The Importance of Humectants in Skin Care, and why Natural is Best!

Photo by Bennie Lukas Bester
What is a humectant?

Humectants are particular substances frequently used in skin care products due to their ability to absorb water from the air and underlying layers of skin, and pull said water close to the skin’s surface. For those research enthusiasts out there, in more technical terms the US National library of medicine defines humectants as moisturizers that “consist of hygroscopic substances which help the stratum corneum to absorb water by attracting water from the dermis and a humid environment into the epidermis.” There are multiple humectants utilized in skin care products, both natural and synthetic, but natural is by far the better choice for long term skin hydration.

What are some of the different humectants?

Many manufacturers prefer synthetic humectants due to lower costs; however, they are less than ideal because they lack necessary nutrients for healthy skin. Thus when the moisture pulled to the surface of the skin evaporates and nothing is replenished, it can actually dehydrate skin and cause damage over time. Examples of synthetic humectants include:

~Propylene glycol: a by-product of petroleum that may temporarily help skin hold on to moisture, but can dry out lower layers of skin. It can also cause redness and irritation in people with sensitive skin.

~Polyethylene Glycols: Also petroleum based and sometimes contains carcinogens. Will help pull moisture from the lower layers of skin, but does not provide any moisture.

~Urea: More often used as a preservative, and when used as a humectant it can release formaldehyde, a carcinogen.

~Silicones: Popular because they give skin a smooth and soft feel, but unfortunately also form a film that prevents skin from breathing. This can lead to irritation and acne.

In contrast, natural humectants pull water to the surface of the skin, but also hydrate the deeper skin layers and provide nutrients, which helps with immediate and long-term skin hydration. Some natural humectants include:

~Hyaluronic acid: A naturally occurring molecule in our bodies that supports and hydrates our eyes, joints, and skin. This molecule contains a natural ability to hold onto water, making it an excellent natural humectant.

~Honey: A humectant that naturally holds water without imparting an oily feel. Also delicious!

~Aloe: A soothing humectant that penetrates skin layers quickly, hydrating all skin levels in addition to the skin surface.

~Glycerin: Is naturally present in all living cells, allowing easy absorption. Glycerin is able to hold water well, and the texture of it is highly desirable for skin due to smooth and even application.

Why is natural soap a great humectant?

Speaking of glycerin, natural soaps operate as a humectant due to the natural glycerin that remains as a result of saponification, which is the chemical reaction that occurs between an acid and a base when making soap.

When the acid and based are combined, a glycerol molecule is released, which then becomes glycerin. Then the hydroxide ions and fatty acids combine and become salt, which is soap! 

This means natural soaps are an excellent choice for cleansing and moisturizing, while commercially manufactured soaps remove all or most of the glycerin in their bars to sell as a separate product.

What skin types benefit from products with humectants?

All skin types can benefit from the use of natural humectants since they do not clog skin, over dry, or create an oily byproduct that can cause irritation and acne. Thus normal, dry, sensitive, oily, and even combination skin can benefit from these lovely substances and the skin care products that contain them.

What products should I use at home?

There are multiple products one can use at home that contain natural humectants. Natural soap, salt-baths, and milk-baths are all excellent options for immediate and long term moisturizing. In particular, a milk-bath that utilizes the fat and protein in milk and combines it with the natural humectant honey is beneficial for all skin types as it moisturizes, helps contain said moisture, but doesn’t produce more oil.

Don’t forget to check out our soothing milk baths here!


Written by: Ashley Renfro


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