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What Is a Moisturizer

Kristina Cadwell  
December 26, 2023  

Water makes up two-thirds of our skin, making it a crucial factor in preserving its appearance and function. Many causes make the skin lose water, leading to aging signs and skin disorders.

This article focuses on moisturizers as one of every dermatologist’s preferred strategies for preserving skin hydration. It explains what a moisturizer is, how it works, and how to choose the right product for your skin type.

What is a moisturizer?

What Is a Moisturizer?

A moisturizer is a topical skincare product designed to hydrate the skin. It can be formulated as a cream, lotion, ointment, gel, or balm. Moisturizers can also contain rejuvenating ingredients to improve visible signs of aging while hydrating the skin.

Note: Learn more about rejuvenating skin products.

Types of Moisturizers

Moisturizers are categorized based on the type of active hydrating ingredient present:  

  • Humectants - Attract water molecules from the environment (if humidity is greater than 70%) or from deeper dermal layers. Common humectants in skin care are hyaluronic acid (HA), glycerin, urea, and alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs).
  • Occlusives - Prevent trans-epidermal water loss. They seal the outermost skin layer to lock in moisture and prevent evaporation. The most effective occlusives include petrolatum, squalene, ceramides, coconut oil, olive oil, and shea butter.
  • Emollients - Infuse the skin with oils and lipids, deeply hydrating and smoothing the skin. They include shea butter, cocoa butter, avocado oil, lanolin, and squalene. Many emollients also have occlusive or humectant properties. For example, squalene is both an emollient and an occlusive.

Most moisturizers include all three moisturizing ingredients but in different concentrations. Their combined use helps avoid unwanted effects like increased trans-epidermal water loss and dryness, which can occur if a moisturizer contains only humectants and no occlusive.

Note: Read our blog post with suggestions on how to treat dry skin.

How Does a Moisturizer Work

Water promotes skin elasticity and helps enzymatic reactions that enable the shedding of dead skin cells. A lack of water in the skin leads to dead cell buildup, resulting in dry, flaky, and compromised skin. Such skin is more susceptible to environmental aggressors that cause premature aging signs and is prone to dermatitis.

Daily moisturizer use prevents water loss and increases hydration in dermal layers, strengthening the skin’s barrier to counteract the effects of harmful factors.

Moisturizer Benefits

Proper hydration helps improve various skin concerns. Using a moisturizer every day can help with the following:

  • Stronger skin barrier
  • Improved elasticity
  • Plumper skin
  • Softer and brighter complexion
  • Reduced wrinkles
  • Reduced redness and itching
  • Smaller pores

How to Use a Moisturizer

Moisturizers are best used twice daily, in the morning and evening.

Thoroughly cleanse the skin. Dispense a small amount of moisturizer onto the fingertips and apply it on the face. Gently smooth the product until fully absorbed. Follow the instructions on the product label because some moisturizers are better used on damp skin.

In the morning, follow the application of moisturizer with sunscreen.

If you use toners and serums, apply them after cleansing and leave the moisturizer as the final step in your skincare routine (plus sunscreen, in the morning).

Note: Learn how to choose the best sunscreen for your skin type.

Who Should Use a Moisturizer?

Everyone can benefit from using a moisturizer. It is part of the basic, three-step skincare routine that consists of cleansing, moisturizing, and protecting the skin from UV with sunscreen.

Consider the ingredients when choosing a moisturizer. Humectants, such as HA and glycerin, are ideal for dehydrated skin. Occlusives and emollients, such as olive oil and shea butter, are suitable for very dry, flaky, and sensitive skin.

Look at the ingredients list to determine if the product is right for you.

Note: This ultimate skin care guide will help you design an ideal routine for your skin type and concerns.


Moisturizers are crucial in promoting skin health. Their efficacy depends on the combination of ingredients in the formulation and its suitability for the person using it. Learn how different moisturizing ingredients work and how to choose the right product for your needs.

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About the Author:
Kristina Cadwell
PA Kristina Cadwell graduated from Arizona State University with a Bachelor of Science degree in Biology. She then completed the Physician Assistant program at A.T. Still University graduating with a Masters of Medical Science degree. Kristina has been working in the Aesthetic Medical field for over 10 years. She is certified in neurotoxin cosmetic injection, dermal fillers, Plasma Pen skin tightening, chemical peels, and laser therapy. She is known for producing natural results and has extensive knowledge in diet and exercise allowing her to help you achieve vibrant skin from the inside out.
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