Humectants, Occlusives, and Emollients

In any industry we use specific words that are industry specific, jargon. Jargon give us a quick way of speaking among other professionals. For moisturizers you may see terms like humectant, occlusive, and emollient. You’ll definitely see these terms if you read enough labels and start to try to decipher what those ingredients are.

In moisturizers we talk about three big things that add to moisture and moisture retention: humectants, occlusives, and emollients. These get incredibly confusing because some compounds are both. How these products are defined is also all over the place. Definitions from Dr. Leslie Baumann (who has her own skin care line), Dr. Purvisha Patel (again own skin care line), and Paula Begoun (own skin care line) don’t match and you can almost pick and choose, flip and flop. So these definitions are not going to match everyone’s and in reality two of these are so similar and overlap so much it seems pointless to differentiate the two.

All moisturizers have part of these categories. The trick is finding the magical product that has a good ratio of the three for your skin type.

Humectant – is a compound that helps to draw water to the skin. Propylene glycol and aloe vera are popular but so is the powerhouse hyaluronic acid. Humectants are generally what you’re looking to use after a sunburn. If you have dehydrated, flaky skin consider adding more humectants to your skin care routine to soften up the skin. Honey has been gaining popularity in skincare and acts as a humectant.

Occlusive – generally heavier oils, occlusive compounds act as a barrier to prevent moisture from leaving the skin. It’s been compared to the Syran(R) Wrap of the industry. Popular occlusives: shea butter, lanolin, mineral oil, olive oil, jojoba oil and even vasoline. If you have oily skin look at removing large amounts of these to your skincare routine. Small amount of occlusives are good, large amounts can leave skin feeling smothered and oily.

Dimethicone is one of the most popular occlusive agents on the market. Used in everything from eye cream, moisturizers, and primers, dimethicone is a synthetic occlusive agent.

Emollients – so this is the category that seems to give everyone a headache. Emollients fill in the microscopic areas of the skin to help keep and improve the skin’s natural ability to retain moisture. Think ceramides but oils also act in this manner.


The problem is that many emollients are also occlusive and some emollients are humectants. It’s a crazy circle that goes round and round.

Oily Skin and Combination Skin – focus more heavily on humectants like aloe vera and hyaluronic acid and use very light emollients. Sunscreens generally have some oil in them as well, as part of the formulation. If you wear a silicone primer or wear liquid foundations, most contain silicones, that will likely be enough of an occlusive to trap the moisture into your skin. If you don’t wear foundation look towards products with glycerin which is primarily a humectant with emollient properties.

Products to consider: The Ordinary – Hyaluronic Acid 2% +B5 or The Ordinary – Marine Hyalauronics for a lighter feel and Farmacy – Honey Drop Lightweight Moisturizer or Clinique- Dramatically Different Hydrating Jelly which is high on the humectant punch with HA and glycerin rolled into one package.

Combination skin may also consider targeting heavier products in your driest areas if needed. For the most part I tend to moisturize those areas in the mid-day if they’re dry or use a facial spray.

Dry Skin – Dry skin suffers from a general lack of moisture and oil production. Use heavier occlusives like argan oil, jojoba oil, or even lanolin (more on the body than the face) that act as both emollient and occlusive. Beware of using too harsh of an occlusive agent. Dimethicone can dry the skin. Dry skin is difficult since it can run the spectrum from slightly dry to very dry. There is some trial and error with every skin type.

Dehydrated Skin – you can have dehydrated oily skin and dehydrated dry skin. Dehydrated skin lacks water moisture whereas dry skin lacks oil production. Dehydrated skin needs more humectant type moistures to provide moisture but might not need heavier oils. Also consider using a hyaluronic acid supplement. Research is starting to show it might help the body retain moisture naturally working from the inside out. If reading labels, make sure to include a ceramide like Dr. Jart’s Ceramidin Cream or Toner to improve moisture retention.

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If don’t know what type of skin you have (oily, combination, or dry) take a look at my posts to help you determine if you have oily or dry skin.

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