How skin moisturizers work

How skin moisturizers work

How Do Skin Moisturizers Work?

Skin moisturizers for face, skin moisturizers for body, skin moisturizers for hands, skin moisturizers for feet…with so many skin moisturizers on the market, today, you’re sure to find one that will sooth, quench, and hydrate just about every part of your body!  

Although we all use moisturizers for our skin, most of us probably don’t know much about how skin moisturizers really work to relieve dry skin.  Here, we’ll explore how skin moisturizers work to keep the largest organ of our body hydrated and feeling healthy.

How skin moisturizers work – Understanding the Skin

Before you can understand how a skin moisturizer works, it’s important to understand the structure of the skin.  The skin is made up of several layers:  the outermost layer (the epidermis), middle layer (the dermis), and the lower layer (the hypodermis or fatty layer).  

Moisture is delivered to the skin through blood vessels to the dermis.  From the dermis, moisture travels to the epidermis.  The epidermis is the layer that relates to how your skin feels from a moisture perspective (i.e. dry, oily, etc.).  When this top layer is plump and full of water, that’s when your skin feels soft, smooth and hydrated. On the other hand, when this layer is dry and parched, that’s when your skin feels like an old leather suitcase.

Dehydrated skin is caused by several factors including climate, stress, hormones, etc. Moisture loss, or trans-epidermal water loss, is something that happens continuously throughout the day.  In fact, studies show that the skin loses an average of between 300 - 400 mL (a little less than a pint) of water in a day!  Luckily, we have skin moisturizers to minimize this water evaporation from the skin.

How skin Moisturizers work #1 - Humectants

The first way a skin moisturizer works is through an ingredient called a “humectant.” A humectant is something that draws water into the skin.  Humectants are commonly identified as hyaluronic acid, glycerin, butylene glycol, sorbitol, or sodium PCA on most skin moisturizer ingredient labels.  

Experts warn, however, that in dry conditions, humectants can draw moisture from the younger, moist cells in the lower layers of the skin instead of pulling moisture from the environment.  Unfortunately, this can lead to even dryer skin.  For this reason, it’s recommended that you use a humectant with another skin moisturizer that will hold the water into the skin, or an occlusive.     

How skin Moisturizers work #2 - Occlusives

Occlusives pick up where humectants leave off.  Occlusives, often called “old school” or “first generation” moisturizers, can be related to how a lid holds water in a pot of boiling water.  They are responsible for holding water in the skin by providing a barrier to moisture loss.  Occlusives are commonly identified as petrolatum, waxes, oils, and silicones on most skin moisturizer ingredient labels.  Since occlusives can leave a heavy feeling on the skin, they are often mixed with emollients to make them more appealing for use in skin moisturizers.

How skin Moisturizers work #3- Emollients

Emollients, the third way skin moisturizers work, give occlusives a more pleasant feel on the skin and help moisturizers fill the spaces between cells in the skin to make it feel smoother.  Emollients are commonly identified as lanolin, oils, and butters on most skin moisturizer ingredient labels.   

Mix humectants, occlusives, and emollients together and what do you get? A skin moisturizer that, hopefully, works!  If you’re uncertain about what skin moisturizer to use, we recommend that you try various skin moisturizers to find one that works well with your specific skin type.  

Stumped on what your skin type is and what the best skin moisturizer is for you?  Refer to our earlier post about identifying your skin type.   

If your skin moisturizer still isn’t effective in resolving your dry skin issue, simple things like turning down your heater, in the winter, taking less hot showers, or investing in a humidifier can help as well.  Stay moisturized, folks!

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Laura Schwormstedt

Oh wow found this post really interesting as of course I use a moisturiser but never actually knew what it does exactly

Laura x

georgia boanoro

What an interesting and informative article, a bit technical for me but inspiring. Thank you for sharing!


My skin is always so dry! I love using moisturizer! I have found a few good ones that i like.

Terri Beavers

I’m going to have to refer back to your post to see how I can identify my skin. I’ve not had much luck with moisturizers this year and I thought it was because I’m aging but now I think I just need the right kinds for my skin type.

Hannah Marie

This is so detailed! Thank you so much for this. I didn’t know how important moisturizer is.


I remember the heater up north really doing a number on my skin. A rich moisturizer and turning the heat down really did help. And water. Lots of water.

Cindy Ingalls

I have such dry skin that finding moisturizers that I need products that not only draw in moisture but keep it in. It’s interesting to learn more about the role humectants and occlusives play in my moisturizers.


Moisturiser is so important, keeping your skin hydrated helps it look in better condition and cope with environmental pressures.

abby hewes

This is a great overview! I studied skin care and massage in college, and this is spot on! Thanks for making it easy enough for the layperson to understand,

Heather @ US Japan Fam

Wow. I had no idea how moisturizer worked!! Never even thought of it before haha! Thank you for sharing the info!!


I never thought to look up how they worked. I kinda just experimented until I found the right moisturizer for me. This adds a whole new layer to my purchasing decisions now.


I like the valuable info you provide in your articles. I will bookmark your weblog and check again here regularly. I am quite sure I’ll learn many new stuff right here!


Skin is very important to our health. It is the first line of defense of our body. Keep moist is one way to take care of and it is good to know the principles behind it or how it works