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What's up with moisturizers?

What's up with moisturizers?


We all know that we should be regularly using moisturizers to keep our skin healthy. Not only does it moisturize the skin, some products also claim to have additional benefits such as ‘healing’ and ‘anti-aging’. But here’s the problem: there are numerous brands available for consumers to choose from and many of which are laden with confusing terminology and intelligent marketing. Today, we are going to give you the basics in how to approach moisturizers and hope that this can help you make informed decisions about which moisturizer is best suited for you.


What are the basic functions of moisturizers?

Moisturizers essentially have 3 main functions: to act as a humectant, to provide a barrier, and to assist skin restoration.

Humectant: A humectant is anything that can attract and retain water, and is thus the ingredient that forms the foundation of a moisturizer. One of the primary reasons for why moisturizers are most effective after a bath is that the humidified skin surface provides abundant amounts of water to for the humectant to retain.

Barrier: In addition to the ability to keep water inside the skin, moisturizers should also be able to keep contaminants and irritants out, as these can cause inflammation and weaken the skin’s natural defenses. Moisturizers can also sometimes provide a barrier function against ultraviolet radiation.

Restoration: Many moisturizers contain additives that provide additional benefits. While this is more of an optional function from this perspective, it has become so commonplace in modern products that you can pretty much consider it a core component of moisturizers. However, as you may suspect, just because moisturizers add an ingredient and claims that it does something, doesn’t mean it always happens. We will give some examples of this below.


What types of moisturizers are there?

Moisturizers are generally characterized by their composition of water, lipid, and emulsifiers, ranging from pure water (yes people sell aerosolized water...) to balms. Here’s a list of some of the most common types in rough estimates:

  • Aerosolized water: 100% water

  • Lotion: 80% water, 15% lipid, and 5% emulsifier

  • Cream: 70% water, 25% lipid, and 5% emulsifier

  • Butter: 60% water, 35% lipid, and 5% emulsifier

  • Ointment: 20% water and 80% lipid

  • Balm: 100% lipid (80% liquid lipid and 20% solid lipid)

As you can see, despite their unique names, moisturizer products mostly fall onto a gradient combination of water and lipid. Of course, the specific types of lipids differ and thus generating different colors, textures, smells, and viscosities.


What about specialized products?

As more topical cosmeceuticals become available, brands begin to subspecialize their products to target specific audiences. Let’s review some of these.

Baby products

  • Many moisturizers, regardless of type, have a baby equivalent. They are usually labeled with the word ‘baby’ in big font on the front and have a picture of a cute looking baby to drive home the message that this product is meant for babies. But have you ever thought about how products can qualify as a ‘baby product’? The answer is, there is pretty much no requirement. A product can simply change one ingredient slightly, or add in one extra fragrance, or add in a new textural ingredient and eureka, a baby product is made. Many moisturizers, and for that matter soaps and shampoos, contain the exact same active ingredient as their adult equivalent. The differences, if any, can usually be found in color, fragrance, and unfortunately, price. We all want the best skin care products for children, but remember that just because a product is labeled as a baby product, it doesn’t mean that it is the most suitable product. Instead, scent and dye free products are usually less irritating and thus may be more appropriate for children with sensitive skin. Take Vaseline for example. Plain Vaseline is a great product and its ingredient list states 100% petrolatum. Vaseline Baby, on the other hand, is 99.96% petrolatum with the remaining 0.04% listed as fragrance. For most people, this difference is insignificant, but for the people with allergies and environmental sensitivities, the addition of fragrance can be greatly detrimental.

Hypoallergenic products

  • As there are no regulated industry standards for deeming a product as ‘hypoallergenic’, this term can basically mean anything the company want. In fact, hypoallergenic simply means less allergenic and not nonallergenic. To the general public, this might sound like a great perk, but unfortunately, it doesn’t make sense biologically. You either have an allergy or not. If you are allergic to a substance, it doesn’t matter if there is a little or a lot, you will still develop a reaction. Conversely, if you are not allergic to it, then its absence will not make any difference to your skin. Instead of relying on brand labelling, it may be more wise, to choose products based on listed ingredients. If you have a known allergy, then avoid products that list that allergen, and if you don’t, then it doesn’t really matter what you use. Many people also have the misconception that ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ products are always less irritating and allergenic than synthetic products. Check out our other article for details but in short, this is not true.

Products with special additives

  • Antibiotics: If you think you need antibiotics, it is best to consult your doctor first so that you can confirm the diagnosis and are subsequently given an appropriate antibiotic that can treat your specific infection. Not only might you be treating the wrong thing and potentially increasing bacterial resistance, some over the counter antibiotics are known to cause an allergic rash as well.

  • Vitamin E: While vitamin E is known to have beneficial effects for the body when taken orally, the benefits of topical vitamin E are less clear cut. What we do know is that it is a well known contact allergen, which can give you a wicked rash if you are allergic to it.

  • Sunscreen: The addition of UV protection in a moisturizer should be considered a good thing. However, there are a few things to remember. Firstly, if you are using this moisturizer as a replacement for your sunscreen, you should make sure that you are applying as regularly as you would be applying sunscreen (ie. every 2-3 hours). Secondly, SPF and PA values in moisturizers are generally lower and thus may not provide adequate protection or UV spectrum coverage if used alone. Finally, many people do not use the same moisturizer on their face as their bodies and thus may not provide UV protection to all sun exposed areas.

Let’s sum it up!

Moisturizers play an important role in your arsenal of skin care products. While some products may sound more appealing than others, we always recommend looking past the labels and making choices based on what your skin needs and what has worked best in the past.

That’s all for today folks!


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