People usually think of a moisturizer as simply a moisturizer, but there’s a lot more to it than that. The truth is that moisturizers probably don’t do what most people think they do. Knowing what a moisturizer does and doesn’t do can help you choose products more wisely so you can improve your skin and not waste time or money in the process.

What Moisturizers Do & Don’t Do

First, it’s a common misconception that moisturizers moisturize the skin. That implies that they add moisture, which is not technically true.

Moisturizers are formulations made up of a range of different moisturizing ingredients. Emollients soften the skin and maintain hydration, humectants draw moisture into the skin, and occlusives prevent moisture loss. Basically all moisturizers are concerned with maintaining the moisture balance in your skin (as opposed to adding more moisture in – crucial difference.)

All that these moisturizing ingredients can do is prevent moisture loss. Even humectants, moisturizing ingredients said to draw moisture into the skin, do so by drawing it out from the deeper layers of the skin to the surface, rather than by drawing it in from the atmosphere or surrounding air.

That being said, moisturizers do often contain water. When moisturizing ingredients are combined together with water its called an emulsion, meaning simply a mix of two unmixable ingredients (like oil and water as a prime example.) If you vigorously shake the right ratio of oil and water together in a bottle, you have yourself a moisturizer. There are of course more sophisticated variants on the market, but ultimately the actual hydration that makes it into your skin depends a lot on the formulation itself.

So what does this mean for you? It means that you should be aware of the limitations of moisturizers and not rely solely on them to keep your skin hydrated. Whatever moisturizer you use, it’s better to prevent moisture loss in the first place rather than trying to add moisture back into the skin with an emulsion after it’s already dry.

Your skin is alive and like all organic systems it likes to keep homeostasis. There’s a reason we say that healthy skin is balanced skin. The skin prefers as few deviations as possible. I also tend to believe that as far as cleansing goes skin, like hair, doesn’t like being wet for too long. Ditto for hot water. Prolonged exposure to water and exposure to very hot water disturbs the oil balance of your skin. There’s even some evidence that hard water can damage your acid mantle, which I’ve heard is why micellar water was developed.

So, if you’re applying your moisturizer after your skin is already dry and tight then you might not actually be doing much to hydrate it. Poor hydration is a precursor to premature aging, dullness, laxity, and even acne if it’s bad enough to compromise your moisture barrier.

tips for proper hydration
  • Moisturize immediately when you get out of the shower or bath. Sometimes in the winter when it’s exceptionally cold and dry outside I take some almond oil into the bath with me and apply it while my skin is still wet (just be careful of the slippery tub.)
  • If your skin has already started to feel dry or tight before you’ve had a chance to moisturize it’s really important that you add that hydration back in before you seal it all up with a moisturizer. I like to combine my water based moisturizer with a few drops of water and a few drops of skin-friendly oil (currently using Evening Primrose Oil by The Ordinary.) You can also add a few drops of hyaluronic acid if you have it. This applies to both face and body.
  • Try to avoid prolonged exposure to water or prolonged exposure to hot water. I love a hot soak in the tub but I try to limit it to once a week because I notice the difference it makes in my skin on my legs, arms and stomach.
What Moisturizers Shouldn’t Do

Second, moisturizers like all skin care cosmetics do better when they only have one job. I’m a big believer in using dedicated products for achieving specific goals. Moisturizers should just moisturize, actives should just be actives, and cleansers should just cleanser. There are a few reasons I believe this, which I elaborate on below.

Concentration & pH in Skincare – A Brief and Un-Sciencey Explanation

The lower down on an ingredient list an ingredient appears, the less of it there is. Sometimes it seems like manufacturers are just stuffing buzzwords into the ingredients list of moisturizers. I’ve looked up so many random plant extracts to find no evidence or limited evidence of actual benefits. More importantly, even if there is some evidence does anyone know if they’re actually clinically effective at those concentrations? Seems like a big waste of money until I know for sure.

From my perspective it makes more financial sense to use products that state the form and concentration of whatever active they claim to contain. If I see “vitamin C” in the bottom half of an ingredient list on a moisturizer I know it’s practically just there for show. I know this because if vitamin C appears in a moisturizer it’s either a) a derivative, which might not be all that effective to begin with and certainly not in such a low concentration or b) it’s ascorbic acid, the most effective form of vitamin C which needs a low pH to work and would essentially be deactivated by the pH of a moisturizer, so it definitely won’t work.

In skincare everything has a preferred pH range, from the water you wash with to the cream you put on after and of course your own skin too. When you try to fit too many things into one product and make it work together, it doesn’t always work. A cleanser with actives is probably more about marketing than it is about skincare. I’m willing to invest in my skin but that doesn’t mean throwing money down the drain.

1 Comment

  1. Sarah Cummings Reply

    I’m currently traveling to a City with dry weather and I should keep my skin moisturized all the time. Thanks for sharing this post! I wish I knew this stuff sooner. ?

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