Hydration is vital for all skin types. Without it, skin dehydrates, becomes dry and dull-looking, the tone appears uneven and fine lines more visible. Well, this is what happens with lack of hydration for most skin types. In the case of oily skin, though, dehydration can lead to sebaceous glands going into over-drive and produce even more sebum. No one ever wants that. Period. What’s more, if the skin is not hydrated properly, it alters the skin’s barrier protective role, which can cause irritations, itchiness or sensitivity towards skincare products.
On the flip side, when skin is hydrated, it stays more elastic, bouncy, and glow-y, and somehow I know that’s something everybody needs for their skin. With this in mind, I’ve pulled out the best hydrating skincare ingredients, from humectants to occlusives and emollients, they’re all here.
Moisturizing vs. hydrating ingredients
OK, by now, you’ve probably heard about both — hydrating and moisturizing ingredients. The difference is that while hydrating ingredients add water to the skin, moisturizing ingredients prevent trans-epidermal water loss (TEWL) from the skin. In layman’s terms, you can hydrate your skin by giving it water or by preventing its evaporation from the skin. While humectants are the only hydrating ingredients that add water to the skin, moisturizers include occlusives and emollients, which cover the skin with a protective film to trap moisture in.
To know which type of hydration is right for your skin, you must know if your skin is dry or dehydrated. Dry skin will have flaky or patchy areas, sometimes redness, while dehydrated skin has a dull look and feels tight. If your skin is dry or sensitive, you’d want to add emollient ingredients to your skincare routine. Occlusive ingredients do best for irritated or extremely dry skin, while oily skin should stick with humectants.
Top hydrating skincare ingredientsHumectant
Glycerin is a type of moisturizing agent that works by pulling water from the air into the skin’s outer layer — this makes it a humectant. It’s a compound that exists naturally in the skin’s top layers, having a role in maintaining the skin moisturized. In skincare, glycerin is mostly derived from plants and from all humectants, is considered the most effective one at boosting skin hydration.Humectant
By far, hyaluronic acid is one of the best hydrating skincare ingredients. Critical in maintaining skin healthy and plump, hyaluronic acid (HA) is a sugar molecule that occurs naturally in the skin, helping cells retain as much moisture as possible. The synthesized formula in skincare products is derived from bacteria or microbial fermentation. It may sound backward, but that’s actually safe and vegan. Even if hyaluronic acid used in skincare is not the same as the one present in the skin and has a limited ability to maintain water, it can still keep the skin plump and moisturized.Occlusive
Naturally found in the skin’s stratum corneum, ceramides are vital for keeping the protective barrier integer. A healthy barrier locks moisture into the skin and keeps potential aggressors out. Replenishing the skin with ceramide help the tissue strengthen its protective barrier, improving hydration. Ceramides are mainly considered occlusives since they work by preventing moisture loss. Ceramides fulfill their role best when paired with glycerin, amino acids, and cholesterol.
Squalane is the version of squalene (a lipid that makes up 10-12% of skin sebum) used in skincare products. Squalane is a highly effective emollient, super lightweight, that absorbs quickly into the skin, sinking into the pores to improve the skin at a cellular level. Besides being an emollient that covers the skin with a protective moisture barrier, squalane is also occlusive, helping trap water into the skin, making it one of the best hydrating ingredients. Squalane hydrates and softens the skin, matching tremendously with HA.Emollients
Omega fatty acids
In skincare, omega fatty acids are used as emollients and work to boost skin hydration by sealing the skin’s natural moisture and minimizing trans-epidermal water loss. Fatty acids are present in the outermost layer of the skin (stratum corneum), having a role in decreasing water loss, antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory effects. Replenishing fatty acids in the skin promotes skin barrier preservation and enhances skin hydration. The best fatty acids are linoleic acid (omega-6), alpha-linoleic acid (omega-3), and oleic acid (omega-9).
- Lancer Omega Hydrating Oil with Ferment Complex (Amazon)
Even if it’s part of the alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) family and it’s an exfoliant, lactic acid is the most hydrating AHA. It increases the skin’s ability to maintain water and improves its natural moisture barrier. Plus, lactic acid helps the skin plump also because it stimulates collagen renewal. I suggest any of these lactic acid serums.Humectant
Urea is a humectant thanks to its ability to retain moisture by binding to water molecules. When used in skincare products, urea can sink into the stratum corneum to boost water absorption further. Hence, urea increases the skin’s ability to retain water while also helps strengthen the protective barrier. This is how it prevents the skin from drying, being one of the most hydrating ingredients you can find in skincare products.
Petrolatum is a thick agent that works by sitting on top of the skin, where it forms a barrier, preventing water from evaporating. It’s very good at filling in cracks to tackle chapped skin, relieving dry, flaky skin. Because it feels greasy, it’s best to use products with petrolatum at night.
- Aquaphor Healing Ointment Moisturizing Skin (Amazon)
Vitamin E (tocopherol)
Topical use of vitamin E absorbs into the skin easily, assisting in a few types of cellular renewal processes. Vitamin E helps draw moisture to the skin, helping it seal, making skin feel soft and smooth. It’s an all-round workhouse of vitamin that has both humectant and emollient properties, and its topical application — as low as 0.1% — may even increase the vitamin E stored in sebaceous glands. Since it’s oil-soluble, it’s best to use vitamin E in oils and moisturizers to keep the skin plump.Humectant
Also called pro-vitamin B5, panthenol’s main job in skincare products is to moisturize the skin. Since it acts as a humectant, panthenol helps the skin attract water and hold onto it. On top of this, panthenol supports the skin to produce more lipids that are vital for a healthy skin barrier. In this way, panthenol helps the skin stay soft and maintain its elasticity.
- Alpha-H Vitamin B Serum (Sephora)
Snail mucin is the excretion from a snail, which is packed with nutrients like hyaluronic acid, vitamin E, and copper peptides. While HA pulls water into the outer skin’s layers, copper peptides increase collagen and elastin production in the skin. Snail mucin works to repair the barrier function, locking out external irritants while holding into moisture, and it’s an important compound that boosts collagen, helping keep skin plump. No wonder it’s one of the best natural hydrating ingredients.
- COSRX Advanced Snail 96 Mucin Power Essence (Amazon)
Also found under the name Parkii butter. Shea butter comes from the kernels of shea trees and is used in skincare due to its ability to soak into the skin, where it creates a smooth and soft film that seals in moisture, strengthening the skin barrier. This is possible because shea butter is rich in several types of fatty acids (linolenic, oleic, palmitic, and stearic).Humectant
Even if it’s mostly used in skincare for its soothing properties, aloe vera also acts as a hydrating ingredient — fair enough since it contains about 95% water. Aloe vera locks moisture into the skin because it’s rich in phytosterols, molecules known to prevent TEWT. When applied to the skin, aloe vera also acts as a glue, making the top skin’s layers stick together, resulting in softer and smoother skin.Humectant
A potent humectant, honey is able to draw out and retain moisture, hydrating and keeping skin plump. Not only does honey draws moisture from the air, but it also penetrates the skin due to the high content of special enzymes, giving it long-lasting hydration and glow.