What Are Humectants?
Humectants are substances that have the ability to draw in moisture from their surrounding environment. 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 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. This article will provide an overview of what humectants are and how they work.
How Does a Humectant Work?
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 occlusives.
Humectants are a type of emollient. However, they are not the same thing as an occlusive ingredient. Occlusive ingredients are oily, waxy or silicone based ingredients that form a “seal” on your skin to prevent water from escaping (this is called transepidermal water loss). Think of the way Saran wrap works to create a barrier between leftover food and the outside environment. Occlusives work similarly on your skin to not only keep water sealed inside, but to also keep harmful particles sealed out. When combined with a humectant, occlusives help to prevent moisture pulled in by the humectant to evaporate from the skin’s surface.
What Are Some Examples of 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:
- Propylene glycol
- Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs)
- Glycolic acid
- Lactic acid
- Phytic acid
How to Use Humectants to Hydrate Your Skin
The first step is to find out your Baumann Skin Type®, as not every humectant ingredient will necessarily be right for your skin’s needs. In most cases, it is best to combine humectants with occlusives.
Use humectants with occlusives for the best results.
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
- 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. Work with a Skin Type Solutions physician to determine your Baumann Skin Type® and select the right moisturizing products for your skin’s unique needs.
Humectants May Cause Lip Balm Addiction
Because of their ability to dehydrate the skin when used on their own, humectants may be the reason why your lips become “addicted” to lip balm. When you apply humectants without occlusives to your lips, you could be making them drier than they were before you applied the lip balm. Thus, your lips feel very dry and you try to combat this by using more lip balm, which continues this ongoing cycle.
To avoid this problem, only use lip balms that contain both humectants and occlusives. A few examples of occlusives are:
- Argan oil
- Borage seed oil
- Olive oil
- Jojoba oil
- Safflower oil
Shiny lip gloss can attract UV rays to your lips and cause dryness and increase your risk of skin cancer.
Humectants can be beneficial skin hydrating ingredients when used properly. In most cases, you want to use moisturizing creams and lip balms that combine humectants and occlusives to avoid worsening skin dryness. While humectants can provide a temporary plumping, smoothing, and hydrating effect, they are unable to repair damage to your skin’s protective barrier, which is the root cause of excessive dryness and flaking. If this is the case for you, talk to a Skin Type Solutions physician about the appropriate barrier repair regimen for your skin.
For more information about how to keep your skin hydrated, as well as other skin care advice and recommendations from Dr. Leslie Baumann, follow Baumann Cosmetic Dermatology on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube.
Wishing you great skin!
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