Wait—Does Moisturizer Even Do Anything? We Asked Dermatologists

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Cleanse, tone, moisturize—it’s the classic skincare ritual we’ve all memorized by heart, even if we don’t always follow it precisely. For those with dry skin, though, moisturizer is the holy grail of the routine, but you may be shocked to hear some dermatologists don’t believe lotion helps with dry skin. Crazy right?

Generally speaking, moisturizer is believed to be good for your skin by acting as a protective barrier. Still, if overused, your skin could rely on the moisturizer and not properly exfoliate on its own or produce as many natural lipids and proteins, according to dermatologist Zein Obagi, MD. 

Meet the Expert

To further understand how all of this could be true, we consulted three dermatologists for answers. Keep reading to hear what Obagi, Mara Weinstein Velez, MD, FAAD, and Michele Farber, MD, FAAD, have to say about your precious moisturizer.

How Moisturizer Works

First things first: In order to understand why some dermatologists don't love moisturizers, you need to understand what they are and how they work. "The purpose of a moisturizer is to prevent the loss of water in the outermost layer of our skin, the stratum corneum, but it also helps to prevent environmental damage to your skin as it acts as a protective barrier," says Weinstein Velez.

“Moisturizers can vary in thickness and potency,” Obagi adds. “If the dominant ingredient is water, it will be classified as a ‘light’ moisturizer. If it has a high concentration of protein, it is labeled a ‘moderate moisturizer.’ If the lipids, or fatty substances, are the dominant ingredient, they are called ‘heavy moisturizers.’” Weinstein Velez adds that lighter, oil-free moisturizers are well-suited for acne-prone skin, while thicker formulas with humectants and lipids are better for dry skin.

Is Moisturizer Bad for Your Skin?

Obagi firmly believes that moisturizers, in general, reduce your skin’s natural ability to exfoliate. Why? He says that dead skin cells “stick” back onto your complexion when you apply a moisturizer, which prevents them from exfoliating and shedding like they would naturally. “The thick layer of dead skin cells stuck to the skin will make your complexion look dull,” he says. “The mother cells deep in the epidermis will stop dividing and creating new cells, due to the accumulation of dead skin on the surface." It may sound far-fetched, but it does seem to make sense, in a way; the idea is that the less your skin exfoliates naturally, the less the new cells will be encouraged to regenerate. Weinstein Velez agrees that this can happen, so she recommends exfoliating once a week to remove dead cells on the surface of your skin.

Another reason Obagi is against moisturizer: He believes that if you use it daily over time, it can change your skin’s natural balance of water, lipids, and proteins. The result? Your body will stop delivering the skin’s normal, natural method of hydration from within: "When the imbalance of water, lipids, and proteins is altered using moisturizers, the skin’s ability to act as a strong barrier to protect our inner organs will be weakened," he explains. Your whole sensitive skin issue? He blames that on moisturizer, claiming your skin becomes weaker and less tolerant after three to four weeks of only using moisturizer. "Those who use moisturizers alone long-term, without a stimulator, will induce skin weakness and epidermal thinning," he warns. How ominous. 

Should I Use a Moisturizer?

In short, yes. "A daily moisturizer is necessary to maintain your skin's moisture barrier and to prevent environmental damage to your skin," Weinstein Velez explains. "I recommend using a daily facial moisturizer with sunscreen once daily in the morning and a moisturizer tailored to your skin type in the evening." But she notes that it's important not to over-moisturize, and it shouldn't be the only product in your skincare routine. When used sparingly and in conjunction with products that have the right active ingredients—such as serums and washes that contain retinoids to promote cell turnover or exfoliant acids—moisturizers can be beneficial, says board-certified dermatologist Michele Farber, MD.

When applying moisturizer, a nickel-sized amount should be enough for your entire face. Using too much moisturizer may leave your face feeling oily and potentially lead to breakouts.

The most important thing Obagi says to remember is that you should be using products that enhance your skin's natural exfoliation process, instead of stifling it—or, as he puts it, "eliminating surface dead cells and allowing the mother cells to create a new generation of cells for renewal." Look for ingredients like fruit acids in your serums and skincare products, which exfoliate your skin and are gentle enough for those with sensitive skin; retinol and antioxidants will help, too. And if the retinol causes dryness, Weinstein Velez says it's totally fine to use a moisturizer to combat it.

Here's another slightly jarring claim from Obagi: "Only a small percentage of people who have certain genetic disorders have actual skin dryness." What does he mean? Basically, he's saying that most people who consider themselves as having dry skin actually just need help "building stronger barrier functions, using enhancers that regulate skin cell renewal, and stimulators that boost certain cellular functions within the skin." In other words: Use more products with antioxidants, retinol, and fruit acids to aid your skin in moisturizing itself from the inside out, and slather on less moisturizer. In contrast to Weinstein Velez, he claims moisturizer should not be used every day, with one exception: Long-term outdoor exposure to the wind and sun.

The Final Takeaway

Think of your skin like a muscle and moisturizer like a pair of Spanx: It may give you a temporary fix, but strengthening from the inside out will give you better long-term results. And when in doubt, just ask your derm. Obagi says your skin's needs change about every year or so, and a professional who truly knows it will be able to help you achieve your glowy skin goals.

Article Sources
Byrdie takes every opportunity to use high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial guidelines to learn more about how we keep our content accurate, reliable and trustworthy.
  1. Tang SC, Yang JH. Dual effects of alpha-hydroxy acids on the skinMolecules. 2018;23(4):863. doi:10.3390/molecules23040863

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