Humectants are substances that attract water. In personal care products, they help moisturize the skin, hair or nails. Hyaluronic acid and glycerin are examples of humectants.
The benefits of humectants depend on the ingredient. In general, however, the effects
Humectants are different from emollients and occlusives. These ingredients are also found in many personal care products for dry skin. However, they work by forming a barrier on the skin, trapping moisture inside rather than attracting it. Examples are oils, butters, and waxes, such as lanolin.
This article discusses humectants and the products that contain them, along with examples and benefits. It also describes the difference between a humectant and an emollient and an occlusive.
Humectants are ingredients that attract and bind water. In skincare, they draw water from the deeper layers of the skin to the outermost layer. If the air humidity is higher than
In hair care, humectants perform a similar function. They attract water to the hair shaft, helping to keep it hydrated.
The following are examples of products that may contain humectants:
- facial cleansers
- face serums
- moisturizers and lotions
- face masks
- lip balms
- nail care products
Many ingredients act as humectants,
All humectants have slightly different properties. Below is some of the research on common humectants.
Strengthens the skin barrier
The outermost layer of the skin, the stratum corneum, has an important barrier function. It slows the evaporation of water from the skin and helps protect against microbes.
A 2021 review notes that urea helps improve the stratum corneum by increasing hydration and improving the integrity of the skin barrier. For this reason, it has a long history as a skincare ingredient.
Urea can help with many skin conditions, such as:
an older one
Among participants with hyperkeratosis, results indicated that the moisturizer:
- scales removed
- increased skin hydration
- reduced thickness of hyperkeratosis
Participants without skin conditions experienced improved skin barrier function.
Reduce dry skin
As people age, they have a higher risk of developing dry skin. A
Additionally, a 2021 research paper notes that humectant lactic acid can relieve rough, dry skin at concentrations up to
Promotes wound healing
Older research from
Another popular group of ingredients for moisturizing skin and hair are emollients and occlusives. These work by creating a barrier, often made of a vegetable oil or butter, on the skin or hair. Instead of attracting moisture, they trap it under this barrier, preventing it from evaporating.
Compared to humectants, emollients and occlusives tend to be thicker and heavier ingredients.
Here are some examples of emollients:
The occlusives are mainly oil-based. They provide a layer on the surface of the skin that helps protect against water evaporation. This preservation of skin’s moisture helps prevent dry skin and eczema, reports
Examples of plosives
Whether a person should use humectants, emollients, or both depends on their skin type.
Emollients and occlusives tend to be heavier ingredients. Some add more oil to skin and hair, which can be helpful for those with dry skin. However, people with oily skin or hair may find it unnecessary.
Some emollients and occlusives are also comedogenic, which means they have the potential to block pores and cause acne.
Humectants, on the other hand, tend to be non-comedogenic and non-greasy. They can add hydration without using heavier ingredients. Some also have other benefits. For example, AHAs are also exfoliants.
According to the American Academy of Dermatology Association, someone with oily skin should choose skin care products that say “oil-free” and “non-comedogenic” on the label. People whose hair gets oily quickly may prefer to look for hair products that don’t contain a lot of oil, if any.
On the other hand, someone with dry skin or hair might benefit from products containing humectants, emollients and occlusives.
Learn more about skin types and how to identify them here.
A humectant is a substance that attracts water to the skin, hair or nails. In the skin, it can come from the deeper layers, or from the air if it is moist enough. Humectants are useful for adding hydration without feeling heavy or greasy.
Humectants include ingredients such as glycerin, urea, AHAs, and hyaluronic acid. People can find them in a wide range of personal care products.
Besides humectants, personal care products often contain emollients and occlusives. While humectants provide hydration, emollients soften the skin and occlusives help prevent water from evaporating from the skin.
People can consult a dermatologist to identify their skin type and find the best regimen for them.