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Moisturiser is often seen as the simplest step in a skincare routine, but choosing the right one for your skin is actually really important and so today we're going back to basics to understand how moisturisers work, the different types of moisturisers on the market and how to figure out what your skin needs...
Moisturising ingredients come in 3 distinct forms and once you understand this, you might actually realise why some of the products you've been using haven't worked for you... Ultimately, you really want to hit all of these beats in your skincare routine for it to be well-rounded and to get that lasting hydration.
Humectants are water magnets, pulling hydration into the skin. Common humectants included in moisturisers or as standalone serum products are glycerin and hyaluronic acid. Although they can be hydrating, it's important to understand that they're not hydrating in and of themselves; they're just bringing in the water but that needs to be locked into the skin. More on that later...
Emollients are what give your skin that yummy, soft, smooth, nourished feel! Most facial oils fit into this category, as do other common moisturiser ingredients such as colloidal oat, lanolin and shea butter. If you experience dry and / or flaky skin on your face and / or body then you probably love emollients, whether you'd heard of them before now or not!
Occlusives are ingredients that trap in hydration. Your main occlusives are silicones and petrolatum, which are actually both quite maligned in certain skincare circles! Most oils are also somewhat occlusive too. Whilst it's true that pure petroleum jelly may not be the best thing to reach for if you have a ton of active breakouts going on, most products include a degree of occlusion to ensure everything is locked in. They're also great for wound healing and can often be found in barrier recovery balms and ointments.
There are obviously a bunch more ingredients that can be used in a moisturiser that fall outside of these three categories; some will be designed to achieve a certain type of texture or to add fragrance to the formula or they'll ensure the formula remains shelf-stable. However, some moisturisers also have added active ingredients or even sunscreen. I would personally just ensure the product is in a container suitable for the ingredient - for example, a stable Vitamin C derivative will be fine in jar packaging, but a pure form of this ingredient would be rendered pretty much useless unless it's in an opaque, airtight container. Likewise, I think a truly effective sunscreen needs a higher SPF rating (30 or above) than some products on the market and you need to make sure you're applying enough (i.e. apply it like a sunscreen, not like a moisturiser). But these sorts of products can be great time-savers for those who want an effective routine with minimal fuss and as few steps as possible!
I personally recommend a balance of humectants, emollients and occlusives for pretty much everyone. Whilst there are a couple of 'oil-free' and 'silicone-free' formulas that I've tried that have been decent, they can be a bit hit-or-miss so unless you have known sensitivities there's probably not much benefit in blanket-avoiding ingredients that allow a moisturiser to... moisturise!
If you have oily skin, I really recommend a light, gel moisturiser (at least for during the day) that's going to feel breathable on your skin. These sorts of formulas tend to lean more towards being humectant-based, but there are absolutely emollient and occlusive ingredients that can be formulated with a texture that works for your skin type. Possibly just avoid richer ingredients like shea butter (though even this will probably be fine if it's lower down on the INCI list or it's in ester form).
Normal and combination skin types often agree with a lotion texture. It can be hard to know what consistency a product is going to be, but a tip I always use is to look at the packaging. A really thick, rich moisturiser can't go in pump packaging (and would struggle in most types of tubes) so are usually found in jars. If you want something creamy that feels relatively light and fast-absorbing: look for a product that's in pump packaging.
Dry (and mature) skin types need all the nourishment they can get and will love emollient-rich formulas. Look out for fatty and oil laden INCI lists to ensure your skin always feels soft and nourished throughout the day and also when you wake up in the morning. I would avoid oil-free formulas, gels and products in pump packaging unless it's summer and you want something for the daytime heat, as they're generally unlikely to have enough body for you.
You should also think about your lifestyle and the types of products that will work for you. If you don't want to mess around with serums: try a Vitamin C cream in the morning and a retinoid cream at night. If you're not the best at wearing sunscreen on days you're not at the beach: go for a sunscreen moisturiser.
It's also very usual to want something lighter during the summer and a richer formula in the winter. Additionally, you'll want to reach for something more occlusive at nighttime because transepidermal water loss often happens overnight, which is why you might wake up with dry, tight, dehydrated skin if you've ever fallen asleep before doing your routine!
Lastly, try not to jump to conclusions in demonising certain types of ingredients if a particular formula doesn't work for you. Keep a note of the products that break you out, cause you irritation or overload your skin so you can identify patterns and narrow down the culprit. If in doubt, going back to basics with a minimalist formula with fewer ingredients might be a good way to go.
What's your perfect moisturiser?