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. They can also protect sensitive skin, improve skin texture and mask imperfections. You may need to try various products to find the right moisturizers for you.

Which moisturizer is best for you?

On the most basic level, moisturizers hold water in the outer layer of skin. Most moisturizers are water-based lotions, creams, gels and serums. They contain ingredients that draw water into the skin (humectants) — such as glycerin, lactic acid or urea — and others that smooth the skin (emollients) — such as lanolin, sunflower oil and jojoba oil.

You might want to try various moisturizers to find those that suit you. You may decide to use a cream for the eyes and neck and a lotion, which is easier to spread, for the rest of the body. You may also want to choose moisturizers that are easy to apply and leave no visible residue.

The moisturizers that are best for you depend on many factors, including your skin type, your age and whether you have specific conditions, such as acne. 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. Dry skin tends to be flaky, itchy or rough. To restore moisture to dry skin, choose a heavier, oil-based moisturizer that contains ingredients that help retain water. If you have tried moisturizers but still feel dry — especially on the lower legs, feet, arms and hands — look for one that has lactic acid or lactic acid and urea in it.

    For very dry and cracked skin, look for ointments with petroleum jelly (Vaseline, Aquaphor). They have more staying power than lotions do and are more effective at reducing water loss from the skin. If this type of product is too greasy for daytime use, apply it at bedtime.

  • Oily skin. Oily skin is shiny, greasy and prone to acne and breakouts. Such skin still needs moisture, especially after using skin care products that remove oils and dry the skin. A light moisturizer can also help protect your skin after washing.

    Lotions generally contain a higher percentage of water than creams do, are easier to apply and are less likely to aggravate acne-prone skin. Choose a lightweight, water-based product that's labeled oil-free or noncomedogenic, which means it won't clog pores. If you are acne-prone, avoid using products on your face that contain petroleum jelly, cocoa butter or coconut oil. If your skin is very oily, try using a sunscreen instead of a moisturizer.

  • Combination skin. Combination skin has areas that are dry and oily. For example, the forehead, nose or chin might be oily, but the cheeks are dry. Try a medium-weight lotion with broad-spectrum sunscreen. Or use a light moisturizer on your face and a heavier one for your arms and legs.
  • Sensitive skin. Sensitive skin is susceptible to irritation, redness, itching or rashes. Look for a moisturizer that contains soothing ingredients, such as chamomile or aloe. Choose mild products labeled as hypoallergenic, fragrance-free and for sensitive skin. Note that products labeled unscented may still irritate your skin, as they may contain masking fragrances. Also avoid products containing acids, which can irritate sensitive skin.
  • Mature skin. As you age, your skin tends to become thinner, drier, less elastic and less able to protect itself from damage. To keep your skin soft and well hydrated, choose an oil-based moisturizer that contains petroleum jelly, which helps hold in moisture. Moisturizing can make fine lines and wrinkles less visible.

    To prevent flaky, scaly skin, you might choose products that also include antioxidants or alpha hydroxy acid. Moisturizers often form the basis for wrinkle creams, with added retinoids, antioxidants, peptides or other ingredients.

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

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