Ingredient Highlight – Humectants

Healthy skin needs to be hydrated properly. Yes, regardless of the skin type. Humectants are ingredients that work well for all skin types. Oily skin gets the hydration it needs, without any of the oiliness. Dry and dehydrated benefits too, for obvious reasons. What are humectants and how they work?

What are humectants?

Humectants are hydrophilic agents found in numerous skincare, body, and hair care products. There are synthetic and natural humectants.

How do humectants work?

Humectants bind and attract water molecules (by creating hydrogen bonds). They draw the water molecules from the dermis to the epidermis. The uppermost part of the epidermis is the stratum corneum or the layer of dead skin cells on the very surface of the skin. Even though stratum corneum consists of dead skin cells, it still needs moisture to stay soft and supple. If there is a lack of moisture, the skin can get dry, dehydrated, and, in some cases, flake.

Alternatively, they can do so by attracting the water molecules from the air. But, it is important to note this only works in environments with higher humidity (over 70%). In arid climates or during the colder winter months, humectants can have an opposite effect. They draw too much moisture from the dermis and leave the skin dehydrated and dry.

Another important fact about humectants is they are an essential part of desquamation. It is a process by which the dead skin cells shed. If this process is disrupted, the skin can become dull, dry, and congested.

Different types of humectants

Natural humectants not only bind moisture and draw it to the surface of the skin, but also replenish the skin and boost the water production in the dermis. Some of the natural humectants include ingredients like Aloe vera, Alpha-Hydroxy acids, marine-plant extracts, and honey, to name a few.

Synthetic humectants are popular ingredients in the skincare industry, due to their effectiveness and because they are reasonably inexpensive to produce. Even though they are effective, synthetic humectants do not offer additional benefits as their natural counterparts.
Some of the examples would include Urea, Sodium PCA, Butylene Glycol, and Sorbitol.

But what about Hyaluronic acid and Glycerin? These two ingredients are by far the most popular humectants.

Let’s talk about Glycerin first. It is a fabulous humectant and a skin-replenishing ingredient present in any number of skincare products. It helps to maintain optimum skin hydration levels. Glycerin can be derived from natural or synthetic sources.

On the other hand, Hyaluronic acid has been a star ingredient for a good reason. Not only it boosts the skin’s moisture content, but it also has antioxidant properties. It is an essential component of skin tissue that depletes as we get older. In turn, our skin gets drier, dehydrated, and less supple. This makes it more prone to fine lines and wrinkles. Hyaluronic acid can hold up to 1000 times its weight in water and is well-tolerated by most skin types. While Hyaluronic acid is a naturally occurring substance, skincare products use chemically produced version.

What to look for in a product?

It all depends on your skin type. Drier skin types might prefer a product that combines humectants and occlusives or even emollients to keep the skin comfortable. Oilier skin types might go for gel-like formulas that have humectants only. Do your research and prepare for some trial-and-error until you find a product that works for your skin.

Roberta Striga