What Is a Humectant and How Does It Hydrate Skin?
Glycerin. Hyaluronic acid. Snow mushroom. Bamboo extract. Aloe vera.
Besides the fact that these are all ingredients found in skincare, they have something a bit more niche in common. They’re humectants known best for their ability to hydrate and soften skin. If it was just that simple, however, this article would end here. Humectants can be a beneficial addition to any skincare routine, not just dry and dehydrated types, but there are a few tricks to ensuring they work to the best of their ability. (If you’ve ever applied moisturizer and felt dry hours later, you’ll want to read on.) Below is a deep dive into humectants, the most effective ones, and how to apply them correctly.
WHAT IS A HUMECTANT?By definition, a humectant is “a substance used to reduce the loss of moisture.” They are part of the skin’s barrier, maintaining its Natural Moisturizing Factor. But they aren’t just important in skincare. There are humectants in our shampoos, body washes, lip balm, even our food. (The honey we add to our tea? That’s a humectant).
While humectants come in all shapes and forms, their main purpose is to hydrate the skin by pulling moisture from the atmosphere and drawing it into the skin’s surface and the layers beneath it.
THE BENEFITS OF HUMECTANTS IN SKINCAREHumectants are best known for their moisturizing capabilities but their benefits don’t end there. For example, the AHA lactic acid (found in our Instant Resurfacing Mask) brightens tone, while the aloe vera in our Moisturizing Gel-Cream can soothe inflammation and redness.
In general, add humectants to your routine for:
- Soft, moisturized skin
- Less visible fine lines and pores
- Smooth, even texture
- Strong moisture barrier
- Reduced sensitization, redness, and inflammation
HOW TO APPLY HUMECTANTSHumectants can be applied morning or night, once a day or twice. Depending on which ones you use, they generally can be mixed and matched within a single routine without any irritation.
The most important thing to remember when applying any humectant is that it pulls in moisture from its surroundings. That could mean sourcing water from the atmosphere (a.k.a. humidity) or the dampness on your skin. If there isn’t any moisture to pull from, they can’t work their magic.
If you live in a dry climate or find that your skin feels constantly parched, apply your humectant-based products—like Moisture Maker—while skin is still slightly damp. And since skin loses water while we sleep, you can also try adding a humidifier to your bedroom. For even more help, follow up with a moisturizer or oil that contains both hydrating and moisturizing properties like Sunday Morning.
THE BEST HUMECTANTS TO ADD TO YOUR ROUTINEHumectants are clearly a fan favorite; nearly every product within our skincare lineup contains one. Here are some of our favorites to look for:
GlycerinThis sugar alcohol (yes, alcohols can be humectants too) is one of the most commonly used ingredients in skincare. You’ll also likely find it in many other cosmetics. Glycerin’s smoothing properties improve skin’s surface and remedy dryness, but it also has microbial properties that prevent acne and improve the barrier’s protective abilities.
Bamboo ExtractExtracted from this highly revered Asian plant, this humectant also has soothing properties. That’s why we added it to our Hydrating Milk Toner, which sweeps away makeup residue and leaves skin velvety soft.
Hyaluronic Acid and Sodium HyaluronateBoth of these ingredients are effective humectants that can hold up to 1000x their weight in water. Note: While HA is not traditionally vegan, since it’s derived from animals, ours is synthetically made.
Lactic AcidIt may be surprising to learn that a chemical exfoliant can moisturize the skin, but that’s what makes lactic acid such a special ingredient. It’s a great choice for sensitive skin types, those with rosacea, or anyone who is just dipping their toes into acids, as it gently sloughs away dead skin cells and impurities. Find this humectant in The Shortcut.
Snow MushroomOtherwise called tremella, snow mushroom is reported to have even better water retention than hyaluronic acid. It also has antioxidant properties that strengthen the skin’s barrier and neutralize damaging free radicals. Find this ingredient in our Moisture Maker Hydrating Hyaluronic Serum for instant relief for dry skin and long-term repair of the skin barrier’s hydrating and moisturizing capabilities.
Next, we dive into the terms “emollient” and “occlusive” and how they can benefit dry skin.