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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: emollients, humectants, and occlusives.
Here’s what each category is and how to actually use these ingredients to achieve deeply hydrated, lit-from-within skin.
Ultimately, emollients, occlusives, 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. It was 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).
But here’s the thing: not all moisturizers are occlusives, 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:
You need a combination of all three components - emollients, occlusives, and humectants - to complete all these functions.
Humectants are water-loving 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.
Powerful humectants include:
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 alsofind in many skincare products).
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.
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.
The most popular emollients today are face oils like High Society botanical oil, though more specific examples of emollients include:
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, occlusives add to that barrier, protecting the skin, preventing trans-epidermal water loss, and sealing in moisture.
In general, these occlusives are heavier, waxy substances like:
Again, in order to get the benefits from each category, you need to apply them in the correct order, which is:
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 - like High 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.