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Moisturizers: Occlusives vs Humectants

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Moisturizing your skin is probably one of the most important steps in any Korean Skincare routine, well any skincare routine. There should usually be a different moisturizer for day and night time. This may seem odd to neophytes to skincare, but the benefits of two different moisturizers can be the difference between good skin and great skin.

The reason we need two moisturizers is because we have different needs during the day vs the night time. Moisturizing itself is not just for hydration, but also for its protective, preventative and treatment benefits, and different ingredients work differently at different times.

In the mornings you’d use a moisturizer for hydration and protection against the sun’s UVB/UVA rays, environmental elements and antioxidants. At night you would use a moisturizer that has nourishing ingredients, as well as preventative and treatment benefits, e.g. something with AHAs, BHAs, peptides, peeling agents, exfoliating agents, anti-aging, retinol,  or other specific treatments your skin needs.

Simply put, mornings are for hydration and protection and evenings are for hydration and treatment.

But how do you know which ingredients in your moisturizers are good for you during the day vs at night? 

Two common words in skincare  is “occlusive” and “humectant”. You’ll hear these words often, and if you’re not new to skincare, you might even able to associate them with certain ingredients. There are highly scientific explanations for both terms, but in this post, I wanted to simplify it and make it understandable for anyone to know the difference, and know what to look for in moisturizers.

As an aside, in my own quest to heal my troubled skin, I read a lot of books that used scientific naming conventions, but were too long winded. Although they were understandable, it was just not written in a format that made it reader friendly. I love learning new words, but dammit give me some brevity.

Anyway.

What Are Occlusives?

I always mind-associate this word with “exclusive”, like an exclusive club that has security blocking off the entrance. Silly, but  in a round about way it relates to what an occlusive is. In medicine, “occlusive” means the closing or blockage of a vessel or organ. In skincare, occlusives are the ingredients that prevent the loss of water from the skin. They literally create a barrier so moisture can’t escape from the skin.

Those of us with dry skin or from dry climates will know the pain of having a desert for a skin mantle. No sooner is our skin moisturized when that little thing called evaporation happens (fast) and our skin is bone dry again. For those with dry skin, occlusives can be a heaven send.

We also sometimes hear people complaining about a product because it feels like it just “sits on the skin” with no real absorption. This is a tell tale sign of an occlusive being present in the formula. It’s sitting on top of the skin doing what its meant to do, that is, block water from escaping. Or it's just a dud product with a bunch of ingredients whose molecules are too large to actually penetrate your skin.

It makes sense then, that many healing and super moisturizing products like Vaseline and Cocoa Butter contain occlusive ingredients. Vaseline is probably the most well known, made up of petroleum jelly also known as petrolatum. Other occlusive ingredients include mineral oil, dimethicone, shea butter, beeswax or lanolin.  They can be excellent for those with dry skin, but a nightmare for those with acne. The problem with occlusives, is that in blocking your pores, it can also clog your pores, leading to acne.

It should be noted that if occlusive ingredients are present in cleansers, they are fine to be used as it’s not left on the skin, provided its followed up with a second cleanser that dissolves the oily film left from the occlusive.

However in a moisturizer, or any other product that is left on the skin, occlusives can potentially lead to breakouts from the pore clogging and blackhead forming (comedogenic) effects. Obviously not good for those with oily skin and/or acne.

What Are Humectants?

Humectants attract water from the air and deep within the skin to the upper layer of skin. It’s a better option for those who suffer from acne as it’s less comedogenic. Added benefits of humectants include wrinkle reduction due to the plumping effect. Common humectant ingredients include urea, glycerin, hyaluronic acid, actin acid, and propylene glycol.

There is however a slight downside -  because humectants draw moisture from deep inside the skin , it can lead to water loss if the skin barrier is compromised which can result in even dryer skin. For this reason humectants are often combined with an occlusive to prevent this water loss.

The best night time recovery moisturizers have a balance between occlusives and humectants.

But as stated the pore clogging can be an issue for certain skin types, especially if you’re acne prone. In these cases you need something that helps you retain moisture, but does not break you out.  This is where the good stuff like hyaluronic acid, snail secretion filtrate, green tea, tea tree oil and jojoba oil based moisturizers come in. They make excellent alternative to the thicker occlusive rich creams. If you’re not sure on the ingredients, then choose a lotion over the oilier cream type moisturizers. Light weight lotion type moisturizers that are mostly water based are good for all skin types.

There are also other moisturizing ingredient types like emollients and rejuvenators, but those have more of an effect on the texture of the skin rather than moisture levels.

A tip on moisturizing: Use a mist or water spray just before your moisturizer so that your skin is slightly damp. This will allow your moisturizer to lock in the moisture from the mist.

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