How to Choose a Face Cream: The Best and Worst Moisturizer Ingredients for Your Skin

Does your moisturizer measure up?
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Moisturizer ingredients

Not everyone needs to use a face cream. But if you do, your moisturizer should have the right ingredients—and as few of the wrong ones as possible.

"Moisturizers can absolutely make skin worse," says Dr. Peter M. Elias. "Some products can be incorrectly formulated, not only allowing moisture to escape but literally sucking it out of your skin."

So how do you go about choosing a good one? 

In this tutorial, you will learn:

  • What every moisturizer must do
  • The ingredients to look for (and in what combination)
  • The ingredients to limit or avoid
  • Which products I recommend most!

What to Look for in a Moisturizer 

According to this 2016 paper in the Indian Journal of Dermatology, an ideal moisturizer should:

  • Reduce and prevent transepidermal water loss (TEWL), which is the evaporation of moisture from the skin into the atmosphere
  • Restore the lipid barrier 
  • Be non-sensitizing and non-comedogenic
  • Absorb immediately
  • Feel cosmetically acceptable 
  • Have an affordable price

That's why you always want to scan a cream's ingredients list before you buy it.

Ignore any claims on the front of the label, which can often be misleading. (For example, the term "hypoallergenic" sounds impressive, but isn't regulated at all.)

To see what's what, it's the first FIVE ingredients that 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. Anything near the end of the list is only going to be present in very low amounts.

Next, you'll want to identify what the ingredients are, if you don't already recognize them. My favourite resource site is INCIDecoder, but you can also try CosDNA, Paula's Choice Ingredient Dictionary or the EWG Skin Deep Database.

Now, here's what should be in your moisturizer, and what shouldn't.

The Best Moisturizer Ingredients

✓ Humectants

"To improve dry skin, a combination of types of emollients including humectants, occlusives and barrier repair ingredients is the best approach," says Dr. Leslie Baumann.

Humectants are substances that attract water from both the air and the deeper layers of your skin in order to hydrate the stratum corneum (top layer of skin).

Examples of humectants include:

  • Glycerin
  • Hyaluronic acid
  • Sodium hyaluronate
  • Aloe
  • Panthenol
  • Honey
  • Gluconolactone
  • Propylene glycol
  • Urea
  • Alpha-hydroxy acids

But you won't get long-lasting results from a face cream that ONLY contains humectants (like some gel moisturizers). To prevent the moisture from escaping and to actually repair your skin barrier, humectants need to be combined with the other two types of emollients.

✓ Occlusives

Occlusives are ingredients that form a protective barrier on your skin to prevent moisture loss. So they trap the water that was attracted by your humectants, and keep it locked in.

Examples of occlusives include:

  • Shea butter
  • Jojoba oil
  • Coconut oil
  • Lanolin
  • Beeswax
  • Cetyl alcohol
  • Lethicin

Bear in mind that occlusives don't deliver any moisture themselves. "They put a sealant on your skin by coating the top layer," says Dr. Elizabeth Tanzi. "This is different from pulling in water and hydrating skin."

✓ Barrier-Repairing Ingredients

Barrier-repairing ingredients treat the underlying cause of dryness—a damaged skin barrier—by replicating the natural balance of lipids found in healthy skin. These substances work to seal up the cracks between skin cells.

There are three types of barrier-repairing ingredients:

  • Ceramides
  • Cholesterol
  • Fatty acids (such as stearic acid, glyceryl stearate and palmitic acid)

"The healthiest skin is made up of the correct balance of three key lipids: cholesterol, ceramides and free fatty acids," explains Dr Mervyn Patterson. "They are skin's natural protection and ideally, they exist in a ratio of 1:1:1."

If you have particularly dry or sensitive skin, you'll get the best results from a cream that contains all three. "If ceramides are applied with other lipids such as cholesterol in a combination similar to that found in the skin barrier, this further enhances barrier repair," says Dr. Justine Hextall.

✓ Insoluble Sunscreen Filters

SPF is essential daily, but if you'd rather not apply two different products, the right sunscreen can double as moisturizer.

"The most important part of skincare is sunscreen, and formulations now are so hydrating you often don't need a separate moisturizer," says Dr. Stefanie Williams

Most sunscreen ingredients are hormone disruptors, so it's important to look for insoluble filters—safe sunscreen ingredients with large particle sizes that don't get absorbed into the body.

You also want filters that give you superior protection from UVA rays, which are responsible for skin aging and skin cancer.

Therefore, the best insoluble sunscreen filters are:

  • Zinc oxide
  • Tinosorb M (bemotrizinol)
  • Tinosorb S (bisoctrizole)
  • Tinosorb A2B (tris-biphenyl triazine)

✓ A Preservative System

If a moisturizer contains water, then it needs to have a preservative system. 

Otherwise, it can become a breeding ground for bacteria and mold. Besides the yuck factor, that can diminish the product's effectiveness and trigger irritations and infections.

If you're looking to avoid controversial preservatives like parabens, your choices include:

  • Food-grade preservatives (such as sodium benzoate and potassium sorbate)
  • Alcohols (such as ethanol, benzyl alcohol and witch hazel)
  • Essential oils (such as rosemary, neem and tea tree oil)
  • Plant-based preservatives (such as gluconolactone)
  • Synthetics (such as dehydroacetic acid and phenoxyethanol)

Don't be swayed if you see the words "preservative-free" on a label, because that's not actually a good thing!

The Worst Moisturizer Ingredients

✗ Fragrance 

Fragrance is the number one cause of skin irritations and allergic reactions to personal care products—and yet, you'll find it in most moisturizers.

This study found that 83 percent of drugstore creams contained fragrance or a fragrance-related allergen.

"Dermatologists do not like fragrance or perfumed products," says Dr. Sharyn Laughlin. "They are often complex chemicals with irritant or allergic effects."

This includes both synthetic fragrance as well as essential oils and their components (such as geraniol, linalool and limonene). If you can't avoid them altogether, at least make sure they're near the end of an ingredients list, in a low concentration.

Also be aware that "fragrance-free" doesn't guarantee there's no fragrance—it just means the product doesn't have a noticeable odour. Masking agents may be present, and they can be just as problematic as fragrance chemicals.

✗ Silicones

Companies love to use silicones in moisturizers because they're cheap, they make products feel velvety, and they instantly smooth out the skin's surface. 

But as man-made film-formers, their only function is to act as occlusives—and in fact, they can work a little TOO well. 

Yes, they seal in moisture, but also dead skin cells, oil and bacteria along with it, which can lead to clogs and eventually breakouts. “A lot of moisturizers contain silicone to fill in flaws and create a smooth finish, but they also fill in pores," explains facialist Kate Kerr.

Plus, the coating action of silicones can slow down your skin's natural ability to shed dead skin cells and turn over new ones. That could mean drier skin over time.

So I suggest looking for moisturizers that are either silicone-free, or that don't contain silicones in the first five ingredients.

✗ Mineral Oil

Just like silicones, mineral oil creates smooth textures and works by forming a seal on top of the skin—but it can also be too occlusive.

"Mineral oils can retain moisture so effectively that the skin will become too moist," says Dr. Jetske Ultee. "Your skin will look good at first (because the lines are stretched out), but in the long run various cellular processes will work somewhat less efficiently. Eventually this will lead to your skin not being able to protect itself and you find yourself in a vicious circle; your skin quickly dries out if you don't put any cream on and so you keep applying it."

Dr. Ava Shamban agrees: "Creams that combine mineral oil and paraffin can actually damage the skin barrier and increase water loss."

Other names for mineral oil include paraffin oil, liquid paraffin, paraffinum liquidum, liquid petroleum, petroleum oil, petrolatum, petrolatum liquid and white oil. 

✗ Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids 

Creams with a high concentration.of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) can cause oxidative damage that will age your skin.

PUFAs "have limited stability," explains Dr. Laughlin. "This can affect the shelf life of skincare products containing them."

Once a PUFA-laden moisturizer reacts with air, heat and UV light, it quickly oxidizes (goes rancid). This process releases free radicals, which are dangerous molecules that attack cell DNA.

"A rancid oil on the skin, no matter how anti-aging it was when stable, will have the opposite effect on your skin," says facialist Abigail James.

For these reasons, I avoid oils with a primarily polyunsaturated fatty acid profile. For example, rose hip, grape seed, sesame, sunflower, soybean and safflower oils are just a few of the common PUFA oils in moisturizers. (If you don't know whether an oil is polyunsaturated, Google "[oil name] fatty acid profile" and you should be able to find it.)

If you can't completely avoid PUFAs, at least make sure they're not in the first five ingredients, and use the product up within three to six months. It's also better if the formula contains some saturated or monounsaturated fatty acids, as they will have a stabilizing effect.

✗ Oleic Acid

Another fatty acid to consider limiting is oleic acid. But not because of oxidation. As a type of monounsaturated fatty acid (MUFA), oleic acid is quite stable.

The problem is that oleic acid "can create tiny holes in your skin and therefore damage your skin's natural barrier," says Dr. Baumann.

Olive oil is high in oleic acid and therefore one of the worst offenders. This study found that it significantly weakened the skin barrier and induced redness even in people with no history of dermatitis. Other high-oleic oils include camellia and almond oils.

✗ Soluble Sunscreen Filters

If your moisturizer has SPF, make sure it doesn't use soluble sunscreen filters. These ingredients absorb right into the body, where they cause hormone disruption, DNA mutations and changes in gene expression.

"I believe that every human should absolutely avoid these petrochemical UV filters," says Dr. Denis Dudley, endocrinologist and co-founder of CyberDerm. Besides their harmful physiological effects, "there is little evidence that sunscreens using soluble petrochemical UV filters can prevent skin cancer."

These are the filters that are NOT generally regarded as safe or effective: avobenzone, oxybenzone, homosalate, octisalate, octocrylene, octinoxate, meradimate, cinoxate, padimate O, ensulizole, dioxybenzone and sulisobenzone.

✗ Emulsifiers

When you think of detergents in skincare, you probably think of cleansers, and specifically, sulfates—which are known to strip away protective oils and cause dryness and irritation.

But guess what? Emulsifiers belong to the same ingredient family, and can have a similar lipid-depleting action on the skin. 

"Contact allergy to emulsifiers is more frequent than reported," concludes this study, while this study reports that they can indeed weaken the skin barrier.

"Emulsifiers are used in skincare to bind oil and water together," explains facialist Andy Millward. "However, they don't lose their emulsifying abilities when they're applied to the skin. When water is then applied... the lipids or oils from your skin barrier, along with the emulsifiers, can be washed away—it's referred to as the 'wash-out effect.'"

Some examples of emulsifiers are emulsifying wax, cetearyl olivate, stearyl alcohol, PEG-100 stearate, glyceryl stearate and sorbitan oleate. But there are many more, so it can be a real challenge to avoid emulsifiers entirely. You may find they're okay in lower quantities (not within the first five ingredients).

The Best Face Moisturizers to Try

As you can imagine, the "perfect" moisturizer probably doesn't exist, based on the challenges of formulating this type of product. But here are some of the best creams I've found to date, which tick off as many of the boxes as possible:

The Ordinary Natural Moisturizing Factors + HA

The Ordinary Natural Moisturizing Factors HA

The Ordinary Natural Moisturizing Factors + HA

The Ordinary Natural Moisturizing Factors + HA (reviewed here) gives you fatty acids, ceramide precursors, hyaluronic acid and amino acids—all in a super affordable, light cream.

LXMI Crème du Nil Pore-Refining Moisture Veil

LXMI Creme du Nil Pore-Refining Moisture Veil

LXMI Crème du Nil Pore-Refining Moisture Veil

LXMI Crème du Nil Pore-Refining Moisture Veil (reviewed here) nourishes skin with shea butter—which is high in barrier-repairing stearic acid—plus glycerin and squalane. A little goes a long way!

Augustinus Bader The Cream

Augustinus Bader The Cream

Augustinus Bader The Cream

Augustinus Bader The Cream is lightweight but packed with shea butter, ceramides and the brand's exclusive amino acid complex. Maybe that's why so many celebrities swear by it!

The Inkey List Ceramide Night Treatment

The Inkey List Ceramide Night Treatment

The Inkey List Ceramide Night Treatment

The Inkey List Ceramide Night Treatment repairs skin while you sleep with a three percent ceramide complex, as well as glycerin, hyaluronic acid and jojoba oil.

OSEA Atmosphere Protection Cream

OSEA Atmosphere Protection Cream

OSEA Atmosphere Protection Cream

OSEA Atmosphere Protection Cream blends algae extract with macadamia oil, shea butter and jojoba oil to create a lightweight but surprisingly effective lotion.

EltaMD Barrier Renewal Complex

EltaMD Barrier Renewal Complex

EltaMD Barrier Renewal Complex

EltaMD Barrier Renewal Complex, a derm favourite, boasts all three types of barrier-repairing ingredients (ceramides, cholesterol and fatty acids) plus niacinamide and hyaluronic acid.

Omorovicza Elemental Emulsion

Omorovicza Elemental Emulsion

Omorovicza Elemental Emulsion

Omorovicza Elemental Emulsion combines fatty alcohols with glycerin, hyaluronic acid and the brand's mineral-rich Hungarian thermal water. Since it's oil-free, this is one of the better options for acne-prone skin.

Dr Roebuck’s No Worries Hydrating Face Moisturizer

Dr Roebuck's No Worries Hydrating Face Moisturizer

Dr Roebuck's No Worries Hydrating Face Moisturizer

Dr Roebuck's No Worries Hydrating Face Moisturizer is an ultra clean, minimalistic formula featuring macadamia oil, glycerin and hyaluronic acid. It has a creamy, whipped texture but isn't greasy.

Juice Beauty SPF 30 Oil-Free Moisturizer

Juice Beauty SPF 30 Oil-Free Moisturizer

Juice Beauty SPF 30 Oil-Free Moisturizer

Juice Beauty SPF 30 Oil-Free Moisturizer gives you mineral sun protection (thanks to 20 percent zinc oxide) along with aloe and coconut fatty acids for deep hydration.

Conclusion

Now you know what to look for in a face cream—if you need one. 

According to Dr. Rachael Eckel, only 15 percent of us have "genetically dry skin" that actually requires moisturizer. So if you're struggling with dryness, check out my tutorial on what causes dry skin to see if your skincare routine could really be the culprit.

If not, these guidelines will help you select the right product, and avoid the wrong ones. "When it comes to skin hydrating itself sufficiently, some people's can and some people's can't," says Dr. Doris Day. "The more you support your skin—sometimes by using hydrators and moisturizers—the more easily you can have healthy, beautiful, resilient skin."

Let me know which moisturizer ingredients have worked (or not) for you!

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