Moisturizers: Options for softer skin

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.

Which moisturizer is best 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. Most moisturizers are water-based as they are easier to apply and tend to not leave a visible residue after application.

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.

    Lotions generally contain a higher percentage of water than creams, are easier to apply and are less likely to aggravate acne-prone skin. 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.

Getting the most out of your moisturizer

Develop a simple and consistent skin care routine with regular use of moisturizers:

  • 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. Apply sunscreen daily year-round. Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher. Reapply every two hours and after swimming or sweating.

    You may choose a moisturizer or cosmetics that contain sunscreen. Apply any topical medication you’re using on your skin before applying moisturizer, sunscreen or cosmetics.

  • Don't necessarily buy the most expensive brand. Just because a moisturizer is expensive doesn't mean it's more effective than a less expensive product. Many ingredients added to these more expensive brands are of questionable value and may include fragrances, dyes or other ingredients that do not help moisturize and protect the skin.
  • Wash regularly and gently. Wash your face daily and after sweating. Use warm (not hot) water and a mild facial cleanser, or just water. When bathing, avoid the use of loofahs and pumice stones. Use fragrance-free bath oil and a mild soap or a shower gel with added moisturizer. Rinse thoroughly. Limit bathing to no more than once a day, and no longer than five to 10 minutes.
  • Apply moisturizers while skin is still damp. After bathing, showering or shaving, pat your skin dry with a towel so that some moisture remains. Then apply a moisturizer to help trap water in your skin. Depending on your skin type, you may want to reapply moisturizer two to three times a day, or more often, as needed. Moisturize your hands every time you wash them. Although often ignored, your hands get more exposure to irritants than do any other part of your body.
  • Use heavy creams and oils appropriately. Don't use heavy creams on your face unless you have excessive dryness. You can use baby oil or heavier lotions on your legs, hands and feet because those areas tend to be drier.
  • Apply moisturizer after medicated creams. If you use medicated creams such as a corticosteroid or tacrolimus (Protopic), wait at least 30 minutes before applying a moisturizer. Check your medication packaging for specific instructions.

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

If regular moisturizing hasn't improved the condition of your skin or you notice new skin problems, see your doctor or dermatologist. Ask about creating a personalized skin care plan based on your skin type and any skin condition you may have.

Mayo Clinic Minute: Moisturizer tips from a dermatologist

Drink plenty of water, don't smoke, and wash your face and body each day with a gentle hypoallergenic soap for healthy-looking skin, says Dr. Dawn Davis, a Mayo Clinic dermatologist.

And, after bathing, moisturize with a hypoallergenic, fragrance-free moisturizer when you're done to help the skin hydrate.

With so many products from which to choose, how do you pick the right moisturizer? Dr. Davis says hypoallergenic is the key.

"Unscented doesn't necessarily mean that it doesn't have fragrance. Oftentimes unscented just means more chemicals," says Dr. Davis.

What ingredient should you look for?

The most inert natural hypoallergenic product that you can find in a moisturizer is petrolatum as in petroleum jelly.

Dr. Davis has another important tip for healthy skin care that could potentially save your life: "Please remember to wear your sunscreen."

Mayo Clinic Minute: The many benefits of petroleum jelly

Jeff Olsen: It's easy to find, inexpensive, and effective for treating a lot of winter ailments.

Dawn Davis, M.D.: Petroleum jelly is great, and it's one of a dermatologist's main tips and tricks.

Mr. Olsen: Dermatologist Dr. Dawn Davis says that's because this odorless nearly colorless jelly is so versatile.

Dr. Davis: It sits on top of the skin, like a greenhouse roof, so it's like insulating the skin so that it doesn't lose heat and so it doesn't lose moisture.

Mr. Olsen: One recent study called petroleum jelly the best way to reduce the risk of eczema in newborns. Dr. Davis says because petroleum jelly is chemically similar to proteins in our skin, it's also a good choice for treating everything from chapped lips to dry cuticles, hands and feet.

Dr. Davis: A lot of people also ask about using petroleum jelly in the nares, or in the breathing holes of the nose.

Mr. Olsen: Dr. Davis says you should never use it in the nose of infants and small children. In older kids a thin layer of petroleum jelly can even soothe a tender winter nose. For more information, talk with your doctor or visit MayoClinic.org.

Oct. 18, 2019 See more In-depth

See also

  1. 6 ways to manage itchy skin when you have psoriasis
  2. Aging skin
  3. Anal itching
  4. Anorexia nervosa
  5. Are you a step ahead of athlete's foot?
  6. Athlete's foot
  7. Atopic dermatitis (eczema)
  8. Bioidentical hormones: Are they safer?
  9. Bleeding after menopause: Is it normal?
  10. Parathyroid
  11. Bronchiolitis
  12. Caffeine and menopause symptoms
  13. Can baby eczema be prevented?
  14. Can psoriasis make it hard to sleep?
  15. Chapped lips: What's the best remedy?
  16. Cholera
  17. Coconut oil: Can it cure hypothyroidism?
  18. Contact dermatitis
  19. Corns and calluses
  20. Cradle cap
  21. Dehydration
  22. Dry skin
  23. Eczema bleach bath: Can it improve my symptoms?
  24. Gluten sensitivity and psoriasis: What's the connection?
  25. Hormone therapy and vaginal bleeding
  26. Hormone therapy
  27. How to heal cracked heels
  28. How to heal cracked skin at thumb tip
  29. How to treat baby eczema
  30. Humidifier care 101
  31. Hydrated skin tips
  32. Hyperparathyroidism
  33. Hypoparathyroidism
  34. Hypothyroidism: Can calcium supplements interfere with treatment?
  35. Hypothyroidism diet
  36. Hypothyroidism and joint pain?
  37. Hypothyroidism: Should I take iodine supplements?
  38. Hypothyroidism symptoms: Can hypothyroidism cause eye problems?
  39. Hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid)
  40. Ichthyosis vulgaris
  41. Is the Mediterranean diet good for psoriasis?
  42. Itchy skin (pruritus)
  43. Keratosis pilaris
  44. Living better with psoriasis
  45. Mayo Clinic Minute: The many benefits of petroleum jelly
  46. Menopause
  47. Menopause hormone therapy: Follow-up appointments?
  48. Menopause hormone therapy and your heart
  49. Menopause hormone therapy: Who shouldn't take it?
  50. Mayo Clinic Minute: Moisturizer tips from a dermatologist
  51. nail psoriasis
  52. Peeling skin
  53. Postpartum thyroiditis
  54. Psoriasis
  55. Psoriasis and clinical trials
  56. Psoriasis and intimacy
  57. Psoriasis diet: Can changing your diet treat psoriasis?
  58. Identifying psoriasis triggers
  59. Psoriasis: Get the most out of your treatment
  60. Psoriasis: How can I protect my skin during a workout?
  61. Fish oil supplements
  62. Psoriasis treatment options
  63. Psoriasis: What if I get psoriatic arthritis, too?
  64. Psoriasis: What to share with your doctor
  65. Scalp psoriasis vs. seborrheic dermatitis
  66. Sjogren's syndrome
  67. Sjogren's syndrome: Can it cause recurrent UTIs?
  68. Skin care tips
  69. Skip flavored lip balm
  70. Slide show: 5 ways to thrive with psoriasis through the holidays
  71. Slide show: Caring for your skin when you have psoriasis
  72. Types of psoriasis
  73. Soy: Does it worsen hypothyroidism?
  74. Testosterone therapy in women
  75. Time your lotions right
  76. Vaginal dryness after menopause: How to treat it?
  77. Video: Allergy or irritant: The truth about your rash
  78. Ward off dry skin
  79. Alternative psoriasis treatments
  80. What are the risks of vaccinations for people living with psoriasis?
  81. What's the best way to manage scalp psoriasis?
  82. Wilson's syndrome: An accepted medical diagnosis?
  83. Wrinkle creams
  84. Wrinkles