Moisture vs. Hydration: How Humectants & Oils Can Balance Your Skin

Moisture vs. Hydration: How Humectants & Oils Can Balance Your Skin

This is the second installment in my ramblings about the importance of moisture and hydration balance in the skin. If you’re not sure what the difference is, I’d advise you check out part 1 here.

So now that we’ve gone over why I am not a fan of the terms moisture and hydration being used interchangeably in skin care, what’s the big deal and why do I think it’s so important?

The fact of the matter is, your skin works very hard to regulate itself and keep things under control the best that it can. However, if its fundamental needs aren’t being met, like having a proper oil and water balance, your skin’s going to have a very hard time doing its basic jobs. Sure, it’s very possible (and likely) that you can help it out with things like exfoliants and retinoids, but it’s difficult to tell how much help your skin is going to need in what areas if you don’t give it an ideal environment in which to show you what it can naturally do.

If your skin’s fundamental needs aren’t being met, like having a proper oil and water balance, your skin’s going to have a very hard time doing its basic jobs.

If you’re not sure what your skin acts like when it’s appropriately moisturized and hydrated, this can lead down a path that I’m all too familiar with. You might assume you need to make changes in your routine that may be too drastic or entirely not needed to tackle issues that your skin would have mostly taken care of on its own had it been in a healthier state of hydration and moisture.

I ran around using very high percentage acid toners on a nightly basis and very aggressive retinoids to tackle my skin texture, when in reality, I did not need to be going so hard at my face with either of those things. What my skin needed was more hydration and moisture. The overuse of these active ingredients only proceeded to compromise my skin more and left me with tight, overly ruddy skin that just felt very uncomfortable all the time. Once I scaled back and properly hydrated and moisturized my skin, everything calmed down, and I learned my skin needed much less help than I was giving it. It entirely saved my skin.


Hydration = Humectants

I quite literally live in the middle of a desert and can count the number of days it rains in any given month on one hand most of the year. It also gets ridiculously hot during the summer (regularly over 100°F or about 38°C), meaning every indoor location has air conditioning blasting around the clock. The lack of water in the air plus the same dry air constantly being circulated results in a perfect storm of dehydration for your body, your hair, and definitely your skin.



One of the best ways we can combat this is by getting humectants into our skin care. What humectants are designed to do is attract and hold water in your skin. They can be in your moisturizer, your serum, your toner or facial mist, and even in your cleansers, but I personally find that they work best when they’re in a water serum or toner designed for hydration.

There’s a huge variety of humectants. Some are man made, some are plant derived, and no single humectant is “better” than others. I think as long as you can get some type of watery product that has more than one humectant, that’s really all you should look for in an ingredient list. Some of the humectants that you’re very likely to encounter and are generally well tolerated (though YMMV because everyone’s skin is different) are:

  • glycerin
  • hyaluronic acid
  • sodium hyaluronate
  • aloe
  • sodium PCA
  • butylene glycol



The rest is really up to the texture and your personal experience with them. The textures and finishes on the skin can range very widely from very thin and liquidy to thicker, gel-like textures, and some can leave you with a sheen to your skin while others sink in like it was never there. It’s all about what you like the feel of. Whatever gives you some relief and helps address that “my skin feels tight from the inside out” feeling is what you’re looking for.


Moisture = Oils, Lipids, Cholesterol

As someone who has a self-professed history of being terrified of oils in skin care, I’ve learned that proper moisturization is key to keeping your skin healthy and balanced, regardless of what your skin type is. As always, there are some exceptions to this rule (extremely, truly oily skin living in a tropical or very humid climate, for example), but the vast majority of us can benefit from some added moisture in the skin to keep it healthy and happy. Do this by giving your skin all the necessary fatty acids, lipids, and cholesterols, among other things, that it needs to function properly and appear smooth and glowy rather than patchy and dull.



Everyone’s skin produces different amounts of oil naturally, and that will dictate what type of moisture it will benefit most from. In terms of what ingredients in skin care moisturize the skin, you’re generally going to be looking at oils or butters that provide things like fatty acids and lipids to supplement your skin’s own supply. You also may see the term “occlusive” used in regards to moisturizing products, but to be totally honest, I think that occlusives and moisturizing ingredients are two different categories. I can go more in depth about that in another time, but just know that we’re talking about moisture here.

This becomes a bit more intricate. The humectant umbrella I mentioned earlier is wide, but the umbrella of moisturizing ingredients is even bigger than that. Two of the biggest categories that I see and personally use are butters and oils that are derived from plants. The most common butters that I see are cocoa butter and shea butter, although there are some more exotic ones like mango butter or cupuacu. Oils are a bit of a massive category as they can vary a lot from one another in terms of what they can do on the skin, but I went way more in depth on oils in another two-part series I did exclusively on face oils. Can you tell I like pairs?

What I want you to take away from all of this is that moisture is a very different thing from hydration (in my opinion and experience). So in order to keep your skin happily balanced in its water and oil content, it’s important to keep the terms separate and ensure that you’re using a product that gives you a good dose of hydration and a product that gives you a good dose of moisture.

If you’re confused about anything regarding the moisture and hydration balance in skin, ask me any questions below, and I’ll do my best to answer them!



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