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Three out of four people will suffer from dry skin this winter, according to a survey conducted by OnePoll on behalf of CeraVe, so if you’re suffering from skin that feels flaky and tight, you’re not alone. When air is cold and dry, the humidity level drops, so the moisture in your skin evaporates more quickly. This exacerbates feelings of skin dryness and can result in your complexion looking dull.
That’s why many people switch up their skincare routines in the winter months, opting for a heavier moisturizer or additional facial oils. They can also add humectants—a type of ingredient that might just be the ultimate winter skincare savior. To discover more about what humectants are and how they work in skin care, we tapped three top dermatologists who gave us the scoop.
What are humectants?
“Humectants are hygroscopic substances that attract water,” explains Dr. Hadley King, an N.Y.C.-based board-certified dermatologist. She says that humectants are unique substances that draw in moisture from their surrounding environment and are found in skincare and haircare products. When looking at beauty products that tout humectants as part of their formula, know that the term "humectants" refers to a category of ingredients, not a specific ingredient itself.
How do humectants work in skin care?
Humectants bind water to the skin to keep it moist, healthy, and resilient, resulting in an overall smoother complexion. According to dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, M.D.: “Since humectants are like sponges that pull water into the outer layer of skin, they not only help moisturize the skin but offer plumping effects to minimize the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.” In short: They’re pretty powerful in skin care. Additionally, their hydrating abilities are known to be gentle, and board-certified medical and cosmetic dermatologist Onyeka Obioha, M.D., tells us that “humectants are unique in their ability to hydrate without clogging pores, making them great for people with oily, acne-prone skin."
To get the most out of these water-loving ingredients in your skincare routine, our experts recommend using humectants in conjunction with emollients (which are lubricating agents, like squalane or mineral oils) or occlusives (which are oils and waxes that physically block transepidermal water loss). When used together, these three types of ingredients work as a team to support the skin barrier and lock in hydration. Without them, “it's possible for humectants to actually draw water out of the skin that can evaporate into the dry air, leaving the skin drier [than before],” explains Dr. King.
Luckily, most moisturizers on the market contain all three components, and since many humectants can be found in lightweight serum forms, you can always follow them up with a moisturizer to seal in the hydrating benefits. For best results, Dr. Zeichner recommends applying any skin care that contains humectants with damp fingers or onto a damp face to provide it with the water it needs to hydrate the skin.
What are some common humectants?
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"Hyaluronic acid is a miracle humectant," says Dr. Obioha. "It’s a magnet for moisture and helps the skin appear healthy and supple. Paired together with an occlusive moisturizer (to lock in moisture), this dynamic duo effectively protects against dryness during harsh winters." Dr. King agrees, calling it “powerful” and telling us that it can hold up to 1,000 times its weight in water. Dr. Zeichner also points out that it is very gentle on most skin types and works well when combined with other ingredients, like emollients, to immediately plump up the skin and keep it moist.
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If you take a look at the back of your moisturizer, there’s a good chance it will list glycerin as one of the ingredients. Along with hyaluronic acid, it’s extremely common. Typically, glycerin is used with occlusives to trap the moisture that it draws to the skin and protect the skin’s natural moisture barrier. It’s a smaller molecule than hyaluronic acid, so it usually absorbs faster into the skin’s surface and is also gentle on most skin types.
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Polyglutamic acid, like hyaluronic acid, is a humectant that binds water—but unlike hyaluronic acid, Dr. King tells us that "the PGA molecule is a water-soluble peptide with a larger size, which means it doesn't penetrate as deep into the skin." Instead, she explains that it forms a hydrogel film on the surface of the skin that prevents water from evaporating. This occlusive property means that it can be very helpful in retaining the skin's moisture.
Vitamin B5 (Panthenol)
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"Often overshadowed by hyaluronic acid, vitamin B5 (also known as panthenol) not only serves as a humectant but also a natural skin healer and antioxidant," says Dr. Obioha. It also has anti-inflammatory properties, allowing it to soothe the skin while quenching it at the same time.
Keep an eye out for these ingredients on various moisturizer labels, or add them into your skincare regimen via a lightweight serum to give thirsty winter skin a healthy drink of water.