Humectants hold and attract water to the skin. They keep the skin hydrated by pulling in water from the environment, and holding it within the uppermost layers of the skin, or on top of the skin.
Humectants work hand in hand with occlusives to keep skin moist by drawing water in, and reducing water loss to the environment around you.
How Do Humectants Work Within Products?
Different humectants have different strengths in how well they attract and hold moisturiser. Each have their pros and cons, and many can become sticky or tacky when used in too high of a concentration.
Some humectants are naturally found as part of the skin's Natural Moisturising Factor (NMF) like Hyaluronic Acid, Urea, and Sodium PCA.
Hyaluronic Acid is often touted as the one that holds ‘1000x its weight in water’.
Most formulators view the differing properties as a positive - It allows combination of humectants to be used to gain maximum efficacy whilst remaining skin-similar (with NMF’s), and having a good product feel.
Humectant Vs Occlusive Vs Emollient
Moisturisers generally require all three types to perform adequately.
Humectant = attracts moisture to the skin
Occlusive = protective film that prevents moisture loss
Emollient = soften, smooth, and condition the skin
List Of Common Humectant Skincare Ingredients
Glycerin is by far the most ubiquitous humectant and the unsung hero of most formulas. It's an incredibly effective, affordable, and stable humectant, which is why it's in everything.
Hyaluronic Acid, Sodium PCA, and Urea are popular as they are part of the skins NMF.
Sorbitol has found a special place as it also acts a prebiotic to support the skin's natural biome (bacteria balance).
Panthenol has amazing properties beyond strictly being a humectant. It can assist with wound healing, scarring, elasticity and protect from itching and dryness.
1 3 propanediol, propylene glycol, and butylene glycol are also incredibly popular in formulas for their stability and less tacky skin feel.