What's In Your Moisturizer?

by Kristina Brooks Editor

Whether it's either serums, gels, lotions or creams, all moisturizers have three common ingredients. It’s the balancing act between them that help determine the moisturizer that’s right for your skin type. Here’s more of these ingredients and how to use them for your next trip down the cosmetics aisle.


Humectans such as glycerin are used as the base for most moisturizers. They help hydrate by pulling water from the lower layers of skin, or dermis, up to the surface. In high humidity, humectants can pull moisture from the surrounding air. Although humectants work for all skin types, they work best for dry and oily skin types to soften skin without clogging pores.

Alpha-hydroxy-acids (AHAs) are double-duty humectants that shed dead skin cells. These are great for those with dry skin that may often flake or crack. Look for common AHAs like glycolic and lactic acid.

Moisturizers with urea can be particularly helpful to those with eczema and psoriasis. Urea, lactic acid, and amino acids are three natural moisturizing factors (NMF) already found in skin. The keratolytic effects of urea soften the outermost dead layers of skin so that they may easily shed from the body. Eucerin is one brand which features urea as a main component in its moisturizers.

One last humectant worth mentioning is hyaluronic acid. Sometimes used on its own as a supplement, hyaluronic acid is naturally found in the body in eye and joint fluid. As a moisturizer, it often comes in the form of an ultra-lightweight serum, perfect for sensitive skin. It can even be applied over makeup as skin dries throughout the day. Unfortunately, this weightless miracle potion can often be very expensive.


Emollients are the agents in moisturizers that give the skin a smooth look and feel. Thanks to lipids, emollients protect the skin by filling in any cracks or gaps between skin cells and evening the surface. Popular emollients such as beeswax, aloe vera, and shea butter come from plants or plant byproducts. They can also come in the form of oils such as jojoba, coconut and argan oils.

Moisturizers high in emollients work best for dry to combination skin types. Emollients can be applied as often as needed. It’s best to apply emollient rich moisturizers just after bathing when skin is still damp to lock in the moisture.

Patients with rosacea or atopic dermatitis have reported cases of a burning or “overheating” sensation in response to emollients in their moisturizer. Those with sensitive skin conditions like eczema should splurge for richer emollient moisturizers that are fragrance and detergent-free to avoid reactions


Occlusives, also known as occlusive emollients or occlusive agents, help form a protective layer over the skin to keep moisture in.

Occlusives are waxy, oil extracts that are not naturally occurring in the body. Popular examples are mineral oil, lanolin, petroleum jelly or petrolatum, and cocoa butter. They are made from vegetable, fat, or mineral extracts.

Due their oily nature, occlusives can feel greasy and can be quite heavy on skin. Those with oily skin types should avoid occlusives or find one that is paired with a light emollient or glycerin to avoid breakouts. Moisturizers high in occlusive agents are best for those with normal skin, or on dry spots for combination skin.

Don’t let the chemistry jargon on the ingredients label scare you out of the pharmacy. Cosmetic companies will typically [list ingredients] in order of quantity from top to bottom. If the ingredients that work best for your skin type aren’t high on the list, keep looking. Look through a few products before purchasing to make sure you find the best moisturizer for you.










Kristina Brooks
Meet Our Writer
Kristina Brooks

Kristina Brooks was a digital editor at HealthCentral with a background in animal biology, ecology, and health science. While studying broadcast journalism, she discovered the great need for health reporters that could translate research to the public. In her work, she hopes to use research to help consumers make smart decisions about their healthcare, and empower patients to stay confident and in charge of their chronic conditions. She helped launch HealthCentral's inaugural MythWeek.