Know Your Moisturizer: The Key Ingredients That Support And Invigorate

"The Most Effective" is the most coveted phrase on every cream, lotion, and serum. Every brand is trying to convince a potential buyer about its highly potent and effective moisturizer. While we might be skeptical about "The Most Effective" moisturizer, we do rely on the brand's words. We also perform essential due diligence and read reviews hoping we are investing money in the right product. Unfortunately, since most of us are not estheticians, we do not know why certain ingredients are in, what they do, and how they interact with our skin.

To learn more and start making informed decisions, we need to dive into an exciting world of skin cells, skin structure, moisturizer's ingredients, and water's superpower.

How Does A Moisturizer Work?

We all hear how important it is to use moisturizers, lotions, and serums. The skin, especially the face, needs hydration and protection from harsh environmental conditions to prevent early aging, wrinkles, and discoloration.

The moisturizer has two essential jobs to do

  • (1) to supply moisture to the skin, and

  • (2) to seal the moisture in, so the water does not evaporate.

The two main ingredients that accomplish these tasks are water and fats. The water allows for immediate hydration and soothing. While the fats seal the moisture in, allowing for more extended deeper hydration. Without the fats, the water would quickly evaporate, leaving your skin dehydrated and strained.


Before we dive into more details about specific ingredients, we need to consider the skin structure.

I found a great article, Moisturizers: Do They Work, by Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Medical School, that provides a simple yet effective explanation.

It is essential to understand that skin consists of many layers, tightly packed and closely interconnected. "The outermost one is called the stratum corneum, which consists of cells called corneocytes and various lipids — fats — between them." Corneocytes are dead cells that are carefully layered and make up the outmost layer of the skin.

Even though corneocytes are dead cells, they provide vital function and are responsible for the skin's appearance. If we want our skin to be smooth, the stratum corneum needs to contain at least 10% moisture.

When the stratum corneum is dehydrated, the skin's appearance suffers greatly. Water plays an essential role in interacting with enzymes that control the skin's shedding process. A significant lack of water will create dry spots with white flakes (accumulated dead skin).

If you notice that you have dry white skin flakes on your face or body, it is a direct sign that you need to hydrate your skin.


Now that we know how water interacts with skin cells, we can learn about different ingredients.

I. Occlusives

It is one thing to have water in a cream, but it is another to prolong its stay in the skin. Occlusives are responsible for sealing the moisture by creating a thin barrier on top of the stratum corneum. The most common occlusives are petrolatum, cetyl alcohol, lanolin, lecithin, mineral oil, paraffin, and stearic acid.

Without the occlusives' help, no matter how much moisturizer you apply to your skin, the water will evaporate quickly, leaving your skin dry again.

Silicons are also occlusives and replace oils in a cream. Dimethicone and Cyclomethicone are commonly found in oil-free creams.

They are not all made equal, and some are better at their jobs than others. Petrolatum is the best at holding water, followed closely by lanolin, mineral oil, and silicones. (Moisturizers: Do They Work, by Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Medical School)

II. Humectants

Humectants play an essential role, and it is critical to understand their value. Humectants are responsible for pulling water from the air and deeper skin layers into the stratum corneum (top layer).

The idea of grabbing moisture from the air sounds simple and genius. Yet, it does not work when the air around is dry. If there is little or no moisture in the air, humectants pull more water from deep layers straining internal resources.

Common humectants are glycerin, honey, panthenol (or vitamin B5), sorbitol, and urea.

It is critical to remember that humectants MUST be used together with occlusives to ensure that the precious moisture does not evaporate. (Moisturizers: Do They Work, by Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Medical School)

III. Emollients

Emollients do not provide critical support but instead offer a cosmetic fix. When skin is dry, it cracks. The emollients fill up the cracks in the skin with fatty substances, called lipids. They smooth out the rough irritated skin making it soft to the touch. (Moisturizers: Do They Work, by Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Medical School)

IV. Vitamins

Vitamins are delicious additions to any moisturizer.

Well-known retinoic acid, which comes from the Vitamin A family, reduces fine lines and wrinkles. It is heavily advertised and featured in anti-wrinkle creams. Its close relative, retinyl palmitate, is less potent, and there is some debate about its effectiveness. The Harvard articles suggest the palmitate adds no real value to a cream.

Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) and E (tocopheryl acetate), antioxidants are often included in a formula because of possible benefits. However, there are some doubts about their effectiveness. Vitamin C becomes inactive once it interacts with light and oxygen. Vitamin E is "biologically inactive and probably functions mainly as a preservative." (Moisturizers: Do They Work, by Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Medical School)

Moisturizers: Do They Work, by Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Medical School

Water's Superpower

The main point to keep in mind is that the skin needs water to look its best. The best way to accomplish that is to find a good moisturizer that adds moisture to the skin and creates an invisible barrier.

If you are not sure how to pick your next cream, follow the link to my article, Is An Expensive High-End Cream Worth It?

There are additional tips that, in combination with your cream, will further improve your skin appearance.

  • Drink more water.

  • Avoid hot showers or baths. While it does feel good, the hot water dries up the skin shedding the skin of its natural fats and oils.

  • If you live in an arid climate, it might worth investing money into a humidifier. The added moisture might provide a necessary reprieve for dry skin.

  • As you know by now, the main goal is to lock up as much moisture as possible. Apply lotion or cream right after a shower or wash; it will allow for maximum hydration.

  • Experts also suggest dabbing our skin with a towel instead of rubbing it. The dabbing technique ensures that the skin retains more moisture. (The University Of Tennessee, Medical Center, The Importance of Moisturizing)

And never forget to apply sunscreen. It will protect your skin from sun exposure and skin damage. I would also recommend wearing a hat when you are outdoors to protect the skin further.


I know that finding the right moisturizer is not easy. It takes many years of trials and errors. But even if you are still searching, make sure you use a moisturizer that offers some protection and support to the lovely skin. Next time you pick up cream, flip it over and skim through the ingredients list. Having even a little bit of knowledge could make a massive difference in the decision outcome.


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