Can Giving Up Moisturizer Save Your Skin?

Updated 05/19/19

Cleanse, tone, moisturize—it’s the classic skincare ritual we’ve all memorized by heart, even if we don’t necessarily always follow it precisely. Like knowing everything tastes better when it’s in a bowl, or that Clueless: The Musical will one day be a glorious reality, this three-step routine is one of the world’s simplest truths. Which is why we were shocked by the revelation that Dr. Zein Obagi, dermatologist to celebs like Jennifer Aniston and Lucy Hale, doesn’t believe in moisturizer; yes, you read that correctly. In fact, he thinks using moisturizer can actually be detrimental to your skin. Shocked? Flabbergasted? Intrigued? So were we.


First things first: In order to understand why Dr. Obagi doesn’t like moisturizers, you need to understand his definition of one. “Moisturizers can vary in thickness and potency,” he says. “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.’” 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 less your skin exfoliates naturally, the less the new cells will be encouraged to regenerate. 

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, saying 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. 

Open jar of what looks like moisturizer but it's not labeled
Pepe Leon

Now that we've sufficiently freaked you out, allow Obagi to offer a solution—or rather, many solutions. First of all, it's important to remember that he is referring to those who use moisturizer alone and not necessarily in conjunction with products like serums or ampoules. The most important thing he 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." His key revelation is that natural hydration should come from within. He gives the visual of cutting a tree from the root—the tree will die, no matter how much you water the branches or leaves (a slightly morbid comparison, but you get the idea). 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. (The products in his line, ZO Skin Health, are beloved by Lucy Hale and many other celebs for the gentle-yet-effective formulations.)

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. He claims moisturizer should not be used every day, with one exception: Long-term outdoor exposure to the wind and sun. Instead of applying a moisturizer that sits on top of the skin's surface, try looking for calming and hydrating agents that stimulate skin renewal from within. 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.

Keep scrolling to shop two of ZO Skin Health's skin-strengthening serums, as well as more of our favorites. 

Zo Skin Health Retinol Skin Brightener 1%
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10% Vitamin C Self-Activating
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Kakadu C Serum
Dermadoctor Kakadu C ™ Serum $95
Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Framboos Glycolic Night Serum $90
Water Bank Essence
Laneige Water Bank Essence $35
BHA Clarifying Serum
Renée Rouleau BHA Clarifying Serum $50
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YesTo Blueberries Intensive Skin Repair Serum $26
Omorovicza Daily Vitamin C
Omorovicza Daily Vitamin C $150

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