There is a lot of confusion out there in what to look for in a moisturiser. Not all moisturisers work in the same way or are ideal for all different environmental conditions. This is a very basic summary to try and explain the two main types of moisturiser: Emollients and Humectants…
Many people use the terms “moisturiser” and “emollient” interchangeably, though typically an emollient describes a particular ingredient inside a finished moisturiser.
Emollients are used to soften and smooth the scales of the outer layer of skin (stratum corneum). They can be useful in helping reduce rough, flaky skin. They are also occlusive agents: substances that provide a layer of protection to help prevent moisture evaporation from the skin, aka transepidermal water loss (TEWL).
A few examples of emollients are vegetable oils (grape seed, sesame seed, jojoba, etc.), butters (cocoa butter, shea butter), alcohols (stearyl alcohol, cetyl alcohol), silicones (dimethicone, cyclomethicone), and petrolatum derivatives (petroleum jelly, mineral oil).
Use an emollient directly onto damp skin after a shower to lock moisture in.
A humectant is a substance that actually bonds with water molecules to increase the water content in the skin itself. Humectants typically draw water into the skin from a humid environment, and they enhance water absorption from the outer layer of skin. However, a pure humectant moisturiser applied to the outside of the skin in a very dry environment will not be able to draw water from the atmosphere (as there is none) and so will suck water from the deeper layers of the skin instead. Whilst this may make the top layers of skin seem temporarily more hydrated, ultimately the deeper layers will be deprived of moisture and so the skin overall can become dryer.
Glycerin is one of the more typical and effective water binding agents found in skin care products. Other humectants include sugars (glucose, fructose, sucrose, honey), hyaluronic acid, proteins, amino acids, elastin, and collagen. Lactic acid, which is one of the alpha-hydroxyacids (AHAs), is known for its moisturising properties as well as its ability to exfoliate. Whilst most AHAs can increase the skin’s ability to trap water due to an increased production of natural hyaluronic acid, good old lactic acid’s additional humectant properties make it ideal for treating dry skin.
A bit more info on hyaluronic acid, which is being used more and more in skincare over the last few years for increasing hydration and reversing cell damage: Hyaluronic acid (HA) is a natural moisturising factor (NMF) found in the deeper skin layers. Referred to nature’s ‘super moisturiser’, this substance is able to hold 1000 times its weight in water and when applied topically it will attract moisture to the outermost layers of skin. This plumps those layers and temporarily reduces the appearance of wrinkles and fine lines. However, remember to be wary of using HA topically in very arid or air conditioned environments for the reasons stated above. In these situations you could consider injectable moisturiser directly to the dermis, with an emollient topically to prevent TEWL.
Many humectant’s also have emollient properties, while not all emollients are humectants. The best moisturisers have a combination of emollients and humectants.
Who needs moisturiser?
The requirements of our skin for moisture changes as we age. The skin naturally alters as we get older – the dermis, where collagen and elastin are predominant, gets thinner, whilst the stratum corneum, the thick horny outer layer of the epidermis, gets thicker. As a generalisation, by the time we are 70 years old, our skin only holds 20% of the moisture that it did when we were 20. Using regular and effective topical moisturisers from our early adulthood can reduce this moisture loss and slow down the natural ageing processes of the skin, as well as protecting the skin from additional environmental stresses.
Moisturisers and acne:
Patients with acne are often hesitant to use a moisturiser as they believe this will clog their pores, increase their oil production and make their acne worse. However, even acneic skins need moisture and will in fact function better and be less inflamed if they are well hydrated. A light, non greasy, non-comedogenic moisturiser is suitable in this situation – we usually recommend either Hydrogel or BrightEnlite from Synergie, or NMF by The Ordinary. Hydrogel is a lightweight noncomedogenic moisturising gel fortified with cosmeceutical botanicals and hyaluronic acid, great for those with oily skin and enlarged pores and for skin exposed to high levels of humidity.
Can my moisturiser do more?
Many modern moisturisers come mixed with other active ingredients to target different skin concerns. This is where it can get complicated. We would always recommend discussing your own skin’s requirements with a professional prior to spending money on skincare. If you are someone who has a bathroom cabinet crammed with costly products that promised miracles but don’t seem to deliver, then it may be worth a few minutes with a Dermal Therapist to design a tailored skincare regime.
My personal choices? As a middle-aged woman with naturally dry skin who spends most of my life either in air conditioning or outdoors in the harsh Perth climate, my personal choice for moisturiser is the lightweight but super hydrating and soothing MSM cream (MooGoo) twice a day. In the mornings, I follow this with UberZinc (Synergie Skin) – an antiageing moisturiser with 21% pure zinc oxide to give me effective UVA/B protection. As a body moisturiser I love Solarcare (Bernier pharmaceuticals) – a light but effective mixture of emollients and humectants with the addition of 5% niacinamide (vitamin B3) to fight environmental damage and reverse signs of ageing.
*we do stock all the above products in the clinic but they are also easily available either online or at local pharmacies in Australia*
Would you like personalised skincare advice? Make an appointment with one of our Dermal Therapists here