There have been a lot of speculations about if human beings really need a skin moisturizer and if they actually work at all.
I have had my own history with different brand moisturizers, and sometimes with the results I’ve gotten on different occasions it did leave me wondering if moisturizers actually work, if I needed one, if I was doing something wrong or if the weather was just that bad!
Often times the topic on skin moisturizing can be rather confusing. However, I’ve taken the time to compile useful tips on what you need to know about moisturizing dry skin and maintaining your skin’s moisture level.
Getting to know the skin
Your skin is made up of several different layers, but the outermost layer, known as the stratum corneum (Latin for “horny layer” 😎), directly relates to how your skin feels from a moisture perspective. Cells in this horny layer can hold water, and they can lose water depending on multiple factors. When the cells are plump and water-rich, your skin is soft, smooth—moisturized! And when they’re lacking water and dry? That’s called dehydrated skin. The latter can happen in a flash. Dry air, alcohol-laced topicals, and improper moisturization can make these cells shrivel and lose water. This is completely normal behavior On average, between 300 and 400 mL (a little less than a pint) of water evaporates from your skin daily. It’s a moisturizer’s job to minimize that amount as much as possible.
What makes a moisturizer a moisturizer?
While there may be many factors which influence this, they can, however, be grouped into moisturizers which act as a
It acts like a sponge, as it draws water, from the air, from topicals, and from other cells in your body to your horny layer. If you’re scoping the back of a lotion bottle, the humectants are listed under ingredients like hyaluronic acid, glycerin, butylene glycol, sorbitol, and sodium PCA. But humectants only attract water, they don’t retain it. That’s an occlusive’s job, the second component of a moisturizer.
Humectants have hydroxyl groups in their chemical structure (oxygen and a hydrogen atom), which loves water. Humectants also prompt the production of ceramides, our body’s natural waxy molecules that play a major role in the structure of the skin.
But beware, in dry conditions, humectants can draw moisture from the younger, moist cells in the lower layers of the skin instead of pulling moisture from the air. Over time, this could eventually lead to even dryer skin. Minimize this by pairing a humectant with an occlusive, which seals in the moisture.
Occlusives act like a lid to a pot of boiling water—they keep cells wet and prevent water loss. Some are better equipped to do that than others. The best ones—petroleum jelly, mineral oil.
The molecules in these moisturizers contain long chains of carbon atoms that repel water. While occlusives are super effective at minimizing dryness – they cut TEWL by a whopping 98% – they can be sticky, messy, and not very cosmetically appealing.
lanolin—can also break you out, so buyer beware. They’re almost too good at trapping things to your skin, dead skin cells and pimple-breeding bacteria included. A few less effective but more forgiving occlusives are cetyl alcohol (not a regular alcohol, a cool fatty alcohol) and stearic acid. And then silicones are great occlusives, too. You’ll want to play around and find your occlusive sweet-spot. Everyone’s skin is different, and what may work for your skin might irritate someone else.
So while humectants bring the water, and occlusives keep the water on your skin.
Emollients, which are the third and final component of a moisturizer make everything go on smooth. Literally! Many emollients can also pull in double-duty as an occlusive—think lanolin, oils, and all the butter (shea, coconut, and the like). Mix them all together—humectants, occlusives, and emollients—and you’ve got yourself a moisturizer.
This class of moisturizer, which exists in the form of creams, ointments, lotions, and gels, are generally preferred over occlusives because they feel less sticky. Whereas occlusives coat the skin, emollients penetrate it, making the skin feel soft and flexible.
Emollient products are made with a variety of chemicals, but their basic building blocks are the same as occlusives – long chains of carbon atoms that repel water. Emollients work a little differently than occlusives though.
Think of the outer layer of skin as a brick and mortar structure: the dead skin cells are the bricks and the surrounding matrix of fats and proteins are the mortar. Special proteins link the dead cells together, forming a barrier between the inside of the body and the bacteria and chemicals outside.
How do moisturizers work?
Cracked, flaky, and dry skin – which tends to occur when humidity drops in the chilly months – goes by a mouthful of a scientific name: transepidermal water loss, or TEWL.
At its simplest, TEWL is a measure of how much water seeps from the inside of the body through the different layers of the skin and out into the atmosphere.
Especially dry, irritated, or inflamed skin is also called xerosis, which is usually a minor and temporary problem that can be solved with good moisturizing lotions.
Here’s how moisturizers work.
There are three different layers of the skin: the outer layer (epidermis), middle layer (dermis), and lower layer (hypodermis or fatty layer).
Moisture is delivered to the skin via blood vessels, but they only supply moisture to the middle layer of the skin – the dermis. From there, water travels upward and outward through the epidermis before evaporating into the atmosphere.
This evaporation causes skin to crack and flake. This process happens constantly, but skin isn’t always dry. That’s because the dryer the air the more moisture it will pull from your skin.
Moisturizers work in one of two main ways: they either trap moisture in your skin to keep it from escaping, or they restore moisture in the outer layer of skin that’s already been lost.
5 Tips to help your moisturizer work better
Your skin is the largest organ in the body and the first line of defense against harmful microbes, pollution, and UV rays.
In scientific terms, your skin is technically “dry” when its moisture level is less than 10%. That’s when you’re most likely to smother yourself in body lotion.
- chose the right products: Ideally, if you want to get the best out of a moisturizer, then you get the ones with more than one variant. that is a moisturizer that has both humectants and emollient properties. so this allows your skin draw in moisture while also helping it seal it in.
- never use humectants alone during the dry seasons, as it will do more harm than good to your skin.
- Layer properly: The rule of thumb is to start with the thinnest consistency products and work your way up to the heaviest. Serums go on first, followed by oils, then creams. The one exception is sunscreen, which should be applied last. It would not be ideal to put SPF under a lotion or cream moisturizer because by nature SPF products block skin absorption, you want your moisturizing ingredients to be able to sink in.
- sometimes it is best to stick with a moisturizer which has proven to work best for you, avoid product binging if it’s not called for!
- After showering or washing your face, you want to lock that moisture into your skin. But if your skin is too wet, the lotion will slide right off. The best strategy is to apply moisturizers when the skin is freshly moist, This moist state is most accessible immediately after towel drying.