Moisturizing skin is an important step in skin care. Besides providing comfort and making skin feel softer, a moisturizer provides a temporary, occlusive film over the skin’s surface, which slows down water escaping out of skin and keeps skin moist longer.
It also nourishes the skin barrier by replacing lipids that are lost or depleted. This too minimizes the loss of water out of skin. Many skin issues arise when the skin barrier has been damaged or is inadequately nourished.
A moisturizer also delivers ingredients that treat skin concerns, such as aging or brightening.
If your skin feels dry, you first need to understand that it may be dehydrated or dry (or both). There is a difference. Read this first: Dry vs Dehydrated Skin.
Now that you understand the difference, you’ll realize that the term “moisturizer” is ambiguous. Moisturizing may mean helping skin retain water or giving it lipids, or both.
For example, an oil-free gel moisturizer hydrates skin but it doesn’t feed it with lipids. It’s called a moisturizer. On the other hand, a face oil feeds the skin with lipids but it lacks humectant (water-binding) ingredients, so it doesn’t hydrate skin. This oil is also called a moisturizer. Now, consider a typical face cream – it contains both hydrating AND lipid ingredients. This too is called a moisturizer. So you see, a moisturizer can have different effects on skin, depending on what’s in it.
I bring this point up because while everyone needs water in their skin, the need for lipids varies across people and at different times. Therefore, the method of moisturizing and the type of moisturizer you choose is crucial. This is especially true if you have oily or acneic skin.
I highly recommend you read How to Hydrate Skin before proceeding. Everyone needs to hydrate, and this will explain the best way. Then you can read on!
How to Choose the Right Moisturizer for Your Skin Type
If you are unsure of whether you have dehydrated or dry skin..
First, assume you have dehydrated skin, because in all likelihood, you have some dehydration. Almost everyone has some degree of dehydration.
Look for humectants in a moisturizer. It is always a good idea to help skin stay hydrated with humectants. Fortunately, most moisturizers today contain humectants, so you do not have to work hard to find them.
Even better, use a hydrating toner containing humectants prior to applying moisturizer. A hydrating toner benefits all skin types. It’s a step that I consider essential, and goes a long way.
Next, consider your Skin Type.
NORMAL OR DRY SKIN
Use a moisturizer rich in lipids. This will strengthen your skin’s barrier function because the lipids in the outer layer of skin are depleted through everyday cleansing and environmental exposure. This will also slow down water loss and make skin softer and smoother.
Most moisturizers contain lipids, unless they say ‘Oil-Free.’ So again, you do not have to work hard to find them.
Creams will contain more lipids than lotions. See Mature/Very Dry Skin below for more options.
If you have oily skin, you have three options:
1. You can use moisturizers that are Oil-Free. Oil-free moisturizers are typically water-based and made without any lipids. Many oil-free moisturizers specifically designed for oily skin contain oil-absorbing ingredients, and some have oil-regulating ingredients too.
Oil-free moisturizers are suitable when the air is NOT dry. If the air in your environment is very dry (for instance a dry climate with very low humidity, dry indoor air due to the air conditioner or heater), then you are better off with a moisturizer that is NOT oil-free (see #2 below). An oil-free moisturizer allows water to evaporate faster from skin. So in a low humidity environment, an oil-free moisturizer will dry out your skin.
2. You can use a regular moisturizer (isn’t ‘oil-free’). Just because you have oily skin doesn’t mean your skin doesn’t need or can’t benefit from oily/fatty/emollient ingredients (which are found in regular moisturizers). Lipids are essential components of skin, and those lipids are naturally depleted from cleansing and harsh weather conditions. So, replacing those lipids is necessary.
Regular moisturizers contain lipids that are similar to the lipids found in your skin. When you apply a moisturizer to skin, you nourish the skin barrier with lipids and make it stronger. When it’s stronger, less water evaporates and your skin stays moist longer. The overall health of your skin will be much better.
The amount of lipids in a regular moisturizer will vary a lot. Fortunately, there are many options in different textures. You will want one without too much. Look for a lightweight moisturizer that feels comfortable to you.
3. You can use a face oil that is suitable for oily skin. Either use it instead of a moisturizer or add 1 drop to your moisturizer.
- It may sound counter-intuitive to add oil to oily skin, but a face oil (typically a plant oil or blend of oils) gives skin essential fatty acids (lipids) that strengthen the skin barrier.
- When your skin is deprived of surface oil (i.e. if the sebum has been stripped away by harsh cleansers or excessive cleansing), it compensates for the lack of oil by producing more oil.
- Adding essential fatty acids to your skin keeps your barrier function intact. When it is strong, it is less likely to cause skin problems. Many skin issues are due to or aggravated by a damaged or weak barrier function.
You can find many face oils on the market now. They are made of a variety of plant oils. Some have anti-microbial or anti-inflammatory properties that are good for oily or acneic skin. Some are not suitable for oily skin.
Unfortunately, finding an oil that works for your skin is a bit of a trial and error process. Check the label but be prepared to do some experimentation. While an oil may claim to be suitable for oily skin, it may not work for your skin if it contains ingredients that inflame your skin, which brings me to my next point..
Be aware that some some plant oils can be sensitizing because they are allergens for some people. If you happen to be sensitive to a particular compound in that oil, you may get a bad reaction, such as a rash, or breakout.
Here’s how to apply oil without overloading your skin:
- Put 1-2 drops of oil on a finger.
- Spread the oil onto a few other fingers.
- Press those fingers into your skin over your face (or the areas that are dry).
- There is no need to rub. Just press. The oil on your fingertips will transfer onto skin.
- You don’t need more than 1-2 drops. Applying an oil is not like applying a cream or lotion over your face. With an oil, you need a much smaller amount than a cream.
COMBINATION SKIN (OILY T-ZONE)
If you do not have oily skin but have an oily nose/T-zone or a bad case of blackheads in that area, try using an Oil-Free moisturizer there. Then, apply a regular moisturizer on the rest of your face (the non-oily areas) so that it gets adequately nourished with lipids.
When you have sizable or stubborn blackheads, you don’t want to add lipid-rich ingredients over those clogged pores. There’s already enough oil trapped in those pores.
Watch the area closely for any potential drying though. You don’t want to withhold lipids from skin indefinitely or in low humidity conditions.
MATURE OR VERY DRY SKINIf you have very dry skin, look for cream moisturizers with at least a few plant oils in the ingredient list. The closer they are listed near the top of the ingredient list, the better.
Or you can use a face oil. Face oils are a blend of plant oils rich in essential fatty acids, antioxidants, and nutrients.
You can also mix 1 or 2 drops of face oil with a moisturizer. Or you can apply a moisturizer first, and then an oil over it.
Another product that is sometimes helpful is a good moisturizing face mask, which you can use 1-3 times a week after you exfoliate.
Or you can apply an overnight sleeping mask on top of your regular night cream. Sleeping masks are popular in Asian skincare. Or try a hydrating serum ampoule under your moisturizer. An ampoule is a concentrated amount of serum that delivers an intense shot of hydration.