Science of moisturiser and how moisturisers work

The science of moisturiser: Which ingredients actually work and which are marketing BS?

18th January 2020 | Author: Abigail Beall

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 dry skin, or choose one based on the brand because what suits one person’s skin won’t suit another.

READ NEXT: Best moisturiser for all skin types

The best place to start is by cutting through the marketing BS and understanding how moisturisers work. 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 top tips on which ingredients to look for whether you have oily, dry or acne-prone skin, and which to avoid.

How do moisturisers work?

Science of moisturiser and how they work

Credit: Compound Chemistry

Moisturisers work in 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. Moisturisers have little impact on the living skin cells, in the part of the skin called the dermis.

“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.” Most moisturisers have three main ingredients. There is an occlusive agent, such as petrolatum, that provides a thin layer on top of skin that prevents moisture from escaping. This creates the long-lasting moisturising effect.

Then, there is a humectant, like glycerine, which attracts and binds moisture in the skin. Lastly, there is an emollient, like mineral oil, which combines with the out layer of skin making it more flexible and smoother.

Choosing the best ingredients for your skin

When looking for a moisturiser, look for certain ingredients depending on your skin type.

If you have very dry skin, thicker moisturisers, often ointments, can better help lock in moisture. Ingredients such as hyaluronic acid and dimethicone, which is silicon-based, are also good for moisturising dry patches on your skin.

However, some people say dimethicone can make acne worse or clog pores, so it might be wise to avoid it if you have blemish-prone skin. If you have flaky skin, try combining your moisturiser with a gentle exfoliant to get rid of those dead skin cells. We recommend Superdrug’s Vitamin E scrub. It costs less than a fiver, smells amazing and is gentle for all skin types.

Just like foundations, those of us with mature skin might want to make sure their 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.

READ NEXT: What’s really in your foundation?

Romanowski adds that people should avoid ingredients they are allergic to or have bad reactions with. 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.

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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.

“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.

Moisturiser ingredients to look for

Moisturisers for Dry skin

Oily skin

Blemish-prone skin

Mature skin

Ingredients to avoid

  • Avoid moisturisers or any skincare products containing fragrances if your skin is sensitive
  • Avoid fragrant oils
  • Avoid dimethicone if you have oily skin
  • Avoid petroleum if you have acne-prone skin

You can read more in our guide on the truth about the acids in your skincare.


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