What does moisturiser do

What does moisturiser do – and how to match a moisturiser to your skin type

12th February 2024 | Author: Abigail Beall

If you’ve ever wondered “What does a moisturiser do?,” we explain how they work and how to choose a moisturiser for your skin type

Moisturisers are a staple of any skincare routine, which means they’re also the products that have the most marketing and jargon thrown at them.

It’s not enough to just buy a moisturiser for oily skin, or choose one based on the brand because what suits one person’s skin won’t suit another.

Not to mention the fact they vary very wildly on price as well.

The best place to start is by cutting through the marketing BS and understanding how moisturisers work by answering the immortal question: “what does moisturiser do?”

Below we’ve explained the science of moisturiser and what to look for in a moisturiser best suited for your skin type.

We’ve also spoken to leading cosmetic chemist Perry Romanowski, Vice President at Element 44 Inc, to get his tips on which ingredients to look for whether you have oily, dry, or acne-prone skin, and which to avoid.

FURTHER READING: What skin type do I have? Best moisturiser for all skin typesSkin serum, facial oil or moisturiser: What’s the difference and which one do you need?

What does moisturiser do?

Science of moisturiser and how they work

Credit: Compound Chemistry

Moisturisers work on the outer layer of your skin called the stratum corneum. This layer is typically referred to as the dead layer because it’s where dead skin cells are.

“Cells in the epidermis are not living but moisturisers do two main things,” Romanowski told mamabella.  “They attract and bind water in the epidermis which makes the skin more flexible and makes it feel better, and [they] add emollients to the skin which makes it directly feel and look better.”

How does moisturiser work?

The best moisturisers contain ingredients from three main categories – occlusives, emollients, and humectants.

  • There is an occlusive agent, such as petrolatum, that provides a thin layer on top of the skin that prevents moisture from escaping. This creates a long-lasting moisturising effect.
  • Then, there are humectants, like glycerin or hyaluronic acid, that attract and bind moisture in the skin.
  • Lastly, there are emollients, like mineral oil, which soften and condition the skin, making it more flexible and smoother.

How to choose a moisturiser for your skin type

What does moisturiser do and how to pick a moisturiser for my skin typemamabella | mamabella

When looking for a moisturiser, certain ingredients will help certain skin types. Of course, if you don’t know your skin type you’re already on the back foot.

We explain more about how to determine what type of skin you have in our What skin type do I have? guide, but to summarise:

Dry skin moisturisers

You have dry skin if:

  • Your face feels tight, especially after cleansing
  • You have premature fine lines
  • Your pores appear small
  • Makeup tends to cling to patches of your skin
  • Your skin flakes is itchy or red

Look for: Dry skin tends to be lacking in oil so needs more emollients and occlusive ingredients to help increase oil and moisture levels. These ingredients also prevent water from evaporating from the skin.

What to avoid: Avoid moisturisers or any skincare products containing fragrances, especially if your skin is sensitive.

mamabella recommends: CeraVe Moisturising CreamPurito Deep Sea Water Cream, The Ordinary Moisturising Factors and HA, First Aid Beauty Ultra Repair Cream

We also have a full list of the best moisturisers for dry skin here.

Oily skin moisturisers

How to get rid of oily skin and stop oily skin causes acneGetty Images/iStockphoto

You have oily skin if:

  • Your face often looks shiny and feels greasy
  • You have noticeable pores
  • You’re prone to spots
  • Makeup doesn’t last long on your skin/melts off
  • You need to apply powder throughout the day

Look for: Oily skin can get away without moisturising daily however, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t need a moisturiser at all. This is because oily skin can still become dehydrated and if the skin becomes too dehydrated, it can cause your cells to produce even more oil to overcompensate – thus making the situation worse. Look for humectants and light emollients/thin occlusives.  If you’re prone to acne, you can also buy moisturisers with ingredients such as salicylic acid, and benzoyl peroxide which can both help.

What to avoid: Try to reduce the number of products that contain dimethicone and silicones if you have oily skin, or make sure you’re cleansing and exfoliating well.

mamabella recommends: The Inkey List Omega Water Cream, e.l.f Superhydrate Gel Moisturiser, Etude House Soon Jung 2x Barrier, Byoma Moisturising Gel-Cream

We also have a full list of the best moisturisers for oily skin here.

Combination skin moisturisers


If you have a mixture of symptoms from these two lists, you have combination skin. If you don’t have any of these signs, you have normal skin.

You have combination skin if:

  • Parts of your face are oily, and others are dry
  • A shiny T-zone (forehead, nose, chin)
  • Large pores in the same T-zone area
  • Blackheads and blemishes from excess oil
  • Flaky or rough skin, especially on the cheeks or around the eyes
  • A feeling of discomfort, particularly after cleansing
  • Fine lines and wrinkles that are more likely to appear in dry areas due to lack of moisture

Other signs of combination skin include sensitivity, and the fact your skin might feel oilier in summer and drier in winter. You can also tell if you have combination skin if your makeup is patchy. Foundation or concealer may not apply evenly due to varying textures on your face too.

There is also a school of thought that combination skin doesn’t actually exist. Katherine Daniels, co-founder of Katherine Daniels skincare, told mamabella: “Your skin type is determined by your genetics – your skin will either under or overproduce oil, which means your skin type will be either dry or oily – nothing in between. A combination skin type doesn’t exist.”

Instead, Daniels claims that if you experience the signs of ‘combination’ skin as listed above – an oily t-zone, shine developing throughout the day, congestion and/or open pores – you have oily skin that is actually just dehydrated.

Skin dehydration varies depending on your lifestyle, environment, and climate, which may explain why people with ‘combination’ skin see changes in different seasons. The best moisturisers for combination skin still help address dehydration so still apply but it’s worth bearing in mind.

Look for: Lightweight moisturisers that are gel-based or light lotions. These provide hydration without being too heavy or greasy. It needs to have a non-comedogenic formula to make sure it doesn’t clog pores and cause breakouts. Also look for ingredients including hyaluronic acid, and glycerin as well as niacinamide (Vitamin B3), which helps regulate oil production, and salicylic acid which, in low concentrations, gently exfoliates the skin, helps keep pores clear and buffs away any flaky, dead skin.

What to avoid: You need to avoid moisturisers for combination skin that are too heavy and thick, or too harsh and abrasive. It’s a delicate balancing act.

We’ve got recommendations in our best moisturiser for combination skin guide.

Sensitive skin moisturisers

You have sensitive skin if:

  • You often suffer from redness
  • Your face itches or stings
  • Your skin feels hot
  • You’re prone to rashes

Romanowski adds that people should avoid ingredients they are allergic to or have bad reactions to. If you react badly to a certain moisturiser, finding out the exact ingredient can be tricky. Often this can be fragrances, which can be in the form of esters, or ingredients like plant extracts or oils.

Keep a note of any moisturising products that react badly with your skin and try to identify the common ingredient, but a general rule, if you have sensitive skin, avoid anything with fragrances in.

Dehydrated skin moisturisers

Signs of dehydrated skin vs dry skinmamabella | mamabella

You have dehydrated skin if:

  • Your skin looks or feels rough
  • Your face feels tight or less elastic
  • Your skin looks dull, doesn’t look glowy

You might have also come across the terms ‘dry’ and ‘dehydrated’ skin and while they sound like the same thing, there’s a slight distinction. Dry skin needs oils, while dehydrated skin needs moisture. That said, according to Romanowski, there’s not much difference between these two terms when it comes to the chemistry of your skin. Read more in our guide: Do you have dry skin or is just dehydrated? Here’s how to tell the difference.

“These are more marketing terms that refer to the condition of the skin” he explains. “Dehydrated skin refers to the condition of the skin cells and the amount of water that is in them.” Most of the time, when this happens, it means there is no water in the skin.  Dry skin refers to the way dehydrated skin feels and typically involves things like scaly-looking skin, itchy skin, and rough-feeling skin.”

READ NEXT: What’s really in your foundation?

What about mature skin?

Just like foundations, those of us with mature skin might want to make sure our moisturiser contains sun protection.

Mature skin can become drier more easily, so ingredients that replenish skin including ceramides, sodium PCA, glycerin, glycerol, and silicones are all welcome in a moisturiser, too. Wearing SPF is key for all skin types, but especially for mature skin.

Look for:

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