Skin care products abound in the market from cleansers like washes and scrubs to moisturizers for the face and body.  It is probably moisturizers that garner the most attention since these skin care products have the potential to restore moisture to the skin and, in the process, make way for suppler, softer and smoother skin.  With a society that values youthful beauty especially where the skin is concerned, moisturizers are, indeed, valuable parts of the cosmetic and dermatologic pantheon.

Why moisturize aging skin?

The level of skin plasticity, which is responsible for its youthful appearance, is determined by the water content of the epidermis (the outer layer of the skin).  When the epidermis is not properly hydrated, it becomes dry to the hands and dull to the eyes.  Keep in mind that water originates from the deeper epidermal layers, moves upwards to hydrate the cells in the stratum corneum (outermost layer of the epidermis) and then will be lost to evaporation in the environment.

As we age, however, our skin slowly loses its ability to hold in water in the epidermis while the rate of evaporation remains at similar levels. As a result, the skin becomes drier and drier until fine lines and wrinkles manifest themselves.

Another reason for the need for moisturizers is the decreased levels of collagen and elastin production as we age.  Collagen and elastin are proteins essential in keeping the skin supple, smooth and firm., Collagen is an ingredient often used in many over-the-counter moisturizers however this works purely to attract more moisture in the skin rather than replace lost collagen which is physically impossible to do by the application of a moisturizer.

How does a moisturizer work on the skin?

Moisturizers are beneficial to skin health in many ways, of which the following have been proven in scientific studies:

  • Repair of the epidermal barrier that may have been damaged by the sun, injury and trauma
  • Increase the water content in the epidermis
  • Lessen the loss of water from evaporation
  • Hold in and redistribute water within the skin
  • Provide a soothing protective layer for the skin
  • Maintain youthful skin appearance with lesser fine lines and wrinkles

Basically, a good moisturizer holds in the water content in the epidermal layer, provides a protective layer on the skin’s exterior and prevents water loss through evaporation.  In the end, your skin feels softer and suppler to the touch while being smoother in appearance – truly, youthful skin even as you advance in age.

What are my skin moisturizing options?

According to a US study on skin care products, moisturizers are the third most popular over-the-counter topical skin products with hydrocortisone (steroid used to relieve skin inflammation and allergies) and anti-infectives (medicine used to inhibit bacteria, fungi and viruses). These products come in many forms from lotions and creams to gel-based formulations that act in similar manners.

Most supermarkets and drug stores as well as online sites carry an array of brands and formulations of moisturizers.  The trick is in choosing the right one for your skin type and needs as well as your budget.

What ingredients should my moisturizer include?

As previously mentioned, there are three basic ingredients in a moisturizer – humectants, emollients and occlusives – without which a moisturizer will not be a moisturizer.  The rest of the ingredients listed on the labels are just fillers, fragrances and additives that can be absent without significantly affecting the efficacy of the skin care product.


First, humectants attract water in two ways – one, improve water absorption from the dermis (skin layer between epidermis and subcutaneous layers) into the epidermis and, two, help the stratum corneum absorb water from the environment.  As such, skin hydration significantly improves with regular application of moisturizers.  Humectants include glycerol, sorbitol, hylauronic acid, alpha hydroxy acids and urea.

Second, emollients include lipids and oils that hydrate the layers of skin.  As s result, these substances improve the appearance and feel of the skin mainly by enhancing elasticity and flexibility.  Emollients are responsible for the lubricity of moisturizers, which increases customer satisfaction with the product.  These substances include stearic, linolenic, linoleic, oleic which can be obtained from a variety of plant sources.

Third, occlusives lessen evaporation by creating a protective barrier over the skin.  These substances work best when applied on slightly damp skin, thus, the common recommendation of applying moisturizers after a bath.  It must be noted that occlusives and humectants work together in enhancing the epidermis’ hydration and barrier functions. Occlusives include petroleum jelly, mineral oil, lanolin and silicones.  These can however be too occlusive on the skin and lead to milia (white spots) and actually create more dehydration if used over a long period of time.

Other ingredients include preservatives, vitamins and minerals, plant extracts and sunscreen.  The preservatives are used to prevent bacterial growth while the vitamin, minerals and plant extracts like almond, jojoba and olive oils provide additional nourishment to the skin.

What doses of ingredients should ideally be in my moisurizer?

The above mentioned ingredients are usually formulated in balanced doses.  In this way, the humectants work with the occlusives in improving skin hydration while the emollients improve on the skin elasticity.

Is it best to use products with one or with a combination of ingredients for best effect?

Moisturizers being part of the basic skin care regimen of cleanse, exfoliate, and moisturize, you can use it with other skin care products.  In fact, you should not moisturize skin before cleaning it since the skin pores can become clogged with dust, dirt and other pollutants and, thus, lead to problems like acne.

What should I look out for when selecting a moisturizer?

The following are the criteria for the best moisturizer:

  • Hydration properties are suitable to skin type
  • Lesser incidences of allergies with the use of hypo-allergenic, non-sensitizing, and non-comedogenic ingredients
  • Reasonably affordable for the benefits provided
  • Long shelf life

Ultimately, your choice of a moisturizer will depend on how well your skin responds to its ingredients in the long-term period.


Last Reviewed: 22-Sep-2011

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Fiona Tuck is a Skincare Expert, Nutritional Medicine Practitioner and an accredited member of the Australian Traditional Medicine Society. Her in-depth knowledge and insight into future trends within the health industry has made her a sought-after media expert. Fiona’s holistic approach to nutritional health is driven by her mantra: “Nutrition is the grass roots of good health".