When the temps dip, you need to bolster your skin care regimen from head to toe. Here, a primer on the humectants, occlusive, and emollients you need for softer, flake-free skin.
Story by Anna M. Park
When it comes to caring for your skin this winter, there are three categories of skin care you need to know: humectants, occlusive, and emollients. You need all three to keep skin hydrated. Here’s why.
A humectant is a substance that attracts water, whether it is from the environment or from a deeper level within the skin, which is usually the case since our skin is typically less dry than the environment, says dermatologist Sonoa Au, M.D., of Advanced Dermatology PC. The water that a humectant attracts from the deeper levels moisturizes the stratum corneum (the top layer of the epidermis). Examples include glycerin, hyaluronic acid, urea, and propylene glycol.
Occlusives, like petrolatum, waxes, oils, and silicones (like dimethicone and cyclomethicone), create a physical barrier on skin, limiting skin’s water loss, also known as transepidermal water loss (TEWL). Some occlusives, like petrolatum, leave a heavy feeling on skin, says dermatologist Annie Chiu, M.D.
Emollients spread easily on the skin and improve and soften flaky skin cells often associated with dry skin. Some emollients are occlusive and some may also increase the rate of barrier repair, says Dr. Chiu. Silicones, vegetable oils, and butters are examples of emollients.
So why do you need all three? “Each category serves a slightly different purpose,” says Dr. Chiu. For example, if you live in a dry climate, the humectant glycerin will draw moisture from the deeper layers of the skin and hold it on the surface, which can ironically dry out your skin. “Therefore, you should look for skin care products that contain glycerin in combination with other emollients and occlusive ingredients if you hope to combat dry skin,” she says. “It is especially useful to combine an emollient with an occlusive or a humectant, as it helps with overall skin feel.”
For Dr. Au, she recommends the drugstore buys Curél and Neutrogena Norwegian Formula Hand Cream, which have the humectant glycerin, as well as the ceramide-rich skin care line of CeraVe. A new drugstore line, Aquation, available at Walmart, harnesses the power of hyaluronic acid and ceramides in a dual phase delivery system to hydrate skin and prevent moisture evaporation for 24 hours.
Meanwhile, Dr. Chiu likes lactic acid, which not only exfoliates the dry, dead surface of the skin and accelerates collagen production, “it’s a great moisturizer.” But most of all, “Eating foods high in water content can help hydrate your skin from the inside out,” she says. “Try watermelon, cantaloupe, apples, oranges, kiwi, and watery veggies like celery, tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, and carrots. Make sure you’re getting enough vitamin C and zinc to support the healthy production of collagen and elastin. Also consider an omega-3 supplement, or consume more fatty fish and flaxseed to give your skin the building blocks it needs to appear supple and smooth.”
Ready to bolster your skin care regimen? Here, our recommendations with derm-approved ingredients for better skin, from head to toe, this winter.
FOR YOUR FACE:
“Olive oil contains four major antioxidants, which allow it to work as a cleanser, moisturizer, and protector of skin,” says Dr. Chiu. “Vitamin A and vitamin E are the most important antioxidants. Vitamin A thickens and stimulates the dermis, as well as reduces wrinkles and increases blood flow to the surface of the skin. Vitamin E helps neutralize the oxidant effect of free radicals that damage collagen and are the main reason for wrinkles, fine lines, and skin dryness.” Find olive oil, glycerin, sodium hyaluronate, and a whole host of organic botanical extracts in this rich dry skin moisturizer. Tata Harper Repairative Moisturizer, $105, tataharperskincare.com
Cosmetic chemist Dr. Ann S. Lee of Dermaesthetics is a fan of algae extracts, which she calls “an amazing, natural, and renewable resource.” As a marine plant, there are many species of algae, she says, and each has different properties. “Some may have more moisturizing properties and others might have anti-inflammatory properties. Algae can help as an occlusive ingredient to help protect the skin or as an active ingredient working to assist in the natural moisturization of the skin.” Find algae extract, sodium hyaluronate and mineral-rich Okinawa deepsea water in this hydrating overnight mask. Skin Inc. Pure Deepsea Hydrating Mask, $75, sephora.com
No longer just sweetener alternatives, xylitol, along with mannitol and sorbitol, are sugar alcohols and carbohydrates now used in skin care to draw moisture into the skin and prevent water from evaporating, says Dr. Lee. Additionally, “there have been a few studies that showed xylitol increased skin collagen synthesis in rats and reduced the glycation of skin collagen, which is an important mechanism of skin aging,” says Dr. Chiu. “They also found it prevented both the age-related decline in collagen synthesis and the age-related increase in collagen degradation.” Xylitol is a key ingredient in Bioderma Hydrabio Serum, $24.90, beautylish.com
“Not only is Vitamin E an oil with occlusive and emollient properties, it is a strong antioxidant,” says Dr. Lee. Nourish your lips with vitamin E-rich sweet almond oil, murumuru butter, and cocoa oil in this creamy tinted lip treatment. Glamglow PoutMud Tint in Love Scene, $19, glamglow.com
We all know about hyaluronic acid (HA), the water-binding ingredient that can hold 1,000 times its weight in water, making it a super magnet for moisture. What you may not know is that the water-soluble, salt form of hyaluronic acid is sodium hyaluronate. Not only does sodium hyaluronate have the ability to adjust its moisture absorption based on the relative humidity in the air, it protects the skin by scavenging for reactive oxygen species created by UV rays, fighting sunspots and other age spots, says Dr. Chiu. Even better? Its molecules are smaller than those of HA, allowing it to penetrate deeper into the skin to maintain and attract water, she adds. Sodium hyaluronate features prominently in this serum, along with vitamin E, honey, and sea kelp extract to hydrate and fight inflammation and free radicals. Revision Skincare Hydrating Serum, $65, revisionskincare.com
FOR YOUR BODY:
Coconut oil can help dry skin, especially in winter,” says Dr. Chiu. “It is a great source of saturated fats, proteins, caprylic acid, and vitamin E.” Look for an oil-based rather than a water-based solution, she adds, as it’s more likely to help your skin retain moisture in the winter. This creamy oil made with organic coconut oil comes out nice and slow, without making a mess. Kopari Coconut Balm, $32, koparibeauty.com
Another coconut oil moisturizer, this one’s bolstered with shea butter, rich in fatty acids and vitamins A, E, and K, as well as cocoa butter for a super luxe body hydrator. Sabon Body Butter in Vanilla Coconut, $20, sabonnyc.com
Made with unrefined virgin coconut oil that is cold pressed from fresh coconut meat — without the use of damaging heat and skin-irritating chemicals, maximizing its nutrients — this shower oil lathers up when in contact with water for a nourishing clean. Jason Smoothing Coconut Foaming Shower Oil, $10.99, Whole Foods
Honey as an ingredient in skin care? Yes, says Dr. Chiu. “It’s rich in antioxidants, which are chemicals that can prevent or slow cell damage, and contains properties that benefit dry and flaky skin.” This unique meringue-like mousse melts into a hydrating cocktail of honey, egg extract, olive oil, and four other botanical oils to heal and hydrate skin. Too Cool for School Egg Mousse Body Oil, $25, sephora.com
What better cold weather remedy than a hot bath that envelopes you in the scent of a fir tree forest? Add this bath essence, scented with Norway spruce essential oil to support circulation, warm the body, and calm the spirit. Glycerin and jojoba oil moisturize and soothe skin. Dr. Hauschka Limited Edition Spruce Warming Bath Essence, $10, dr.hauschka.com
Perfect for curling up with a cup of hot cocoa (or a hot toddy), these super soft gloves and socks are infused with aloe vera and vitamin E. Wear them overnight for an intensive treatment or while binge-watching Netflix. Earth Therapeutics Aloe Moisture Ultra Plush Gloves and Socks, $14.99, earththerapeutics.net
Impact photo Reem Acra, courtesy of Zoya.