An Inside Scoop On Emollients, Humectants & Occlusives
Flawlessly moisturized skin comes from so much more than a daily dose of hyaluronic acid (although we would never knock HA, of course). Here, we show you how to get your moisturizing routine just right with the perfect blend of emollients, humectants and occlusives.
Skincare terms can be so darn mind-boggling, sometimes. And we get it. It’s enough to know your UVAs from your UVBs, let alone your GAGs from your NMFs. And don’t worry, we’re not going to bore you with too many acronyms today – let’s save those for another time. Instead, we’re here to talk about emollients, humectants and occlusives: the moisturizing masters of the skincare world, if you will.
No idea what the heck these even are? Then you’ve come to the right place.
What Are Emollients?
Emollients are lipids, butters or oils that help repair cracks in the skin caused by aging and environmental or lifestyle stressors such as UV radiation, pollution, a poor cleansing routine or even a bad diet. These all work together like a fine-tuned wrecking ball to destroy the levels of natural lipids in your skin, resulting in cracks, flakes and dryness. By sealing these cracks and smoothing the surface of your skin, emollients work to strengthen the skin’s natural protective layer, which in turn helps prevent trans-epidermal water loss (TEWL) – the process in which water evaporates from the skin’s surface into the air. Keeping your levels of TEWL at an all-time low is what skin lives for.
Emollients can be synthetic, plant-based or derived from sources such as alcohol, sheep’s wool or mineral oils. Plant-based emollients get our vote, every time.
Effective Emollients To Look Out For
Argan oil, coconut oil, colloidal oatmeal, isopropyl palmitate, jojoba oil, rosehip seed oil, shea butter, squalane and sweet almond oil.
A Side-Note On Emollients
Just to confuse matters, emollients can also refer to the types of products (lotions, creams and ointments) that contain emollient ingredients. Lotions contain mostly water with fewer emollients, while creams contain similar amounts of water and emollients, and ointments consist of mostly emollients in very little water. This makes ointments awesome for super-dry skin, but a poor choice for oily, combination or acne-prone complexions. Think about it – massive amounts of pore-clogging oil and congested skin? Not the best combo, right?
What Are Humectants?
While their raison d’être is very much the same as emollients – to keep the skin hydrated if you hadn’t cottoned on to that already – humectants work very differently. Rather than repairing the skin to seal in moisture, humectants attract water from their surroundings and draw it into the epidermis. If the air has enough humidity, humectants will pull water vapor from here, but they may draw it up from the underlying levels of your skin. They do this to moisturize the upper levels of your skin and reduce dryness, flakiness and cracking at the surface.
Humectants also work to promote cell turnover by breaking down the bonds that hold dead skin cells together. This process is called desquamation and it makes the dead stuff fall off to make way for fresher, healthier skin. Woot.
Skin naturally contains humectants, but these levels drop as you age which is why skin becomes drier as you get older, and why including more humectants in your skincare becomes more important over time.
Effective Humectants Look Out For
A Side-Note On Humectants
Humectants are smart little cookies, but they can have the reverse effect on your skin if you don’t use them wisely. How so? Well, if you slather your skin only in humectants and expect the world you’ll be sorely disappointed, because in order to work to their best ability, humectants need to be sealed into your skin with emollient or occlusive ingredients. Otherwise all that moisture will just evaporate into thin air. Check out the label of your HA serum and if it doesn’t contain an emollient like aloe vera or jojoba oil in the ingredients list (ours does, BTW) make sure to always apply moisturizer over the top.
What Are Occlusives?
Just like emollients, occlusives don’t actually increase moisture levels, but rather work to create a physical barrier on the surface of your skin to protect it from external aggressors and help prevent moisture loss (there's that all-important TEWL, again). Some emollients, like cocoa and shea butters, have occlusive properties and may be referred to as occlusive emollients (just to confuse matters), but an emollient’s main function is to soften, whereas occlusives are all about sealing water in the skin. In short, most emollients have occlusive properties, but not all occlusives are emollients.
Still with us? Good.
Occlusives are generally a bad idea for oily or congested skin as they’re usually thick, waxy and heavy in texture meaning they're suckers for blocking your pores. They’re awesome at reducing irritation and restoring the skin barrier, however, so are extremely effective when applied to severely dry skin or to help concerns like eczema and psoriasis.
Effective Occlusives Look Out For
Allantoin, beeswax, carnauba wax, cocoa butter, dimethicone, lanolin, mineral oils, petrolatum, shea butter and silicone.
A Side-Note On Occlusives
When it comes to oily skin types avoiding occlusives, silicones are the exception to the rule. Unlike waxes and butters, silicones have large spaces between their molecules, which means oxygen and nutrients are still able to pass through them, but water can’t. This gives silicones great occlusive qualities, without clogging your pores and/or causing acne. Clever stuff.
So, What’s Best For You?
If we were to host a three-way moisturizing battle between humectants, emollients and occlusives, it would result in a dead heat. Sorry to be boring, but it really would because the truth is, not one of them is better than the rest.
It figures, therefore, that the best moisturizing regime should include a combination of humectants to draw in moisture, emollients to smooth, and occlusives to seal all that goodness in. Those of you with normal, combination or oily skin types may find that emollients are enough to hold moisture into your skin, whereas dry, dehydrated or sensitive skin types often benefit from a thicker, heavier occlusive.
But the thing is, as with all skincare, it’s a totally personal choice.
About Georgia Gould
Georgia is an award-winning beauty writer who has been in the business for over 20 years. British-born, she began her career as a magazine beauty editor in London before moving to San Francisco, CA in 2012 where she now continues her love as a freelance writer and editor. As well as her editorial work, Georgia has created content for many high-profile beauty brands, including Clarins, L’Oréal, Procter & Gamble, Simple and TRESemmé. Her passions include retinol (obviously), golfing, skiing and walking her beloved Schnauzer, Dave.