Find out what moisturizers can and can't do for your skin and how to select a moisturizer that suits your needs. By Mayo Clinic Staff

Moisturizers prevent and treat dry skin, but that's not all they do. Moisturizers can protect sensitive skin, improve skin tone and texture, and mask imperfections. There are plenty of moisturizers available. Here's help finding the right moisturizer for you.

On the most basic level, moisturizers hold water in the outermost layer of skin. They also act as a temporary barrier. Many moisturizers contain some combination of humectants, emollients and other ingredients.

The moisturizer that's best for you depends on many factors, including your skin type, your age and whether you have specific conditions, such as acne. For general guidelines, consider the following:

  • Normal skin. Normal skin is neither too dry nor too oily. To maintain this natural moisture balance, use a water-based moisturizer that has a light, nongreasy feel. These moisturizers often contain lightweight oils or silicone-derived ingredients, such as cyclomethicone.
  • Dry skin. To restore moisture to dry skin, choose a heavier, oil-based moisturizer that contains ingredients that help keep your skin hydrated. For very dry and cracked skin, petrolatum-based products are preferable. They have more staying power than creams do and are more effective at preventing water from evaporating from your skin.
  • Oily skin. Oily skin is prone to acne and breakouts. Though oily, such skin still needs moisture, especially after using skin care products that remove oils and dry out the skin. A light moisturizer can also help protect your skin after washing. Choose a water-based product that's labeled noncomedogenic, which means it won't clog pores.
  • Sensitive skin. Sensitive skin is susceptible to skin irritations, redness, itching or rashes. Look for a moisturizer that contains soothing ingredients, such as chamomile or aloe, and doesn't contain potential allergens, such as fragrances or dyes. Also, avoid products containing acids, which can irritate sensitive skin.
  • Mature skin. As you age, your skin tends to become drier because your oil-producing glands become less active. To keep your skin soft and well hydrated, choose an oil-based moisturizer that contains petrolatum as the base, along with antioxidants or alpha hydroxy acids to combat wrinkles. These ingredients help hold in moisture and prevent flaky, scaly skin.

Keep in mind that skin type can vary, depending on environment, hormonal changes that occur in pregnancy and menopause, and disease.

To make the most of your moisturizing routine:

  • Be willing to experiment. Find a moisturizer that fits your skin type and makes your skin look and feel soft. You may need to try several brands with varying ingredients before you find one you like.
  • Protect yourself from the sun. You may choose a moisturizer that contains sunscreen, which performs double duty by both hydrating your skin and protecting it from sun damage.
  • Don't necessarily buy the most expensive brand. Just because a moisturizer is expensive doesn't mean it's more effective than a cheaper product.
  • Apply moisturizers immediately after bathing. Pat or blot your skin until it's just barely dry, then apply moisturizer immediately to help trap water in the surface cells.
  • Apply moisturizer to your hands and body as needed. Apply after bathing or showering, before exercising outdoors in cold weather, and every time you wash your hands. Although often ignored, your hands get more exposure to irritants than do any other part of your body.
  • Use heavy creams appropriately. Don't use any heavy creams on your face unless you have excessive dryness. You can use heavy, oil-based creams on your legs, hands and feet because those areas tend to be drier.

Not all moisturizers live up to their advertised claims or even contain all their advertised ingredients. The Food and Drug Administration does not regulate cosmetics — including moisturizers — as rigorously as it does drugs.

If a moisturizer doesn't improve the condition of your skin or you notice skin problems after using a moisturizer, see your doctor or dermatologist. He or she can help you create a personalized skin care plan by assessing your skin type, evaluating your skin's condition and recommending moisturizers likely to be effective.

Feb. 01, 2014