Healthy skin is a common beauty goal, with a number of ingredients available to help you achieve that dreamy glow. Humectants, a common moisturizing and anti-aging agent is commonly found in skincare and hair products that promise hydration. Known for their ability to retain moisture while preserving the overall properties of the product at hand, these hydrators are probably already in your self-care routine.
So, what exactly should you know about humectants? We asked cosmetic chemist Shuting Hu, B.Sc, PhD, and dermatologists Marisa Garshick, MD, FAAD, Charles Puza, MD, and Azadeh Shirazi, MD, to give us the lowdown on this hydrator and the potential benefits for your skin. Read on to learn what they had to say.
Type of Ingredient: Hydrator
Main Benefits: Helps retain moisture in skin, preserves overall properties of products, helps seal cracks in skin, exfoliates, and removes dead skin.
Who Should Use It: In general, humectants can benefit all skin types because of the range of ingredients that fall under the humectant umbrella.
How Often Can You Use It: Typical use is 1–2 times daily. Humectants are often found in daily skincare ingredients and are typically used after face wash in the form of a moisturizer. Humectants are not dangerous but can steal hydrating from deeper skin layers and in turn, dry the skin out if over-applied during non-humid weather.
Works Well With: Humectants work well with occlusives, which help to seal moisture in, and emollients, which can help to improve the softness and smoothness of the skin.
Don't Use With: Humectants hydrate and lead to the concentration of whatever you apply on the skin to stay on the skin. Therefore, you should be cautious with strong acids and retinoids.
What Is a Humectant?
“A humectant is a substance that is key to keeping the skin hydrated,” says Hu. “It’s an ingredient that helps draw moisture to the skin’s surface and retains water so that the skin does not end up drying out quickly. It is commonly used in face and body products such as serums, lotions, and creams.”
Familiar humectants include hyaluronic acid and collagen-boosting properties, both of which are commonly found in our daily skincare. Different humectants have different origins, but they all have a common purpose as skin hydrators. “Some humectants are derived from natural sources, such as honey and aloe vera, while others are synthesized from other sources to create ingredients like glycerin and propylene glycol,” says Shirazi.
Puza also notes that as humectants draw in moisture, they should not be applied to dry skin. “Always add humectants to damp skin,” he says.
Benefits of Humectants
- Draws moisture in: Humectants are designed to act like a sponge and attract water, says Garshick. They are often able to hold up to 100–1000 times their weight in moisture.
- Keeps the outside world out: According to Puza, humectants that are occlusives will work to seal off the cracks in the skin.
- Can double as keratolytic: Urea, a humectant, can also be an agent that helps remove skin, says Puza. It is effective on dry or rough skin, such as the heels.
- Preserves properties: Humectants can help dissolve actives and preserve products, says Shirazi.
- Exfoliates: Shirazi also shares that humectants can work as exfoliators and remove dead skin cells to even out the moisture levels in the skin.
- Soothes: Humectants function as a way to soothe and calm the skin after experiencing irritation, Hu tells us.
- Pretty and plump: Hu also adds that humectants can help reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles by “plumping” the top layer of your skin.
Side Effects of Humectants
While there are no general “side effects” of humectants, it is important to note that application is best after cleansing, while the skin is still damp.
“Humectants can be dry skin’s BFF or worst enemy,” says Shirazi. “The problems start when there is little humidity in the air, and the humectant is applied several times a day. It will begin to steal hydration from deeper skin layers, which in turn can dry out the skin.”
Garshick agrees, saying, '"It is also important to avoid over-moisturizing the skin, as the skin barrier only requires a certain amount of water to function optimally, and if you start increasing beyond that, it can actually disrupt the skin barrier."
How to Use
Products with humectants can be applied at any stage of your skincare routine when your skin is still damp, which will help the product easily absorb into the skin. Water-based skincare products are formulated with humectants because they moisturize and have preserving properties. If you have a skincare routine, you are probably already using humectants without realizing it, explains Hu.
“Products with humectants can be applied at any time, day or night,” adds Hu. “Humectants should be sealed with an occlusive product unless you live in an extremely humid environment. Otherwise, all of the moisture the humectant worked to bring to your stratum corneum will be evaporating into the air.”
Garshick adds that humectants can be helpful in different formulations—oils, serums, and creams—though are especially effective when applied to damp skin to help draw moisture in.
"While humectants can be found in all different formulations, it’s always important to use alongside other ingredients and products that help to lock moisture in and support the skin barrier," she says. "For example, using a hyaluronic acid serum followed by a moisturizing cream containing ceramides to support the barrier."
The Best Products With Humectants
Vichy Minéral 89
This lightweight facial moisturizer contains hyaluronic acid and mineral-rich Vichy Volcanic Water to simultaneously help boost hydration and support the skin barrier, and according to Garshick, it leaves the skin looking smoother and plumper. It is easy to use and can be applied on its own or followed by a thicker moisturizing cream.
Glow Recipe Plum Plump Hyaluronic Serum
This hyaluronic acid serum contains different molecular weights of hyaluronic acid, targeting the different layers of the skin. It hydrates the skin, leaving the skin feeling soft, smooth, and visibly plumper, and can reduce the appearance of fine lines, says Garshick.
Thayers Rose Water Facial Toner
Garshick recommends this alcohol-free facial toner with witch hazel, soothing aloe vera, and glycerin, which is a humectant that attracts moisture to boost hydration, allowing the product to help tone the skin while leaving the skin feeling hydrated.
Wander Beauty Baggage Claim Eye Mask
Garshick shares that these under-eye masks hydrate the skin and improve the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles by incorporating hyaluronic acid. They can also help with undereye bags, she says, as they help de-puff with the help of calendula extract, leaving you looking less tired.
Tatcha Dewy Cream
“The Tatcha Dewy Cream is my latest moisturizer,” Puza tells us. “It’s full of antioxidants, and being such a hydrating cream, it hasn’t caused any breakouts on my acne-prone skin. It plumps and smooths and lives up to its namesake.”
La Roche Posay Face Repair Lotion
A luxe product at an affordable price point, this product is a “phenomenal daily lotion,” says Puza. It is travel-friendly at 3 ounces and has niacinamide to fight antioxidant damage.
Neutrogena Hyaluronic Acid Serum
A great drugstore option, this fragrance-free, non-comedogenic serum is a great option for those who prefer serums as moisturizing agents, says Puza. A few drops after washing the face go a long way with this potent hydrator.
First-Aid Beauty Ultra Repair Cream
Shirazi recommends this fast-absorbing, rich moisturizer with colloidal oatmeal, which reduces inflammation. The humectant glycerin is formulated with shea butter and relieves irritation, while allantoin soothes and calms the skin. Shirazi says this product is great for those with dry skin who want a heavier cream.
AziMD Intense Recovery Complex
Formulated with glycerin and dimethicone, this duo hydrates and seals the skin. Shirazi shares that it also has ceramides and panthenol, which help repair the skin barrier and reduce acne bacteria. Shirazi recommends the lightweight moisturizer for anyone with dry, sensitive, or acne-prone skin.
Acaderma Better With Age Replenishing Light Cream
Hu explains that this cream, formulated with hyaluronic acid, draws moisture into the skin from the environment and helps keep the skin hydrated throughout the day without clogging pores. The Replenishing Light Cream is also packed with ceramides, MSM, peptides, and collagen to promote smoother, firmer skin, Hu adds.
Anove AHA + Aloe Cleansing Gel
Many cleansers can easily dry out the skin, says Hu, but the AHA + Aloe Cleansing Gel uses Aloe Vera to deliver a boost of hydration, retain moisture in your skin, and soothe irritation.