Skincare 104: Humectants vs. Emollients

This is the fourth in an ongoing series on caring for your skin.

Is your skin dry or could it be dehydrated? What is the best type of product for those issues and what exactly is the difference? With so many skin care products on the market, it is hard to know where to begin.

Kim Chang, aesthetician at Baylor College of Medicine, gives us an overview of these skin conditions and a look at humectants and emollients, two of the most common products used to moisturize and rehydrate the skin.

A person in a robe with their hair up in a wrapped towel looking in the mirror and rubbing moisturizer on their cheek. Q: What are humectants?

A: Humectants are products that draw moisture from the air and help to retain that moisture in your skin. It hydrates the skin. Some examples of humectants are hyaluronic acid, glycerin and aloe. They are normally used to treat dehydrated skin.

Q: What are emollients?

A: Emollients, also called occlusives and usually an ingredient in moisturizers, create a protective barrier to prevent transepidermal water loss. This means that it stops water loss from the skin and seals in the moisture. Emollients are oil based and used to treat dry, flakey skin. Petrolatum (petroleum jelly), shea butter and oils like grape seed and jojoba are examples of emollients.

Q: What is the difference between dehydrated skin and dry skin?

A: Dehydrated skin results from water loss and usually appears very shiny yet dull, lacking full color. When you pinch the skin, you can tell there is a loss of water, it feels loose and limp, and doesn’t snap back.

Dry skin looks visibly dry, cracked and flakey. It usually is a result from a loss of oils.

Q: Why is it important to understand the difference of dehydrated and dry skin?

A: Dry skin is considered a skin type while dehydrated skin is considered a skin condition. Because of this, treatment methods will be different, so it is important to understand your skin type or condition before you try to treat it yourself.

Q: Can humectants and emollients be used together?

A: Yes, and in general, you want to use a humectant first because it is not oil based, and the emollient second to lock it in. If you put an emollient on first, you are blocking the humectant from hydrating your skin.

But keep in mind you still need to have breathability, so don’t slather on any one product. For example, some people like to use a thick layer of petroleum jelly to treat their skin, but this creates too much of a barrier and the skin still needs oxygen. This is the reason why skin products have multiple ingredients – they work together so it isn’t just a straight humectant or emollient.

Q: How does treating dry or dehydrated skin affect other skin issues?

A: It is important to remember that using a humectant or emollient isn’t all about correcting a skin issue, it is about balancing your skin hydration, which can prevent other problems.

For example, people who have acne tend to strip their skin of oils to correct the acne problem but instead make their skin dry, flakey and dehydrated. However, we need oil in our skin, in a balanced amount. So, when you have imbalanced skin, you tend to have acne or other blemish issues.

The first step is talking to a dermatologist or an aesthetician to help identify your skin type, understand what conditions you might need to address and find the right balance or treatments.

Learn more about the Aesthetics Studio at Baylor Medicine. To schedule an appointment,  email Kim Chang.

-By Graciela Gutierrez

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