If you use a skin or hair product for its moisturizing properties, it probably contains a humectant. Humectants are ingredients that attract water to the outer layer of the skin, helping to relieve dryness and improve skin tone. You’ll find them in cleansers, creams, serums, and balms. If you’re looking to enhance your natural skincare ritual, learn a bit more about humectants and which ones are best for your skin and hair needs.
What is a humectant?
A humectant is a moisturizing agent that retains moisture in your skin and hair. Humectants draw water from the second layer of the skin, called the dermis, and bring it to the top layer, called the epidermis. This keeps the outermost layer well hydrated, improving skin tone and smoothing out fine lines.
You will see a humectant as an agent in:
Types and mode of action
Humectants attract water and draw it into the skin or hair to maintain healthy hydration. Some skin humectants work as exfoliators that first remove dead cells and debris from the skin, giving you a smoother complexion and enabling cell turnover. There are several types of humectants, and studies show that they all work a little differently. It is therefore important to know the differences before using any product on your body. The most commonly used humectants are:
Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs): Alpha hydroxy acids are a group of acids derived from plants and animals. They are used in skincare products for their anti-aging properties, which help smooth the skin, exfoliate dead cells and debris, and improve cell turnover and texture. You’ll find AHAs in facial cleansers, toners, creams, lotions, peels, and serums.
Salicylic acid: Salicylic acid is part of a group of compounds called salicylates. Its structure allows it to be oil-soluble, which means it can penetrate through the oily lipid layers of the skin to help unclog pores and remove dead cells. Besides its uses in skin creams, ointments, and serums, salicylic acid is also used in shampoos to exfoliate the scalp and improve dandruff.
Urea: Urea is a natural waste product produced by the skin when the body breaks down proteins. It is part of the skin’s natural moisturizing factor as it maintains moisture balance in the outermost layers. Synthetic urea is used as a humectant in topical creams and cosmetics. The best known urea cream is Urea 40, which is used for extremely dry and chapped skin.
Hyaluronic acid: Hyaluronic acid is a lubricating substance produced naturally by the body. It is found in highest concentration in the skin and helps retain collagen, increase moisture and provide elasticity and suppleness. It is used as a humectant in body care products and is available in supplement and eye drop form.
Glycerin: Glycerin is a natural compound that comes from animal fats or vegetable oils, such as palm, coconut or soybean oil. It is mostly used in skin products, such as soaps, creams and serums. You will also find glycerin in commercial condiments and baked goods.
Caprylyl glycol: Caprylyl glycol is an alcohol derived from caprylic acid, which comes from coconut oil, palm oil and cow’s milk. Although glycol exists naturally, it is often produced synthetically for use in body and hair care formulas. It is often used as a skin moisturizer in moisturizers, face masks, and other cosmetics.
Aloe vera: Aloe vera gel is the gel-like substance found in the inner part of the plant. It has soothing, nourishing and moisturizing effects on skin and hair. Aloe vera is often used as an ingredient in products intended to improve dry scalp, burns, rashes, wounds, dryness and skin irritations.
Honey: Honey is a natural humectant that has nourishing, soothing and antioxidant properties. It helps fight wrinkles, dandruff, psoriasis, diaper rash and infections. You will find honey in cleansing milks and masks, creams, lotions, shampoos, healing ointments and after-sun balms.
Benefits of humectants for skin beauty
1. Boosts hydration
Humectants attract water and help prevent moisture loss, thus serving as excellent moisturizers. Hair and skin humectants are best known for their moisturizing effects and their ability to make skin feel softer and smoother. A study published in Skin Research and Technology found that a humectant-rich formula of 15% AHA and 15% urea effectively relieved xerosis (abnormal dryness) of the feet without weakening the skin’s barrier function .
2. Serve as a skin barrier
Humectants help fill cracks and dry, rough skin with water, which acts as a barrier and will not allow harmful substances to penetrate the skin. A 2017 study in 20 healthy women concluded that a formula containing 1% hyaluronic acid and 5% glycerin significantly improved skin hydration and skin barrier function for up to 24 hours after use .
3. Removes dead skin cells
Many humectant ingredients act as exfoliants that reduce dead skin cells, debris, and pollutants. These humectants help unclog pores and remove buildup that can make your skin look dull. They can also be used on very rough, cracked and dry areas, including the heels of your feet. Research has shown that certain humectants, such as AHAs, help increase cell turnover, while improving skin firmness and elasticity.
4. Promotes Wound Healing
Some humectants contribute to wound healing through their soothing properties. Honey, for example, has been shown to condition the skin, reduce inflammation and fight oxidative stress, which is why it is often used in dressings for wounds and burns.
5. Reduce fine lines
Due to their “plumping” effect, humectants reduce facial lines and wrinkles. Regular use of a gentle product containing a humectant hydrates the skin and helps reduce the signs of aging.
Risks and Side Effects of Humectants
It is not uncommon for synthetic humectants to be used in skin and hair products because they are cheaper to produce and can extend the shelf life of formulas. Synthetic humectants help moisturize the skin, but they don’t provide it with nutrients and can suck so much water from the second layer of skin that it causes dryness. The ideal is to choose a product made from natural ingredients by a reputable company.
The beauty of humectants is that they attract water from the environment, but if you are in a very dry area, they will use the moisture in your skin and bring it to the surface. Using a product that contains an occlusive (like shea butter) can help retain moisture in the skin to prevent dryness. Humectants are generally well tolerated, but if you experience any adverse effects from a product containing a humectant, discontinue use immediately.
Dosage and instructions for use of a humectant
Often, humectants are not the active ingredient in a product. A humectant is used to give a better consistency and help moisturize the skin and hair, but it probably won’t be at the top of the ingredient list. Some humectants, like caprylyl glycol, are used “behind the scenes” in formulas to act as stabilizers and preservatives. In general, products containing humectants are used once or twice a day. These ingredients should not be abused, especially in dry weather, as they can cause dryness if the air is low in humidity. Applying a product containing a humectant while your skin is clean and still slightly damp can enhance its effects.
What to look for in a product
When looking for a humectant product, the first thing to consider is your specific skin or hair goal. Do you want to promote hydration, rid skin of dead cells, fight fine lines or get rid of dandruff?
There are many types of humectants, so you will need to choose the ingredient that best suits your needs:
Best for dry skin: Aloe vera, urea, honey, glycerin.
Best for Clogged Pores: Salicylic Acid, Alpha Hydroxy Acids
Best for fine lines and wrinkles: Caprylyl glycol, hyaluronic acid
Ideal for dandruff and dry hair: Salicylic acid, honey, caprylyl glycol, aloe vera.
As always, choose a product made by a reputable company that contains natural, gentle ingredients. Avoid products containing preservatives or fragrances, as these can cause adverse reactions or make skin problems worse. Sometimes humectants are combined with occlusives in skin care formulas. While humectants attract water and pull it out of the second layer of skin, occlusives form an oily or lipid barrier on the outer surface of the skin to prevent moisture loss. The most commonly used occlusives are shea butter, mineral oil and lanolin.
A humectant is a moisturizing agent that binds moisture into your skin and hair, using water present in the skin or in the environment. There are several types of humectants for hair and skin. It is therefore important to choose a product containing the ingredients that meet your needs. Some of the most commonly used humectants include aloe vera, honey, alpha hydroxy acids, glycerin, and urea. Formulas containing humectants are typically applied once or twice daily or as directed on the product label. It is best to apply humectants when your skin is still slightly damp and there is
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