humectants in skincare: what they are and how they benefit skin

Humectant is one of those fancy words us science beauty bloggers like to throw around to prove we know our stuff.

But everyone else is probably scratching their heads, wondering what the heck we’re talking about.

Better explain myself, eh? Here’s what humectants are and why you should load your skincare routine with them:

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What The Heck Are Humectants?

Humectants are a group of substances called hygroscopic (more science jargon Gio? Weren’t you supposed to explain this in English?)

Hygroscopic means that it attracts water from the air into the skin. 

Who can do it? Here are the most common humectants found in skincare:

  • Aloe vera
  • Butylene glycol
  • Glycerin
  • Honey
  • Hyaluronic acid
  • Lactic acid
  • Propylene glycol
  • Sodium hyaluronate
  • Sorbitol
  • Urea

How Do Humectants Benefit Skin?

Humectants attract and bind water to the skin.

But, where do they get this water from? Two places:

  • From the environment (when there’s enough moisture in the air)
  • From the deeper layers of the skin (where the air lacks moisture)

This makes humectants both good and bad guys in skincare. Huh?

niod multi-molecular hyaluronic complex

Why Are Humectants Good For Skin?

When humectants draw water from the air, everyone’s happy. Your skin is inundated by a wave of water that increases its moisture levels.

More moisture = smoother, plumper, brighter skin.

Humectants are a great way to keep oily skin hydrated without adding more oil to it. They’re also great at amping up moisture in dry skin.

But, here’s the catch: if you have dry skin, you can’t just put moisture back in it. You also have to seal it with an oil. That’s why you should use either a humectant serum followed by a facial oil or a moisturiser with both humectants and oils (here are my fave picks for you).

Related: Dry Skin? Here’s What Your Moisturiser Should Contain

Are Humectants Drying For Skin?

When there isn’t that much moisture in the air, humectants steal water from the deeper layers of the skin. 

This isn’t as bad as you think. Roughly 60% of your skin is made up of water. Humectants are just redistributing it around.

The problems start when there’s so little humidity in the air. Then, humectants must steal everything from the deeper layers of your skin. If they do this too much, too often, they can dry out your skin.

P.S. High concentrations of humectants do the same thing. Use them in moderation.

PRO TIP: Humectants benefit all skin types, but dry skin needs them the most. Click on the image below to subscribe to my newsletter and get the “Dry Skin Routine” Cheat Sheet to learn how to add them into your skincare routine the right way:”

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What Are The Best Serums And Moisturizers With Humectants?

All my fave serums and moisturisers with humectants have one thing in common: they feature hyaluronic acid (or its close cousin, sodium hyaluronate).

I love hyaluronic acid because it can attract and bind to the skin up to 1000 times its weight in water. It doesn’t get more hydrating than this.

Here are my picks:


The Bottom Line

Humectants can be dry skin’s BFF or its worse enemy. Use them in moderation when there’s enough humidity in the air: they’ll keep your skin well-hydrated, softer and plumper. But in low humidity environment? Don’t go overboard.

Have you tried humectants in skincare? Share your experience in the comments below.