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What is a humectant in skin care?

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If you’re a regular here, you’ll know that we like to pick apart all the complex ingredients and fancy buzz words when it comes to skin care. Then we lay them all out and, in plain English, explain exactly what all these things are, what they do and what skin types they’re best suited to.

(For anyone who’s not a regular, welcome! You’ll find everything you need to know about skin care here, whatever your skin type. No hype, no fancy, questionable ingredients. Just skin care advice, and products, plain and simple.)

In this article, we’re going to look at a group of ingredients that are classed as humectants. Humectants are found in some types of moisturising products and suit a certain type of skin. 

Here’s all you need to know about humectants, who is best using them and who is best to avoid them.

What are humectants?

As we mentioned above, humectants are found in products designed to help moisturise the skin and hair. Not only found in skin and body moisturisers, humectants are also found in other moisturising products such as shampoos and body washes. 

How do humectants work?

To truly understand how humectants work, we need to first talk about the difference between moisturising and hydrating the skin. 

Often used interchangeably, the words 'moisturising’ and ‘hydrating’ actually mean different things.

A product designed as a moisturiser will form a layer on the skin that helps to trap moisture into the skin or hair. It will help tobuild up the protective layers of the skin, helping to prevent it losing more moisture to the air.

Moisturisers are generally quite oily to help form their protective barrier. Types of moisturisers include occlusives, such as petroleum based products (for example Vaseline) and mineral oil, andemollients such as those prescribed for eczema prone skin. They all help to make the skin feel less dry and irritated. 

Humectants on the other hand, are atype of skin hydrator. Hydrating agents work by helping the skin feel more hydrated. They tend not to feel oily or sit on the skin. 

More specifically, humectants work by helping the skin (or the hair) draw in water from the surrounding atmosphere. They then help to hold it within the upper layers of the skin, keeping the skin feeling hydrated. 

Hydrating humectant ingredients include hyaluronic acid,salicylic acid and other alpha hydroxy acids (or, AHAs) and glycerin. 

Do I need a hydrator or a moisturiser?

So we can see that not all ‘moisturising’ agents are created equal. They might all be called a moisturiser, but many are actually hydrators. 

Some of us might be using a moisturising agent, but in reality, our skin will be better off with a hydrating agent.

But how do we know whether the ski on our faces needs a moisturiser or a hydrator?

Both hydrators and moisturisers help to soothe dry, or parched skin, but it’s the cause of the dry skin that you need to understand to know how best to treat it. Even here, there’s a difference between dry skin, and dehydrated skin. 

Dry skin needs extra moisturisation in the form of an oilier moisturiser. Whilst dehydrated skin needs more water, which can be supplied by using a hydrating product, or in other words, a humectant. 

You can test this yourself. If your skin is dry, it’ll feel flakey and possibly even scaly. If your skin is dehydrated, it will feel hard and tight and you may notice the formation of premature fine lines and wrinkles, or lines and wrinkles that appear suddenly. Well hydrated skin is skin that is soft and bouncy to the touch. 

Our skin can change with the seasons too. You might find that you need a heavier moisturiser in the winter when the harsh, cold air and central heating strips the skin of its moisture. 

Then in the summer months, you might benefit more from a humectant that feels lighter on the skin and helps to replenish water lost through sweat and feeling dehydrated. 

What skin type benefits the most from a humectant?

Those of us withoiler skin types or who have skin that is prone toacne,eczema,rosacea or sensitivities will benefit most from humectant products. If you have particularly dry skin that feels like it’s been stripped of its natural oils, you may benefit more from a moisturiser that contains natural oils. 

OurSidekick Day Cream contains the humectant glycerin and is ideal for hydrating the skin during the day, when you want to keep shine at bay. Both this and ourMidnight Feast Night Cream also contain moisturising, natural plant oils. 

This makes them both hydrating and moisturising and suitable for all skin types. Next time you’re looking for a new hydrating moisturiser, make it Sönd! 


Hannah de Gruchy BSc(Hons)

About Author

Hannah de Gruchy is a freelancer writer who specialises in health and wellness. She has a keen interest in the biology of skin and loves using her words to help separate the real science of skincare from the pseudoscience of some skincare brands. Hannah has a degree in Human Biology and many years’ experience working in laboratories around London. Using this experience, Hannah enjoys turning complex science into interesting, engaging and easy to digest pieces to read. In her spare time, Hannah runs, practices yoga and loves cooking plant based foods.

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