Updated: Sep 18, 2020
By Sara Wilchowski, PA-C
Finding the right skincare routine can feel overwhelming as there are many different words used to describe various products. Why must the cosmeceutical industry make it so confusing?! What do I really need in a good moisturizer? What is a humectant, exactly?
First the science. Humectants are products that help retain moisture or prevent the loss of moisture. They can attract water, hygroscopic, from surrounding areas including the environment or deeper layers of the skin. The proteins, specifically the hydroxyl groups, are what bond to water molecules and therefore into the skin. These products, given they are water-soluble, will wash away with water – so you’ll need to reapply.
There are two main types of humectants: synthetic and natural. Synthetic humectants are cheaper for the skincare industry to manufacture but provide no true nutrients to the skin. These products include Urea, propylene glycol, butylene glycol, and silicone. These are formulated to act as natural humectants.
Keep in mind with these synthetic ingredients, without the proper nutrition to the skin, may end up dehydrating your skin down the road as they can pull moisture from deeper layers. So temporarily they will plump and make the skin appear more hydrated, but that will not last forever. (Sometimes cheaper isn’t always better!)
Natural humectants include honey, glycerin, aloe, alpha hydroxy acid, and hyaluronic acid. Now I understand that hyaluronic acid and glycerin may sound synthetic, I can assure you these are naturally produced by the body. These molecules not only can attract and retain water but will help replenish moisture to other layers of the skin allowing the skin to stay hydrated longer. These products also pull moisture from the environment. (bonus!) Fun fact, hyaluronic acid can attract and hold onto 10x its own weight in water! So get plumping and hydrating!
Diva Tip: Look for natural humectants for long term hydration of the skin!
Sara Wilchowski is a full-time Dermatology Physician Assistant practicing in the State of Michigan.