Making the Most Out of Your Moisturizer

In our top steps for learning to take great care of your skin, we’ve hopefully already convinced you that moisturizing matters. After all, you wouldn’t go a day without drinking water—neither should you skip hydrating your skin.

The benefits of using a daily moisturizer are two-fold. In the short-term, proper hydration makes skin look healthy. Many moisturizers use ingredients that deliver immediate perking and plumping. But, even before you start getting fancy, the most basic moisturizers lock in water with three types of ingredients:

  • Occlusives, which prevent water loss in heat or wind
  • Humectants, which attract water to skin cells
  • Emollients, which smooth rough and flaking skin

It’s the combination of these three types of ingredients that help your skin look smooth, soft, and fresh the day after applying moisturizer.

Regularly using a moisturizer also has proven benefits over the long haul. That’s because hydration allows skin cells to function at their best, rapidly repairing themselves. Moisturizers also provide a layer of protection that allows your skin to turn over fresh cells more easily.

Lest you think we’re blowing hot air, this study from the British Journal of Dermatology showed that those who used moisturizer were found to develop wrinkles at a fraction of the rate of those with dry skin. In another study, researchers found that being a male makes one more likely to show signs of aging, making moisturizing particularly important for men.

While there are options for every skin concern, you really can’t go wrong: any moisturizer at all is better than none. That being said, finding a moisturizer that’s tailored for you has some stellar benefits.

From knowing your skin type to reading between the ingredient lines, here's what you need to know about moisturizing your face:

1. Shop For a Moisturizer With Your Skin Type In Mind

If you read our previous article on selecting the right cleanser for your skin, you might recall a brief dive into skin types. While sometimes using the right cleanser can bring your skin back into the “normal” range, choosing a similarly tailored moisturizer boosts those benefits.

Related: Are You Using the Wrong Cleanser for Your Skin?

Moisturizers have different textures depending on how they mix those three types of ingredients—occlusives, humectants, and emollients—that we listed above. Here’s how to pick the right kind for your skin type:

  • Oily skin: Look for lotions instead of creams. These lighter formulas work by depending on humectants to draw water close to the skin.
  • Dry skin: Dry skin should look for a creamy moisturizer, especially in the winter weather. There is more oil in a cream. Therefore, it is a thicker substance and more moisturizing. The greater the oil content, the better absorption through the skin barriers to hydrate the tissue.
  • Combination skin: It can be difficult to find one moisturizer that works all over a combination-type complexion. The easier answer is to find a lotion that’s free of acids—these generally feel bland. Popular brands include Cetaphil, Cerave, Aveeno, Neutrogena, or Lubriderm. Or, if you’re willing to put in the extra step, those with combination skin benefit from applying two different moisturizers where needed.
  • Normal skin: Even trouble-free skin requires hydration. Consider applying a very thin layer of ointment, such as Aquaphor, on at night. Thick, Vaseline-like products like these were created decades ago for pharmacists who needed a base for delivering medications to the skin. Now, they’re available over-the-counter and create a perfect moisturizing environment for nighttime healing.

Don’t forget that changes in climate impact what type of moisturizer best benefits your skin, too. In cold, dry, windy weather, consider upping the ante to an ointment—as long as you’re not acne prone. That’s because lotions are readily absorbed, but ointments leave a layer of protection.

When it’s hot and humid out, those who are more acne-prone should consider swapping lotions for gel formulas. These will help stop your face from looking like an oil slick if you start to sweat.

2. Understand the Role Packaging Plays In a Product’s Shelf Life 

The NY Times dipped into an often-overlooked point of product selection in their article “How Anti-Aging Creams Get Old Too Fast.” The message is straightforward: Say no to jar packaging.

Trying to shop for moisturizers that are packaged in a pump or a tube can feel severely limiting, since so many expensive anti-aging creams default to the luxurious look of glass jars. However, there are two good reasons to be discerning when it comes to package type:

  1. Beneficial ingredients oxidize when exposed to light and air. The ingredients that are most beneficial for your skin (sunscreen actives, antioxidants, and retinoids) aren’t stable. This means that they break down when exposed to light and air, which happens every time you take the lid off a jar. This degradation begins from the very first time you open the jar, and will continue with every use until the ingredients become completely ineffective—and that’s gonna happen before you’ve finished the product. 
  2. Jar packaging isn’t hygienic. Even if your moisturizer or lotion doesn’t contain any unstable ingredients, the jar packaging could still be problematic. Picking up the cream with your fingers, in fact, is just not hygienic. Should you have bacteria on your hands, these will transfer into the product, and from there, on your face the next time you use it. In addition, when bacteria start growing in your product, they will cause it to go bad, and you’ll have to throw it away even if there’s still a lot of it left.

Bottom line: Jars look pretty on your counter, but they won’t protect the products that are supposed to prettify your skin. Instead, look for opaque, air-tight packaging that will prevent all those beneficial ingredients from losing their effectiveness too soon.

3. SPF Matters

Even if you know that sun protection is a must for daily wear, do you still feel confused when selecting a strength of SPF? Take a number. By now, you can find moisturizers with sun protection factors that claim upward of triple-digits, and they have price tags to match.

While these sky-high protection factors are certainly attention-grabbing, they’re not necessarily more effective—or worth the money. In fact, in 2007, the Food and Drug Administration proposed capping SPF at 50+, but it still not set in stone. 

When shopping for a daily moisturizer with SPF, there are only a few things to keep in mind.

An SPF number is calculated by comparing the time needed for a person to burn unprotected against how long it takes for that person to burn wearing sunscreen. Simply put, higher SPFs don’t imply stronger protection, only longer protection. However, dermatologists recommend reapplying your moisturizer with SPF every two hours, making the difference between an SPF 30 and SPF 50 moot.

Instead of upping your moisturizers SPF, it’s important to make sure that you’re wearing enough sunscreen. For your face and neck, you need from one to two teaspoons—a dollop roughly the size of a quarter to a half-dollar. This is why, unless you apply one to two tablespoons of foundation, you should never depend on your makeup for sun protection.

Also, know that there are two types of damaging sun rays: UVA rays, which are responsible for aging the skin, and UVB rays, which are responsible for burning it. The SPF number on a bottle of sunscreen only gives a guide for how much UVB protection the product offers. The only way you'll really know if your sunscreen combats UVA rays is if it states so on the bottle.

If you’d like to learn more about selecting a sunscreen, check out “Your Guide to Avoiding Sunburn During Summer Vacation.”

4. Don’t Forget To Look At the Ingredients

You already know that learning to read the label is an important step when selecting a moisturizer, but do you know which ingredients to look for?

The NY Times recently reported on “The Second Coming of Hyaluronic Acid”—and for good reason:

Dermatologists have long touted its plumping and moisturizing ability because it can carry up to 1,000 times its weight in water. Its downside: The molecules were too big to penetrate the skin’s surface (scientists call this high molecular weight), so results could be easily washed away.

The good news is that cosmetic chemists have recently found a way to make the previously too-big molecule more effective and longer lasting. 

However, that doesn’t mean all formulas are created equal. Hyaluronic acid absorbs moisture, making creamier moisturizers boasting this ingredient a better bang for your buck.

What else should be near the top of your moisturizer’s list of ingredients? Here are several hard workers that make a difference:

  • Glycerin: This simply compound acts kind of like a vacuum that sucks water from the atmosphere, and sticks it next to your skin. To get the most out of moisturizers with glycerin, apply them immediately post-shower when your bathroom is still muggy. Another benefit? Compared to other moisturizing ingredients, glycerin is inexpensive, which means products can actually contain a lot of it. 
  • Ceramides: These waxy lipid molecules are partially composed of fatty acids found naturally in the skin, and their whole job is to seal in water so skin cells don’t dry out. This makes them kind of a no-brainer when it comes to moisturizers since ceramides are a natural at reinforcing the skin’s moisture barrier. Bonus, they get absorbed really quickly!
  • Petroleum: With its super thick consistency, petroleum creates a film that traps moisture in the skin and decreases natural water loss. It works like magic to treat dry, chapped skin. However, those with oily or acne-prone skin should stay away.

If You’re New To Moisturizer, Exercise a Little Caution

We all have those moments when we buy some new skincare product and want to rub it all over our bodies. However, that could lead to unwanted breakouts and some horror-inducing rashes. 

While many moisturizers can be used on most of your body, you should invest in a specialty product for your face for a few reasons: The face is more prone to acne, the skin is thinner, it’s exposed to more elements, and it’s more prone to dryness.

A note specifically for those who struggle with sensitive skin: Beware of how moisturizers are marketed. Even if a product's label says that it is hypoallergenic, it still might contain something to which you're allergic. Know that terms such as “organic,” “hypoallergenic,” and “all-natural” aren’t substantiated by the FDA. 

Instead of depending on claims made by cosmetics brands, learn what ingredients give your skin trouble and read the ingredients before you buy. 

If you're particularly cautious, try out a new moisturizer by testing it on your forearm first. If you have sensitive or allergy-prone skin, give it two weeks before you decide.

Bottom line? Moisturizers are a vital step in daily skin care, but you don’t have to shop for them like a snob.

Some of the cheapest moisturizing ingredients—petrolatum and glycerin—are very effective at helping your skin retain water. Researchers have even found that those simple ingredients actually repair compromised cells in the stratum corneum, making them even more beneficial than previously thought. 

Your best bet is to learn what ingredients your skin likes (and doesn’t), then find a product that draws and keeps moisture to your skin’s surface, giving cells a chance to repair.

Read Next: Stop Wasting Your Skincare Products

Autumn Yates

Autumn draws from a reporting background and years of experience working remotely, while living abroad, to focus on topics in travel, beauty, and online safety.

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