What’s in a Moisturiser and How Do I Choose the Right One?

What’s in a Moisturiser and How Do I Choose the Right One?

Your skin is your largest organ. It’s your first line of defence against UV, pollution and germs and it keeps your insides in place.

When skin gets dehydrated, two things happen: Allergens, microbes, and any other nasties that can get under your skin have an easier time doing so, and skin can’t shed its excess cells properly.  The result is dry, rough, scaly skin.

Often by the time you notice that you have dry skin, your skin’s self-healing processes are already unable to manage. Ideally, you use a moisturising lotion to prevent dry skin before it happens. If you wait until it’s already dry, lotion can protect your skin while it heals itself, but it will be a much slower recovery.

Did you know, moisturisers don't add water to your skin? They work by helping to hold the moisture already in your skin in.  They add a thin layer of oil to the skin’s surface to replace the damaged barrier and prevent water from evaporating. So if you want to add moisture to your skin, you have to apply moisturiser to wet skin to trap excess water inside.

What’s in a moisturiser and how do I choose the right one?

Moisturising lotions, creams and gels combine ingredients that protect your skin with ingredients that make the product easy to use, with all including one or more of the same basic ingredient types: 

  • Occlusives seal in the body’s natural moisture and block evaporation. Examples of pure occlusives are Vaseline (petrolatum), lanolin, coconut oil, shea and cocoa butters, mineral oil (liquid petrolatum) and botanical oils (like those from fruits, seeds and nuts). You can use pure occlusives alone, but most people find them greasy and unpleasant. Many lotions use an oil-free occlusive called dimethicone, a kind of silicone used to make oil-free cosmetics, to further avoid that greasy feeling.  Unfortunately for young skin, dimethicone can trap not only water, but bacteria under the skin, making it more prone to breakouts.  Dimethicone can also sting if the skin barrier is damaged, so this should be avoided.

The amount of water added is how we define a moisturiser as a cream, lotion or ointment. Lotions have the most water, creams have less, and ointments have even less.  This doesn't mean that ointments are better than lotions for performance, because ointments really don't feel good on the skin and are sticky and hard to use.  Lotions have the benefit of being able to include water-based nutrients to provide added benefits for healthy skin.

Girl Lane uses botanical occlusives and coconut oil as our preferred occlusive agents, they don't feel as greasy or sticky and come from natural sources. To make occlusives feel less greasy, we add water and water based active ingredients.  

  • Nearly all moisturisers contain “skin-conditioning” ingredients called emollients (such as shea and cocoa butters, cetearyl alcohol, apricot kernel oil, avocado oil, lanolin, and stearic, linoleic and lauric acids). These make your skin feel soft and smooth and may help repair barrier function. Some emollients (like butters and oils) double as occlusives.
  • The final ingredient type that many moisturisers include are humectants.  These are ingredients that draw water from deep skin layers to the surface. They can't be used alone, because this moisture would be lost to the atmosphere through evaporation if it wasn't trapped using an occlusive as well.  Products with prolonged moisture activity contain humectant ingredients like glycerin, alpha hydroxy acids or lactic acid

Besides these three key ingredient types, moisturisers contain lots of other ingredients, so what should you try to avoid?

Fragrances and dyes are added to lotions to make products smell and look better. Moisturisers with added fragrances can cause issues because they are rubbed into dry skin that is already sensitised to irritants, and can sting. Another problem is that if people will be allergic to anything, it will most likely be a fragrance (including natural fragrances like citrus) or dye.

At Girl Lane we recommend using only fragrance-free lotions to avoid allergic reactions. Moisturisers should always make your skin feel good.  If it makes your skin feel worse (such as itching, stinging or burning) it's not helping your skin be its healthy best.

Have a Question?

Check out the answers to common questions from Girl Lane co-founder and Pharmacist Deborah Williams - or you can even ask your own question!

Deborah Williams
Co-Founder & Pharmacist
Deborah Williams