Just a brief glance at the skincare aisle in a drug store reveals the dilemma. Do I need a hydrating or moisturizing product? Many brands use the terms interchangeably, but are they really the same? Let’s dig deeper and discuss the difference between hydrating and moisturizing in skincare.
- Is there a difference between hydrating and moisturizing?
- Which products are hydrating?
- Which products are moisturizing?
- What does your skin need?
- Dehydrated skin
- Dry Skin
- Adjust for skin type
- Adjust for changing seasons
- What am I using?
Is there a difference between hydrating and moisturizing?
Yes, there is. But there are also similarities.
How are hydrating and moisturizing similar?
Hydrators and moisturizers have the same goal: to bring and retain water in the skin. Without adequate water content, the skin loses its bounce, tone, and elasticity.
Just look at the skin of babies and young children. Their skin is tout, smooth, without visible pores. All this beauty is due to the optimal water content within their skin.
But, with age, the water content starts diminishing. And, if we don’t help the skin get it internally – by drinking enough – and externally – by hydrating and moisturizing from the outside in, the skin starts showing what it’s lacking.
Fine lines, no bounce, dullness are all related to the loss of moisture in the skin.
How are they different?
The difference between hydrating and moisturizing lies in the form of action.
Whereas hydrators work by bringing the water into the skin by grabbing it from the air (or steam) and infusing the skin’s cells with it.
Moisturizers, on the other hand, work by preventing transdermal water loss which is a process where the water content from the skin passes through the skin’s barrier and escapes into the surrounding air.
Now, that we know this crucial difference, let’s see which products do which: hydrating or moisturizing.
Which products are hydrating?
If your skin needs hydration (we’ll discuss the signs of dehydration a bit later), you need a product that will bring the water into the skin. F your skin is dry, you’ll need a moisturizing product.
What are humectants?
Products or ingredients that bring moisture to the skin are called humectants. They draw the water from the surrounding atmosphere and bring it into the cells of your skin.
Probably the most famous humectant is Hyaluronic Acid (HA) which is known to be able to bind over one thousand times its weight in water and deliver it into the outermost layer of your skin.
The key molecule involved in skin moisture is hyaluronic acid (HA) that has unique capacity in retaining water.NIH Study: Hyaluronic acid: A key molecule in skin aging
Hyaluronic Acid is present in our bodies throughout our lives. Its functions include the following: hydration, lubrication of joints, wound healing, and a space-filling capacity.
However, with age, our own HA starts diminishing. When that happens, the skin loses its youthful buoyance and plumpness.
This is where the injectible and topical HA comes into play
Many fillers that you can get at the dermatologist’s office are made of HA molecules. They do have an effect but they also are very costly.
Topical HA’s effect is temporary since the molecules degrade quickly. Even so, it still does its job by bringing the moisture into the skin before it itself degrades and is removed by our lymphatic system.
HA comes in different sizes. Its molecules can be super small or larger.
The smaller the molecule the better it can penetrate and bring that water content deeper into the skin.
The larger molecule is unable to penetrate deeply and will thus stay very close to the surface of the skin.
But, there is a catch. Whereas the larger molecules (high molecular size) help ward off inflammation, the smaller molecules (low molecular size) might actually bring about inflammation which of course is detrimental to the health and appearance of the skin.
The size of HA appears to be of critical importance for its various functions described above. HA of high molecular size, usually in excess of 1,000 kDa, is present in intact tissues and is antiangiogenic and immunosuppressive, whereas smaller polymers of HA are distress signals and potent inducers of inflammation and angiogenesis.Hyaluronic acid: A key molecule in skin aging
RELATED POST: Hyaluronic Acid Serum for Plump Skin
Other humectants include a variety of natural and synthetic ingredients such as Alpha Hydroxy Acids, Aloe Vera, Honey, and Glycerin.
Here is a list of some most common humectant ingredients:
- Aloe vera
- Snail mucin
- Glycolic acid
- Lactic acid
- Citric acid
- Sodium PCA
- Marine extracts
Which products are moisturizing?
While humectants bring water to the skin, moisturizers help the skin retain it.
There are two types of moisturizers: emollients and occlusives.
Emollients lubricate the skin while occlusives create a barrier on the skin that prevents the loss of moisture. Oftentimes, an ingredient can be both, depending on how waxy it is.
What are emollients?
Vichy gives an interesting metaphor to understand how emollients work in dry kin.
Think of it as a brick wall: The cells are the bricks, and the lipids are the grout. When skin is dry, there’s not enough grout (lipids) so cracks appear in the wall; this allows moisture to easily escape, leading to further dryness, flakes and skin irritation. Emollients act as the grout, filling in those gaps.Vichy Laboratories
One of the best emollients to moisturize the skin is Shea Butter. It is derived from Shea nuts and has been used as a skin moisturizing, softening, and protecting agent for centuries.
Shea butter has a high concentration of skin-loving fatty acids and vitamins.
Shea butter works as a skin-conditioning agent. It helps retain moisture by forming a protective barrier on the skin’s surface, which reduces the loss of water and keeps your skin hydrated.Dr. Axe
Some best emollients are derived from plants, primarily from the seeds and nuts of plants.
Oils and butters derived from the flesh of the plants are waxier, thus occlusive, and could be clogging, e.g coconut oil.
- Cocoa butter
- Mango butter
- Kokum butter
- Jojoba oil
- Argan oil
- Pomegranate seed oil
- Rosehip seed oil
- Hemp seed oil
RELATED POST: Best Carrier Oils for Your Skin Type
What does your skin need?
Now that you know the difference between hydrating and moisturizing, you might be wondering what your skin needs. Hydrators aka humectants? Moisturizers aka emollients? Or, both?
If your skin feels thin, stretched out, dull in appearance and / or sagging, good chances are that it is dehydrated. Small wrinkles and fine lines appear deeper and more pronounced.
How to rehydrate? First thing is to drink more water and help the skin from inside out.
Secondly, you need a humectant-based hydrator for your skin. Look for a Hyaluronic Acid serum to quench the skin’s thirst.
You might also benefit from using a moisturizer alongside the hydrator. Just remember to first apply the hydrator and follow with a moisturizer.
The molecules in the hydrator are usually smaller and meant to penetrate deeper layers of the skin. Moisturizer is meant to stay closer to the surface and provide a barrier that will lessen the transdermal water loss.
If, on the other hand, your skin feels flaky, dry to the touch, or even itchy, you’re most likely suffering from dry skin. Here, you will be best served by applying a layer of an emollient-based moisturizer, possibly even followed with something heavier, occlusive-based like a wax-based balm or heavier body butter.
Here again, you can use both, hydrating and moisturizing skincare, just remember to go with the lighter hydrating serum first and then follow with the moisturizer which will provide a seal and help keep the serum from evaporating.
Adjust for skin type
Trying to transform dry skin is challenging, but some ingredients can help seal in moisture.
Ceramides, glycerin, and omega-fatty acids are definitely your allies.
Facial oils are also a great source of moisture. These can work for various skin types but it is important to adjust and use “drier” oils for more oily skin types (rosehip seed, hemp seed, grapeseed, or jojoba oil).
Sensitive skin can benefit greatly from emollients that also have anti-inflammatory properties like Shea Butter and from oils such as evening primrose or argan oil.
Adjust for changing seasons
You might also want to adjust your application of hydrating and moisturizing products according to the season and the weather where you live.
In colder months, it makes sense to focus primarily on moisturizers, and even to switch to heavier, occlusive-based moisturizers.
What are occlusives?
Occlusives are moisturizing in that they create a protective barrier on the skin’s surface and thus prevent the loss of moisture from the skin.
To create such a protective seal on the surface of your skin, look for products containing occlusives such as beeswax or vegan waxes (Carnauba or Candelilla), petrolatum jelly (Vaseline), heavier plant oils such as coconut oil, olive oil, soybean oil, wheat germ oil, and castor oil.
RELATED POST: Adjust your skincare according to seasonal changes
What am I using?
I pride myself on having better skin now in my 50s than when I was in my 20s. One reason is the fact that I do not have acne anymore. Another is that my skin is well hydrated and moisturized thanks to a simple but effective skincare routine in the AM and PM.
In the morning, I tone my skin with simple rose water or my DIY Sake Toner.
I apply my own Hyaluronic Acid Serum on still-damp skin to bring in that water deeper inside.
It works best right after the shower when the bathroom is filled with steam! This way the HA has more particles of water to grab onto and deliver to the skin.
After that, I apply a few pumps of One Skin OS01 Peptide Serum to deliver the nourishing ingredients into the skin.
Sunscreen is next – remember that photodamage is the most skin-aging factor that there is! – and maybe foundation, also oil-based.
In the evening, it’s pretty much the exact same routine with one difference. Instead of sunscreen, I seal everything in my using a wax-based balm, my Firming Rose Balm to be specific.
I use the balm pretty much all year long, with a few weeks’ break in the spring and the fall. It is because, in the summer months, we usually run the AC overnight which is very drying to the skin. And in wintertime, it’s the heater doing a number on the skin.
I treat the balm as a night mask and wake up to plump, hydrated, and moisturized skin.
That’s pretty much it. I hope you found it helpful to decide between all these different moisturizing vs. hydrating products on the market.
Sending good vibes to you and your lovely skin!