This article was last updated in December 2018.
Recently, we talked about dry skin—what causes it and what you can do about it, besides just piling on the moisturizer.
But let's say you're STILL struggling, and a cream is the only product that will do.
Here's a recent email from my inbox:
I have very dry skin, so in order to keep it feeling good, I need a heavy-duty moisturizer. But after using that, my skin acts like oily skin to start with, before drying out and caking by the end of the day. — Alice
This is a perfect example of what can happen when you use a poorly formulated moisturizer!
In this tutorial, you will learn:
- How to read a moisturizer label
- Which ingredients to avoid
- Which ingredients to look for (and in what combination)
- Whether active ingredients matter
How to Read a Moisturizer Label
Ignore any claims on the front of the label—which can often be misleading—and head straight to the ingredients list instead.
It's the first FIVE ingredients you want to examine closely.
Brands are required to list ingredients in order of highest to lowest concentration, and typically, the first five represent around 80 percent of the formula.
I'm less concerned about what's listed after that. (Although ideally, I don't like to see synthetic fragrance in moisturizers at all!)
[Read more about how to check your beauty and skincare ingredients]
Next, you'll want to identify what the ingredients are, if you don't recognize them. The EWG Skin Deep Database, CosDNA, Paula's Choice Ingredient Dictionary and Cosmetic Ingredients are all good reference sites.
But what, exactly, should you be looking for—and what should you avoid? Here are my tips for choosing a safe, effective cream.
How to Choose a Moisturizer
If you've determined that your skin does need a moisturizing cream, I suggest looking for products that meet or come close to the following criteria:
✗ Synthetic Fragrance and Essential Oils
Fragrance is the NUMBER ONE most common cause of skin irritations and allergic reactions to personal care products.
"Dermatologists do not like fragrance or perfumed products," says Dr. Sharyn Laughlin. "They are often complex chemicals with irritant or allergic effects."
And yet, most moisturizers contain fragrance! This study found that 83 percent of drugstore moisturizers contained fragrance or a fragrance-related allergen ("the most common allergen" in moisturizers).
Look for the words fragrance, perfume or parfum on labels and avoid those products if possible (or at the very least, make sure they're at the end of the ingredients list).
Also be aware that "fragrance-free" does not actually guarantee there's no fragrance. It just means that the product doesn't have a noticeable odour. It may still contain masking agents that are just as allergenic as fragrance chemicals! So you should always check the ingredients list to be sure.
As for essential oils, they're definitely safer than synthetic fragrances, and many people have no issues—as long as they're diluted. However, if you have sensitive skin, I'd avoid them.
Products to try:
✗ Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids (PUFAs)
Saturated and monounsaturated fatty acids are the best, most stable types of oils to put in a moisturizer.
- Saturated fatty acids have a chemical composition that makes them extremely stable and resistant to attack by free radicals. This is why they have the longest shelf life and will not easily go rancid.
- Monounsaturated fatty acids are the second best choice, and fairly stable because they have just one double bond within their fatty acid chains. (The more double bonds, the less stable the oil.)
- Polyunsaturated fatty acids are the worst choices, and include most seed oils. They contain multiple double bonds, which means they'll go rancid fast and cause oxidative damage to the skin, which is aging. Note: This happens even if the formula contains an antioxidant like vitamin E, since the half-life is MUCH shorter (only a matter of hours/days).
Look for ingredients such as squalane, coconut oil, caprylic/capric triglycerides, shea butter, cocoa butter, jojoba oil, marula oil and macadamia oil.
I avoid any oils that are more than about 15 percent polyunsaturated, including rose hip, grape seed, sesame, sunflower, soybean and safflower oils—keeping in mind the first-five-ingredients rule (they're less of a concern in lower quantities, far down an ingredients list). It's better if saturated or monounsaturated oils are also present in the formulation, as they'll have a stabilizing effect.
If you don't know whether an oil is saturated, monounsaturated or polyunsaturated, simply Google "[oil name] fatty acid profile" and you should be able to find it.
Products to try:
Silicones are synthetic polymers that you'll find in the vast majority of moisturizers nowadays.
Companies like them because a) they're cheap to use; b) they give products a velvety, spreadable texture; and c) they instantly smooth out the skin's surface.
But guess what? They only give the ILLUSION of hydrated skin, by forming a film on top of it. As man-made occlusives, they don't actually deliver moisture—or anything else beneficial!
By trapping oil, dead skin and debris in the pores, silicones can also exacerbate acne, dehydrate your skin over time, and even slow down cell renewal.
[Read more about why you should avoid silicones on your skin]
I suggest looking for products that are either silicone-free, or at least don't contain silicones in the first five to 10 ingredients.
Common names for silicones include dimethicone, trimethicone, cyclopentasiloxane and dimethiconol. A good rule of thumb is to look for any words that end in -cone, -siloxane or -conol.
Products to try:
✗ Petroleum Derivatives
Just like silicones, ingredients derived from petroleum create smooth textures and "work" by forming an occlusive barrier on the surface of the skin.
But again, they don't absorb or hydrate, due to their large molecule sizes.
And they may not even protect that well against water loss. "Creams that combine mineral oil and paraffin can actually damage the skin barrier and increase water loss," says Dr. Ava Shamban.
Furthermore, petroleum derivatives may clog your pores, create dull, dehydrated skin, and interfere with cell turnover.
These are the names you want to avoid: mineral oil, paraffin oil, liquid paraffin, paraffinum liquidum, liquid petroleum, petroleum oil, petrolatum liquid and white oil.
Emulsifying wax is sometimes derived from petroleum, so check with the manufacturer.
Products to try:
If a moisturizer contains water, then it NEEDS a preservative system.
Otherwise, it can become a breeding ground for bacteria and mould. Besides the yuck factor, that can diminish the product's effectiveness and trigger irritations and infections.
[Read more about jar packaging and whether it's bad for your skin]
So don't be swayed if you see the words "preservative-free" on a label, because that's not a good thing!
That said, you probably want to avoid certain types of preservatives, such as parabens and formaldehyde-releasers.
Better alternatives include:
- Food-grade preservatives: Sodium benzoate, potassium sorbate
- Alcohols: Ethanol, grape alcohol, benzyl alcohol, witch hazel
- Essential oils: Rosemary, neem, tea tree
- Plant-based preservatives: Gluconolactone, ethylhexyglycerin, triiostearyl citrate
- Non-toxic synthetics: Dehydroacetic acid
Products to try:
✗ Chemical Sunscreen Filters
Sunscreen is important to protect your skin from sun damage, and it's certainly convenient to use one that doubles as a moisturizer.
But most SPF moisturizers contain sunscreen filters with potentially harmful side effects. Here in North America, our only truly safe options are the mineral filters zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.
Here's why I avoid the chemical filters:
- Endocrine disruption: These researchers found effects on thyroid and reproductive hormones in multiple animal and cell studies.
- Cellular damage and aging. Many studies (see here, here, here and here) have found that certain chemical sunscreens interact with UV light to cause DNA damage in human skin cells. Even worse, this study found that the sunscreen generated more free radicals (which are aging) than none at all!
- Irritation: Chemical sunscreens such as oxybenzone and avobenzone are more likely to trigger contact dermatitis, rashes and irritation.
[Read more about physical vs. chemical sunscreen and which type to choose]
For adequate UVA and UVB protection, the concentration does matter; ideally, I like to see at least 20 percent zinc oxide. This tutorial walks you through the exact calculations... or just head to my list of recommended face sunscreens.
Products to try:
✓ Oils and Humectants
The best moisturizing creams combine stable oils with humectants.
"The foundation of a moisturizer is a combination of occlusive, humectant, and emollient ingredients," says Dr. Joshua Zeichner.
- An occlusive is an ingredient that forms a surface barrier to prevent moisture loss—but doesn't actually deliver moisture to the skin. Besides silicones and petroleum derivatives (which I don't recommend), examples include thicker oils such as olive oil and shea butter. But any oil can become occlusive depending on the quantity used!
- An emollient is an ingredient that softens and hydrates, filling in cracks and preventing moisture loss. Examples include jojoba oil and squalane.
- A humectant is an ingredient that draws water from the environment onto the skin. Examples include glycerin, hyaluronic acid and sodium PCA.
What you don't want is a moisturizer that ONLY contains humectants.
Using high amounts of humectants can keep the skin too "wet," which leads to a weakened barrier that is more slowly replaced.
Plus, in dry weather conditions, humectants' action is reversed. They pull moisture out of your skin, instead of the air—making dryness worse, not better!
So look for creams with a high oil content (ideally higher than the humectants). Alternatively, you can always add a thin layer of an oil you tolerate on top of your cream or serum.
Products to try:
✗ Detergents (Emulsifiers)
This last one is the hardest thing to avoid, but if you're dealing with perpetually dry, irritated skin or acne, you may want to pay attention!
When you think of detergents in skincare, you probably think of cleansers, and specifically, sulfates—which strip away protective oils and can cause dryness and irritation.
With acne-prone skin, it's also a good idea to avoid or limit emulsifiers. Dermatology Times suggests: "Acnegenic substances are usually follicular irritants and may include emulsifiers."
Some of the names they go under include emulsifying wax, cetyl alcohol, stearyl alcohol, PEG-100 stearate, glyceryl stearate and and sorbitan oleate.
Like I said, it's REALLY difficult to find products without emulsifiers, but you may find they're okay in lower quantities (i.e. not within the first five ingredients). Alternatively, you could try skipping cream altogether and layering an oil on top of a serum.
Products to try:
Do Moisturizers Need Active Ingredients?
In my opinion, not really. I wouldn't get too hung up on actives needing to be in your cream.
By "active," I'm referring to anti-aging ingredients such as retinol, vitamin C and peptides.
You're better off using those in a serum format, then applying your moisturizer on top.
Why? Because serums offer a more stable environment than creams, at the correct pH level, meaning the ingredients will stay potent longer without degrading.
Typically, serums also contain a higher percentage of actives, and penetrate more readily since they're not diluted by emollients.
As you may have noticed, the "perfect" moisturizing cream probably doesn't exist, based on the challenges of formulating this type of product. So far, I haven't been able to find anything that ticks off ALL the boxes, but the products I've shared here are the best options available.
If you haven't already, I'd also encourage you to test out a humectant-oil combination, and see if that's enough for you. You may find you don't actually NEED a cream!
"If you don't have dry skin, then why use moisturizer?" says Marie Lodén, who wrote Dry Skin and Moisturizers, and is the author of this study. "If you just wear it because you think you're worth it, or because it comes in a pretty pot, that's okay, but remember—it might not be benefiting your skin."
I couldn't agree more, due to the concerns about barrier function and slowed cellular renewal, along with the potential for irritation and clogged pores. Dr. Rachael Eckel even goes as far to say that moisturizers make the skin "lazy," causing dryness, large pores, acne, sensitivity and fine lines.
Rather than creams, I like to layer squalane on top of a serum such as Consonant HydrExtreme. If you need more moisture, an essence such as COSRX Advanced Snail 96 Mucin Power Essence is a great choice. There are also oil-based balms such as S.W. Basics Original Cream and LXMI Pure Nilotica Melt Nourishing Balm-to-Oil, which I'd also say are preferable to creams. If you do need a cream, these types of products are great to layer on TOP, to add barrier protection.
Whether you decide to try a cream or not, let me know how it goes with these tips!
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