🎓 Introduction to Moisturizers: Humectants, Occlusives, Emollients


Skin care products form the largest sector of all cosmetics and personal care products, with moisturizers taking the highest market share. Skin care technology has come a long way since the first cold creams, with the introduction of new raw materials and advancements in emulsion technology, products with good functionality and consumer appeal have been developed to drastically improve the quality of our skin.

Our fascination with beauty has deep history, with products having been found at ancient burial sites in Egypt, Greece, and Rome. Even the bible mentions lotions made of oils and spices.And similar to alcohol, moisturizers have been developed according to the materials available in their region: popular ingredients throughout time have included avocado, palm, and olive oils, to name a few.

The first significant advancement of simple moisturizers occurred around 1840 when emulsifiers were developed to create stable emulsions (mixtures of two or more liquids which normally don’t homogenize when added together) and Pond’s first skin cream came onto the market. Today there are thousands of different types of moisturizers available for various skin conditions.

At their core, moisturizers are designed to maintain the skin’s integrity and barrier functions, including:

Improving skin quality
Maintaining moisture content
Alleviating symptoms of dry skin

Since the majority of these products are marketed to maintain or restore youthful appearance without initiating changes in skin function or structure, they are considered cosmetics in the US.
However, certain products may contain active ingredients marketed to treat conditions such as wrinkles or acne, and these are considered drugs, and regulated as such by the FDA. You can read more about drugs vs cosmetic determination on the FDA’s website.

Did you know? While many products may be marketed as “Cosmeceuticals” that is simply a marketing term, and has no legal meaning.

Moisturizers are typically sold for the hands, body, face, and eye area.
While they typically do not differ significantly in their ingredients, they may have different amounts or “actives” to address particular concerns. These products are marketed differently mostly due to the hydration differences of the skin on different parts of the body, and their sensitivity. For example, hands may be washed multiple times per day, while the face is acne prone. This is just one example why we might want to select different moisturizers for these different applications.

Cleansers vary in their ability to remove epidermal surface lipids (sebum) and depending on the strength of the cleanser, where it is applied, and the skin type, they may be too effective in cleaning the skin resulting in exposing the Stratum Corneum (SC: outermost protective layer) to potential damage. But cleansers are just one piece of the puzzle, environmental factors such as humidity, sun, and pollution, along with diet, medications, water consumption, and medicines all can take a toll on our skin. Applying
moisturizers helps to restore our skin’s barrier function which gets compromised through daily life.

Moisturizer is actually a generic term used to describe the ingredients which add moisture to the skin, which are typically composed of the following:

Humectants: Substances which bind and attract water, they work by increasing the water content in the top layer of the skin by enhancing water absorption from the dermis to the epidermis and even
pulling in atmospheric moisture. These ingredients can actually dry out the dermis layer of the skin in very dry environments, or if the barrier function of the skin is compromised. Humectants are often combined with Occlusives to help prevent water loss in this manner. Examples of Humectants include Glycerin and Hyaluranic Acid.

Occlusives: Large, heavy molecules which provide a physical barrier to the outer layer of skin, helping prevent Transepidermal Water Loss (TEWL). Occlusives tend to be sticky or greasy, which is why they are effective at reducing water evaporation from the skin. Petrolatum is a popular Occlusive, as are Evening Primrose and Jojoba oils.

Emollients: Improve the appearance of the skin by smoothing and filling in the gaps of dry, flaky skin cells.
Emollients can also protect and lubricate the skin, and may function as both Occlusives and Humectants. Mineral oil, Cocoa & Shea Butters are some examples of Emollients.


This is one of the better videos on understanding how these ingredients work

Moisturizing is just one component of a healthy skin regimen, along with (at a minimum) Cleansing to remove dirt and excess sebum, and Exfoliation to remove old, loose skin cells to prepare the skin for moisture.

Moisturizers are typically applied after cleansing. With the skin still wet, it’s the perfect opportunity to capture some of that moisture by locking it in with a moisturizer.

Moisturizers have different textures, absorption rates, oil & water content, emollient properties, and varying irritant potential based on the ingredients used, which is why there are so many to choose from. Based on the individual differences in skin type and sensitivity, selecting the right moisturizer for your skin is fairy subjective.

Oily skin may benefit from more water-based formulations, so they don’t deposit too much oil onto the skin.

Dry skin benefits from extra oil, to help seal in moisture.

Various aesthetic properties are important to cosmetics, and there is a balance between clinical performance and consumer perception. While aesthetics may vary from person to person, there are sensoral properties by which moisturizers may be evaluated to help bring a somewhat objective rubric to a subjective determination:

Rub-Out Ease with which a product absorbs upon application
Appearance Physical appearance, gloss, shine, thickness
Pick-Up Product texture when rubbed
Tackiness Stickiness
Slip How the product glides on the skin
After-Feel Smoothness & softness after application
Delayed After-Feel How does the skin feel after a certain amount of time after applying the product


Thanks for all that info.


Good explanation of moisturizers!
Personally, I am very lucky about the “Rub-Out” performance of a moisturizer!
If it absorbs easily and is not messy I am very happy!
Of course I don’t want ANY sort of tackiness,
I tend to prefer a moisturizer to have good “Slip” glide on easily too!
I want the “after-feel” and the “delayed after-feel” of the moisturizer to preform well!


That was very informative, thank you.


While I was reading this, I was thinking about my favorite and least favorite lotions. I have had some “watery” type lotions that have good slip and great rub-out, but they don’t tend to last long. I prefer a lotion that I don’t have to spend a long time rubbing in, but it needs to really hold in the moisture (I generally moisturize right after a shower). I think a combination of oils and butters really helps with the moisture locking factor.


I never really bothered with moisturizer, no one I knew used it. Finally figured out I wasn’t getting
any younger. Enter 10 million samples. So far I’m liking Derma e Hydrating Moisturizer a lot, but there does seem to be a little greasiness to it. The search continues.


Thanks for sharing! I have oily/combo skin and for the longest time I couldnt figure out how to reduce the oils. After a ton of research and trial and error with many different brands and products I finally found products that work, like gel/water moisturizers. The more I moisturize and hydrate my skin the less oily it is.


I’m in the same boat, my skin tends to be dry and the ones which rub in easily don’t last.
I get annoyed with lotions which take a long time to rub in, but my skin loves them!
BTW - It’s great to see you using this terminology!


thanks! i only have learned a few of these things bits and pieces when i started added steps to my skincare, but this helps a lot.

I also dislike watery lotions, I have not encountered any in sometime, but I have in the past. The original Vaseline hand lotion in the yellow bottle comes to mind.
I love body butters, especially the OG body butter form the Body Shop: but there are times where it can be a bit greasy.
I am currently switching around from some stuff I got for Christmas from Bath & Glory and Ahava but tbh my favorite is Dermasil, which is akin to Euecrin/Cerave/ the thicker cream
the first few ingredients are water, glycerin, petroleum, mineral oil and lots of other stuff and the best bargain the world at a whopping $1.00 for 10 oz. at the Dollar Tree. It is thick and works. A nurse friend turned me on to it.
besides moisture, because I love perfume, I do keep in mind if a lotion will work with my fragrance or not.
So, I switch lotions contingent if I am going out or not.


That is very interesting. Thank you for sharing again. I feel like most of my moisturizers are very watery. I’m going to have to pay more attention to the ingredients in what I try and buy.


I’ve used Eucerin and I love how it is thicker than other lotions too. It stinks when you have to constantly be reapplying lotion throughout your day.


Another interesting post.
I love that I am learning so much here.
Thank you!


Thanks for all the information! I’m assuming I’ve never really had a watery lotion since I can’t think of any in the past that have had a consistency like that for me. My facial moisturizer is definitely a little thinner than my body ones, but I think it’s still somewhat thick. I like richer, thicker ones for my body, especially areas like elbows and knees! I feel like I can never have too much lotion there haha.


Thanks for all that information, it’s very interesting. I have somewhat dry, acne prone skin. I like a very moisturizing lotion, but something that isn’t super thick or sticky feeling. I do prefer it to have a nice slip and to absorb quickly into my skin. I don’t mind reapplying a lotion throughout the day if I need to, I just don’t want anything to heavy that may clog my pores or make me breakout. I hate when lotions leave my skin feeling greasy or sticky.


thank you for all the information , i have always just used ponds because my whole family did. then i started trying other moisturizers, some i liked, some i didn’t but i wasn’t sure what i should be looking for exactly for a moisturizer to know if it would be good before i bought it. i will definitely re-read this again.


Lately, to moisturize my face, I mix a few drops of argan, rosehip, or whatever skin friendly oil I have handy with a little nickel sized blob of aloe vera gel (100% pure aloe gel, not that green stuff). It helps the oil spread easily and leaves my skin soft, plump and just the slightest bit dewy. Also this combo seems to be helping my eyelashes and eyebrows grow a little faster.
Aloe is definitely a humectant, but I’m unsure if the oils would be emollients, occlusives, or a combination of the two.


I’d say both!


I am a huge fan of moisturizing and I love all types and rarely use the same moisturizers the same day I really like to rotate things.
One thing I have learned from a couple Dermatologist is that eye creams are really a huge waste of money and you can use your moisturizer that is without any type of acids under your eyes.
So I a finishing up my eye creams and banning them from my regime.
Great information.


Thanks for all this info, I love being able to talk about skincare with shop clerks with a broader vocabulary.


Since my skin is combination… normal in cheek zones, oily in t-zone, I avoid creamy moisturizers on my face. Especially since I live in the South. I have come to love Hylaouronic Based Moisturizing serum which draw in moisture, are pumping, rapid absorbing but do not have a greasy, heavy feel. In my younger days when my skin was acneic and very oily I used a lightweight lotion with tea tree. Since eyes lack the number of sebaceous glands that are located on the rest of the face, I do use a separate emmolient eye cream by Lancome Vissionarre. It makes a dramatic difference in my eye softness and overall condition