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Understanding the Difference Between an Emollient, Moisturizer, and a Humectant


There is a lot of confusion out there in what to look for in a moisturizer.  Your patients may be asking for your advice. Here is a cheat sheet to simply explain to your patients what it all means.


Most people use the terms “moisturizer” and “emollient” interchangeably, though typically an emollient describes a particular ingredient inside a finished moisturizer.


Emollients are used to soften and smooth the scales of the skin, which help reduce rough, flaky skin.  They are also occlusive agents: substances that provide a layer of protection that helps prevent moisture (water) loss from the skin.  


A few places where emollients can be found are in silicone (dimethicone, cyclomethicone), vegetable oils (grape seed, sesame seed, jojoba, etc.), butters (cocoa butter, shea butter), alcohols (stearyl alcohol, cetyl alcohol), and petrolatum derivatives (petroleum jelly, mineral oil).


A humectant is a substance that actually bonds with water molecules to increase the water content in the skin itself. Glycerin is one of the more typical and effective water binding agents.  Other humectants include sugars (glucose, fructose, sucrose, honey), proteins, amino acids, elastin, and collagen. Humectants typically draw water to the skin from two different places; they can draw water from a humid environment, and they enhance water absorption from the outer layer of skin. 


Many humectant’s also have emollient properties, while not all emollients are humectants. The best moisturizers have a combination of emollients and humectants.  


[image by Shawn Cambpbell]










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