Humectants are substances that have the ability to draw in moisture from their surrounding environment as opposed to a desiccant which dries things out. Your skin naturally contains humectants such as hyaluronic acid, which is responsible for giving your complexion its plump, youthful appearance. For this same reason, hyaluronic acid is a popular ingredient in many dermal fillers used to plump your skin and lips and to temporarily smooth away lines and wrinkles. Humectants are frequently used in cosmetics as a way of increasing and maintaining moisture in the skin and hair, in products including shampoo, conditioner, frizz serum, lotions, creams, lip treatments, cleansers, after-sun lotion, and some soaps or body lotions.
Humectants are also essential for healthy skin hydration, but you do have to be careful about which ones you choose and how you use them in your daily skin care regimen.
Humectants attract moisture from their environment, which can be the outside air or the underlying layers of your skin. If you are in a humid environment, humectant ingredients will pull in moisture from the air and therefore help your skin to stay hydrated. If you are in a dry climate, on the other hand, humectants can cause your skin to become dehydrated by pulling moisture up from deeper layers and onto the surface, where they can evaporate into the air. For this reason, it is best to combine humectant ingredients with an occlusive. (Occlusive ingredients are oily, waxy or silicone based ingredients that form a “seal” on your skin to prevent water from escaping.)
What Ingredients are Humectants?
There are many different ingredients that have humectant properties, and some act as both a humectant and an occlusive. Some of the most common humectants are:
- Hyaluronic acid
- Heparan sulfate analog
- Propylene glycol
- Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs)
- Glycolic acid
- Lactic acid
- Phytic acid
Both humectants and occlusives can provide nearly instant results in terms of increasing skin hydration and providing a temporary plumping and smoothing effect, but neither addresses the underlying cause of dry skin. If your skin is very dry or if you struggle to control eczema or other similar conditions, try a barrier repair moisturizer that treats the underlying cause of skin dryness rather than just treating the symptoms. Look for these terms near the beginning of the ingredient list on the bottle:
- Fatty acids
- Myristoyl/palmitoyl oxostearamide/arachamide mea
- MLE technology
These ingredients help to repair your skin’s damaged protective barrier, which is the underlying reason why excess water is able to escape into the air and irritants and pathogens are easily able to enter.