Mayo Clinic Health Library

Moisturizers: Options for softer skin

Updated: 12-16-2010

Moisturizers prevent and treat dry skin, but that's not all they do. Moisturizers can protect sensitive skin, improve skin tone and texture, and mask imperfections. There are plenty of different moisturizers available. Here's help finding the right moisturizer for you.

Which moisturizer is best for you?

On the most basic level, moisturizers hold water in the outermost layer of skin. They also act as a temporary barrier. Many moisturizers contain some combination of humectants and emollients, as well as other ingredients.

The moisturizer that's best for you depends on many factors, including your skin type, your age and whether you have specific conditions, such as acne. For general guidelines, consider the following:

  • Normal skin. Normal skin is neither too dry nor too oily. To maintain this natural moisture balance, use a water-based moisturizer that has a light, nongreasy feel. These moisturizers often contain lightweight oils, such as cetyl alcohol, or silicone-derived ingredients, such as cyclomethicone.
  • Dry skin. To restore moisture to dry skin, choose a heavier, oil-based moisturizer that contains ingredients such as antioxidants, grape seed oil or dimethicone, which helps keep your skin hydrated. For very dry, cracked skin, petrolatum-based products are preferable. They have more staying power than creams do and are more effective at preventing water from evaporating from your skin.
  • Oily skin. Oily skin is prone to acne and breakouts. Though oily, such skin still needs moisture, especially after using skin care products that remove oils and dry out the skin. A light moisturizer can also help protect your skin after washing. Choose a water-based product that's labeled "noncomedogenic," which means it won't clog pores.
  • Sensitive skin. Sensitive skin is susceptible to skin irritations, redness, itching or rashes. Look for a moisturizer that contains soothing ingredients such as chamomile or aloe and doesn't contain potential allergens, such as fragrances or dyes. Also, avoid products containing acids, which can irritate sensitive skin.
  • Mature skin. As you age, your skin tends to become drier because your oil-producing glands become less active. To keep your skin soft and well hydrated, choose an oil-based moisturizer that contains petrolatum as the base, along with antioxidants or alpha hydroxy acids to combat wrinkles. These ingredients help hold in moisture and prevent flaky, scaly skin.

Getting the most out of your moisturizer

To make the most of your moisturizing routine:

  • Be willing to experiment. Find a moisturizer that fits your skin type and makes your skin look and feel soft. You may need to try several brands with varying ingredients before you find one you like.
  • Protect yourself from the sun. Choose a moisturizer that contains sunscreen, which performs double duty by hydrating your skin and protecting it from sun damage.
  • Don't necessarily buy the most expensive brand. Keep in mind that cost has no definite relationship to effectiveness. Just because a moisturizer is expensive doesn't mean it's more effective than a cheaper product.
  • Apply moisturizers immediately after bathing. Pat or blot your skin until it's just barely dry, then apply moisturizer immediately to help trap water in the surface cells.
  • Apply moisturizer to your hands and body as needed. Apply after bathing or showering, before exercising outdoors in cold weather, and every time you wash your hands. Although often ignored, your hands are more exposed to the elements, especially soaps and chemicals, than is any other part of your body.
  • Use heavy creams appropriately. Don't use any heavy creams on your face unless you have excessive dryness. You can use heavy, oil-based creams on your legs, hands and feet because those areas tend to be drier.

Keep in mind that there's no guarantee that any moisturizer will live up to all of its claims or even contain its advertised ingredients. Moisturizers are considered cosmetics, so the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates them in a different and more lenient manner than it does drugs. This means that products don't need to undergo the same rigorous testing for safety and effectiveness before going to market that prescription drugs do.

If a moisturizer doesn't improve the condition of your skin or you notice skin problems after using a moisturizer, see your doctor or dermatologist. He or she can help you create a personalized skin care plan by assessing your skin type, evaluating your skin's condition and recommending moisturizers likely to be effective.