Skin Moisturizer Marketplace." Skin Moisturization. Ed. James J. Leyden and Anthony V. Rawlings. New York: Marcel Dekker, 2002. 7-16. Loden, Marie. "Moisturizers." Cosmeceuticals and Active Cosmetics - Drugs Versus Cosmetics, 2nd Edition. Ed. Peter Elsner and Howard Maibach. Boca Raton: Taylor & Francis Group, 2005. Rawlings, Anthony, Canestrari, David, and Dobkowski, Brian. "Moisturizer technology versus clinical performance." Dermatologic Therapy Vol 17. 2004: 49-56. Rawlings, Anthony, et al. "Humectants." Skin Moisturization. Ed. James J. Leyden and Anthony V. Rawlings. New York: Marcel Dekker, 2002. 248-257.