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occlusive moisturizer, humectant moisturizer, and emollient moisturizer: the difference and how to use all 3

Emollients, Humectants, and Occlusives: Here’s What They Are and How to Use Them


Moisturizing is one of the most important steps to any skincare routine - but with so many ingredients, terms, and best practices out there, it can be difficult to know what products to use or exactly how to moisturize correctly.


The short version? All moisturizers can be divided into three categories of ingredients that work together to help you achieve the perfect glow: emollient, humectant, and occlusive moisturizer. Here’s what each category is and how to actually use these ingredients to achieve deeply hydrated, lit-from-within skin.


The Basics: Occlusives vs Humectants vs Emollients


Ultimately, occlusives, emollients and humectants are the main "categories" of ingredients that you'll find in moisturizers and other skincare products. Taking a step back, the term “moisturizer” was originally coined to talk about any cream or product that was created to increase the skin’s moisture.


occlusive moisturizer vs humectant moisturizer vs emollients

It is believed that this was done primarily by preventing trans-epidermal water loss (TEWL) through something called occlusion. In simpler terms, this means that moisturizers were meant to prevent the loss of water from the skin by creating a layer on the skin that trapped that water inside (aka an occlusive layer).

Not All Moisturizers are Equal

But here’s the thing: not all moisturizers are occlusive, and effective occlusive action is not the only thing that actually contributes to healthy skin. Lipids - particularly ceramides - also play a really important role in skin hydration, and true hydration involves a combination of:
  • Repairing and strengthening the skin’s natural barrier
  • Increasing water content in the skin
  • Reducing trans-epidermal water loss
  • Restoring the lipid barrier

You need a combination of all three components - emollients, humectants, and occlusives in skincare - to complete all these functions.

 

What is a Humectant?


Humectants are ingredients that work by attracting water molecules - either from the environment or from deeper within the body - and drawing them in, ultimately adding more water content to the skin. The function of humectants in skin care is to bind hydration to the skin, whereas occlusives and emollients create a barrier to lock that hydration in. Humectants and emollients are frequently found in body creams and hair products to perform the same function: attract moisture and lock it in place.


humectant moisturizer

Humectant Examples

Powerful humectants include:
  • Glycerin
  • Hyaluronic acid
  • Glycols
  • Seaweed
  • Honey
  • Salicylic acid
  • Sorbitol
  • Propylene glycol
  • Lactic acid
  • Urea

Types of Humectants

Humectant moisturizers can be:
  • Natural/unchanged: organic materials such as honey or aloe vera
  • Naturally derived: compounds from natural materials that have been manipulated in some way (usually chemically)
  • Synthetic: lab-made chemicals such as sorbitol and sodium lactate

Synthetic Humectants for Skin

While synthetic humectants are cost-effective and easily available, some end up doing more harm than good. Because humectants pull moisture from deeper layers of the skin, they can end up depleting those resources and causing increased dryness over time.


Natural Humectants

Natural skin humectants (honey, seaweed, and hyaluronic acid, to name a few) deliver the same benefits while being more gentle on the skin. They're said to improve the skin's self-hydrating capabilities by promoting long-term, sustainable hydration!

 

Naturally Derived Humectants

Believe it or not, our skin naturally makes humectants, too! These are called natural moisture factors (or NMFs) and they include things like lactic acid, urea, and sodium PCA (which you can also find in many skincare products). Excessive washing and exposure to UV rays are the main behavioral factors that reduce NMF levels.

 

Benefits of Humectants in Skin Care

We're big proponents of using humectants for skin care. First, they ensure that the skin itself is hydrated, not just caked on with thick products. Additionally, humectant moisturizers re-introduce moisture into the skin to prevent dryness, redness, or flakiness caused by dehydrated skin.

 

Eight Saints Skincare with Humectants

At Eight Saints, we take a natural approach to skincare; humectants that we use are natural or naturally derived.

 

With Hyaluronic Acid

Hyaluronic acid is a humectant moisturizer produced by our skin - Eight Saints uses a botanically-based, organic form in our products!

The Daydreamer Natural Face Moisturizer blends naturally hydrating components like jojoba oil, aloe leaf juice, and silk protein amino acids to hydrate and restore the skin's natural balance. Hyaluronic acid is included for its humectant properties.


Daydreamer Natural Face Moisturizer with Humectants

The Pep Rally Face Serum is a plumping moisturizer. It combines green tea, MSM, hyaluronic acid, and much more to deliver a powerful moisturizing boost.

Pep Rally Face Serum with Humectants

Our Soulmate Brightening Treatment is a natural brightening treatment that works by facilitating cell turnover - ridding the skin of dead cells and bringing young, bright cells to the surface.

Soulmate Brightening Treatment with Humectants

With Salicylic Acid

Salicylic acid is a pore-unclogging agent. In Eight Saints' Quality Control Acne Spot Treatment, it deeply penetrates the pores to reduce swelling and shrink pimples overnight. This treatment also incorporates witch hazel to shrink the pores, preventing further clogging and stopping future breakouts in their tracks!

Quality Control Acne Spot Treatment with salicylic acid

How to Apply Humectants in a Skin Care Routine

When it comes to your skincare routine, your humectant-centric products - like a toner, essence, or watery serum - should be the first products you use after cleansing your skin, particularly if your skin is especially dry or dehydrated. The next step is to apply an emollient and seal with an occlusive moisturizer to:
  • protect skin from irritants and bacteria
  • prevent moisture loss to the environment
  • support the skin's protective barrier

What is an Emollient?


Emollients should come next in your daily routine. These lighter, oil-based substances work to fill in the gaps between skin cells and replace missing lipids to fortify the skin, giving your skin an instantly smooth, soft feeling. Emollients and humectants soothe dryness and irritation.

Both promote moisture, but emollients are thicker while humectants can have a water-like consistency. Emollients nourish and protect while humectants simply hydrate.

 

emollient moisturizer

Emollient Examples

The most popular emollients today are face oils like High Society botanical oil, though more specific examples of emollients include:
  • Jojoba oil
  • Ceramides
  • Stearic acid
  • Caprylic/capric triglyceride
  • Squalane
  • Isopropyl isostearate
  • Calendula
  • Cocoa butter
  • Olive oil
  • Synthetic polymers


Types of Skin Emollients

To be clear, emollients, humectants, and occlusives are ingredients found in moisturizers, and they all serve different but overlapping purposes. Emollients are generally categorized by how thick they are. Thicker emollients double as occlusive, and many emollient products also contain humectants. You might also additionally see emollients labeled as:
  • Creams
  • Ointments
  • Lotions
  • Oils


Benefits of Emollient Moisturizer for Skin

We get it, differentiating humectants vs emollients can be confusing. Humectants attract water by binding with water molecules within the upper layer of the skin. Emollients deliver lipids to the skin, nourishing and moisturizing simultaneously. Incorporating both can help you manage conditions like eczema, psoriasis, and ichthyosis.

Eight Saints Skincare with Emollients

We offer a variety of moisturizing products with skin emollients like jojoba oil, squalene, avocado oil, and much more. Let's take a look at a few of our highlighted products:

With Squalane

Our anti-aging All In Eye Cream contains all 8 of our holy grail ingredients. Addressing the full range of skin concerns, the formula contains squalene, which delivers brightening antioxidants and healing oils.

With Calendula

The Cloud Whip Face Cream will make your skin feel like the name implied: as soft and fluffy as a cloud. We've added MSM to correct dark spots andcalendula, benefits include promoting a softer texture and help reduce dark spots.

Cloud Whip Face Cream with calendula

The All In Eye Cream incorporates calendula to smooth the under-eye area, giving a younger, softer appearance.

All In Eye Cream with Calendula

Lastly, the High Society Face Oil also contains calendula. This power-packed formula is rich in natural vitamins and oils. We've added calendula to lighten dark spots from sun damage and acne scars, and to nourish the outer layer of skin with natural lipids.

High Society Face Oil with Calendula



How to Apply Emollient Moisturizer

Apply your emollient after cleansing and applying a humectant. Right after, you'll follow up with the occlusive of your choice. Don't feel the need to wash these products off - give them time to soak into the skin and do their job!

 

What is an Occlusive Moisturizer?


OK, so we talk a lot about the skin’s natural barrier and how it works as a shield for the skin, keeping vitamins and nutrients in and keeping toxins, pollutants, and other environmental aggressors out. Well, occlusive moisturizer adds to that barrier, protecting the skin, preventing trans-epidermal water loss, and sealing in moisture.

 

occlusive moisturizer

Examples of Occlusives in Skincare

In general, occlusives in skin care tend to be a heavier, waxy substance like:
  • Petroleum jelly or petrolatum
  • Butters or waxes
  • Heavier silicone
  • Lanolin
  • Tamanu oil
  • Castor oil
  • Aquaphor
  • Carnauba wax
  • Synthetic silicone
  • Shea butter


Benefits of Occlusive Moisturizer

Occlusive moisturizers are an absolute lifesaver for dry, healing, sensitive, and damaged skin, preventing both unwanted moisture loss and unwanted particles from getting into the pores.

Eight Saints Occlusive Skincare

Of course, we add organic occlusives to our skincare products, including cocoa seed butter, coconut oil, and jojoba oil.

Tamanu oil is one of our lesser known favorites:

 

With Tamanu Oil

Tamanu oil has three main benefits:
  • It functions as an occlusive, sealing in moisture and protecting skin cells
  • It contains antioxidants that remove toxins and fix dark spots
  • It promotes cell turnover for a more youthful appearance

Our Daydreamer Natural Face Moisturizer has humectants, emollients, and occlusives, making it an all-in-one product.

Daydreamer Natural Face Moisturizer with Tamanu Oil

The All In Eye Cream is our gentle emollient and occlusive with tamanu oil added to lock in hydration and reduce any puffiness.

All In Eye Cream with Tamanu Oil

Lastly, our Cloud Whip Face Cream addresses a broad spectrum of skin concerns. Tamanu oil, a natural occlusive, works along with other natural oils to finish off your skincare routine and ensure all products stay on the skin for longer.

Cloud Whip Face Cream with Tamanu Oil

How to Apply Occlusives Skincare

Occlusives are applied after humectants and emollients if they aren't combined into the same product. Because occlusive moisturizers are heavier and protect the skin, applying a lightweight humectant afterward would be futile - the skin is already protected by the oily barrier and your humectant won't pass through.

 

Multi-benefit of Occlusive, Emollient and Humectant for Skin


We see articles all the time comparing emollient vs humectant or emollient vs occlusive -- and aren't sure why! Don't get it twisted. All three work together to create a well-balanced skincare routine.


That said, there are many products that are multi-benefit.Cloud Whip vitamin C daily cream, for example, contains both emollient ingredients - like jojoba oil and MSM - and occlusives like cocoa butter and beeswax. Such products can help you multitask and hydrate more effectively.


Just keep in mind that if you’re using a product that only falls under one category - likeHigh Society botanical oil, which is just an emollient - you’ll want to add humectants and occlusives as well to create a more well-rounded hydration routine.

 

Your Takeaway


Here's what we want you to know: the skin is the body's largest organ, and the products you use should support its functions, not work against it. You can take advantage of occlusives, emollients, and humectants within your skincare routine to achieve clear, vibrant, and most importantly - healthy - skin!