Managing Your Moisturizing Routine

Welcome back to another installment of the Beauties on Fire collaboration! This week’s voted theme is the four elements: water, earth, fire, and wind. 

Photo Credit:Byrdie

Being the skincare slut that I am, I of course have to discuss the element that is the backbone of any successful skincare routine: water! Without sufficient water content, not only will you, well, die, but your skin will become dry and problematic, making it look older and more tired than it may really be. 

So how do you ensure your skin remains looking youthful and healthy? One word:moisturization. 

Photo Credit:@peachandlily

Why the Western world thinks only one measly moisturizer is enough to maintain let alone create good skin is a total mystery to me. Once I got off that 3 step routine train and incorporated more and more moisturizers into my routine, my skin changed drastically for the better. I attribute a big portion of success in eliminating my (mild) cystic acne to proper moisture levels as well as many other smaller skin successes.

Moisturizing is an essential part of what makes the Korean approach to skincare so different and effective. Regardless of skin type or even skin concerns, layers of moisture are going to constitute the majority of any effective routine. But moisturizers are not created equal. So how do you figure out what’s going to work and what’s going to be a big waste of time and money?

Let’s start with the basics.

Moisturizers are divided into three classes:

Photo Credit: Into the Gloss

Humectants: these guys work like magnets, attracting and absorbing (aka forming Hydrogen bonds with) water from deeper layers of skin (and sometimes from very humid air) which in turn increases the amount of moisture your outermost layer of skin (the stratum corneum) can hold. Humectants can provide an instant plumping/wrinkle-smoothing effect due to the increase in moisture. Long-term use can fight signs of aging.

This category can be further broken down into two additional categories-synthetic humectants and natural humectants. These names pretty much describe it all. Synthetic humectants which draw water up from the skin include urea, hexylene, butylene, and propylene glycol (“the glycols” is how I’ve remembered them). These will help moisturize the skin, but tend to only draw water up from the deeper layers of skin, providing short term moisture. These can potentially dry out the skin if other moisturizing agents aren’t used (they just suck water upwards, but don’t replenish).

Natural humectants not only moisturize the skin, but deliver other beneficial nutrients to the deeper skin layers, providing more long-term moisture. You’ve probably heard about many of these natural humectants: honey, aloe vera, hyaluronic acid, and AHA’s in smaller doses (think glycoloic, lactic, and malic acids…AHAs also occur in the natural world like in fruits and milk). Many of these natural humectants have secondary benefits: everyone knows about the anti-inflammatory properties of aloe, the anti-microbial wonders of honey, that AHA’s provide exfoliation if used correctly…and so on and so forth.

Photo Credit: The Beauty Lookbook

Emollients: Emollients work like a lubricant, lending skin a smooth softness by filling in the gaps between skin cells. Any flakes get smoothed over as well. Emollients also give that “slippy” feel to the skin (think of a pore filler). Emollients can provide a slight film to keep water in as well-much like occlusives but to nowhere near the same extent.

The texture of emollients is easily spreadable and generally thin. Most emollient ingredients also provide additional benefits to the skin like antioxidants and have anti-microbial and anti-inflammatory properties. Many also help strengthen the skin because emollients often contain fatty acids as they are often oil-based (a big help for those with dehydrated skin!).

Emollients are generally plant/animal-based oils. These include almond, coconut, jojoba, olive oils, etc, but also animal-based oils like emu and horse oil (which I personally detest and discourage the use of especially given all the other plant-based alternatives. But my opinion of animal testing and the cosmetics industry and what-not is for another time and another place. YMMV and you are entitled to your own opinion. But I personally think the thought of something like pig collagen on my face sounds nasty to begin with…)

OTHER emollient ingredients include things like glycerides and squalene/squalene (not derived from shark liver for me of course, but rather olives or the like…).

Photo Credit: Peach and Lily

Occlusives: This category of moisturizers strives to do pretty much one thing and one thing only: prevent moisture loss. Water loss is the main culprit in both dehydrated and dry skin and its when we lose water that we start looking so suddenly tired and aged. Oily skin may not struggle with water loss as much as other skin types because of natural sebum production preventing moisture escaping.

This moisturizing class works by creating a physical barrier (generally, a thin film) over the outermost layer of skin, effectively sealing good things like water and other products in by slowing down the process of evaporation. Occlusives work best when applied over wet skin (or humectants) as occlusives must have something already there to seal in to do much good. Unfortunately, many times these formulas can be a bit “greasy” or “oily” looking on the face so I personally have relegated them to night-use-only. I have found that the occlusive “film” doesn’t typically play well with my generally “light and sheer” approach to makeup.

Ingredients include pretty much any vegetable-based wax (and also beeswax), or plant-based butter (cocoa, shea, etc) as well as well-known mineral oil and petroleum.

Photo Credit: Sokoglam


Some Rules of Thumb
If you tend to lean on the dry side, dry skin will benefit most from occlusives applied over humectants to draw up/in moisture, then seal it in. Emollients can also help reduce some of the flakiness dry skin types can experience as well. Oilier skin types along with more combination skin types should avoid thick occlusive formulas and heavy-handed use of emollients and stick to lighter, humectant layers. Normal skin types have free range, but should probably stick more to the lighter end of the scale.

Selecting moisturizing ingredients based on skin concerns can also be a beneficial strategy. If you are acne-prone, obviously avoid thick formulas which may clog pores and maybe try an ingredient with anti-microbial properties, like honey. Dehydrated skin should head straight for emollients due to their oil/fatty acid content. And so on and so forth.

Your Skin Knows Best

Everyone’s skin is different and often changes through the seasons and with lifestyle factors like chronic stress and hormones. Once you know what each type of moisturizing class does and what main ingredients to look for, finding where to start for your skin type becomes a breeze.

To read the other collab posts, click the picture below!

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