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Moisturiser ingredients: what you should be looking for

Siski Green / 17 July 2015 ( 08 March 2019 )

To buy the best moisturiser for your skin, you need to understand how it works. Here we explain what it can and can't do, as well as outlining the ingredients that work.

Mature woman applying moisturiser
What are the ingredients in your moisturiser and how do they work?

Shea butter, urea, retinol, essential oils – you’ve likely seen any number of these ingredients listed on a moisturiser but will they actually make a visible difference? 

The answer is yes, depending on how they’re combined. 

Improving the way your skin looks and feels relies on smoothing and repairing the cells of your skin, increasing water content which helps create plumpness as well as improve cell functioning, as well as helping the lipid barrier to attract and hold water.  

There is very little evidence to show that replenishing essential proteins such as keratin and elastin has any effect on your skin, while there is evidence that regular moisturising that adds water and holds it in will improve dryness, fine lines and also general appearance.  

With that in mind, take a look at what you need in your moisturiser and how it works.  

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What are humectants?

These help water move from below the dermis (under the outer layer of the skin) to the surface. They also enhance water absorption by helping the skin draw in water from the atmosphere, if humid. 

What is it? Glycerol, urea. 

Downside: they make your skin feel sticky. And because they draw water from inside to the surface, if there is no occlusive agent (see below), the water may evaporate from the skin making skin even drier long-term. That’s why humectants are almost always used with occlusive agents. 

What are emollients?

This are usually oils or lipids (fats), smoothing substances that work by literally making outer skin cells lie flatter, which helps reduce lines, makes skin more flexible and more reflective (think of the way baby skin reflects light - that’s because the skin cells are lying very flat and smooth).

What is it? Shea butter, sunflower seed oil, coconut oil, essential oils (each of which contain one or more of these substances stearic, oleic, linoleic or lauric fatty acids/alcohols).

Downside: Some types of emollients can be difficult to spread on your skin, making them time-consuming. 

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What are occlusive agents?

These work by providing a barrier on your skin to prevent water evaporating and leaving your skin drier and less plump looking. Petrolatum, oils and silicone are examples of these. 

What is it? Petroleum jelly, lanolin, silicone.

Downside: Ever felt like you’re sweating underneath the moisturiser? That’s likely a cause of an occlusive agent, which can make your skin feel heavy. 

So what should be in your moisturiser?

So when choosing a moisturiser make sure it has a humectant, emollient and occlusive agent in it – all are useful in helping make your skin look and feel better. 

When do you want to use your moisturiser?

A night cream, for example, will likely to contain more effective emollient which makes it less than ideal for the morning when you don’t want to waste time putting it on or waiting for it to be absorbed. 

A day lotion is likely to contain more water, making it easier to apply and more quickly and easily absorbed. 

Finally, don’t get taken in by most of the claims regarding moisturisers. The truth is that applying any moisturiser that contains the above ingredients will improve smoothness, flexibility and feel. 

There are ingredients that have been shown to be effective, but don’t expect miracles even with these. Effects are likely to be subtle. 

Effective moisturising ingredients include:  

• retinol which showed reductions in wrinkles as well as boosting thickness and elasticity of skin 

• glycolic acid which helps reduce fine lines and wrinkles 

• lactic acid which helps the body get rid of dead skin cells brightening skin. 


The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.