Understanding Common Ingredients in Moisturizers

Dryness of skin results from low moisture levels on the skin’s surface, and the easiest way to rehydrate is by using skincare products such as moisturizers. Moisturizers can help soothe dry skin and retain the water on the skin.

But if you have read the label of moisturizers, you can feel confused by its long list of ingredients you don’t understand. Many skin care products contain barely-pronounceable ingredients that you may or may not want getting absorbed by your skin. Know what those moisturizing ingredients really are for.

Understanding moisturizer ingredient types

Moisturizers either contain occlusive, humectant, or emollient ingredients. Here’s what differentiates the three of them:

1. Occlusives – These ingredients form a barrier on the epidermis, preventing water from being lost when the skin is exposed to wind or dry air. It increases water content in the skin by preventing or slowing the evaporation of water from the skin’s surface. These ingredients are often greasy and are most effective when applied to damp skin. Examples include paraffin, beeswax, petrolatum, dimethicone, and lanolin.

2. Emollients – These ingredients smoothen the surface of the skin by filling the spaces between rough or peeling skin cells. These are hydrating and thickening agents that help the skin hold onto moisture for a softening and smoothing effect. Natural emollients include shea and coconut butters, plant oils, mineral oil, and fatty acids. Other emollients that give a creamy texture to moisturizers include petrolatum, lecithin, benzoates, triglycerides, myristates, and palmitates.

3. Humectants – These moisturizing ingredients can cause the skin to swell lightly by attracting water to the skin cells, making it appear smoother and free of wrinkles. It helps skin hold onto moisture. Examples include aloe, glycerin, propylene glycol, hyaluronic acid, ammonium lactate, alpha hydroxy acids, and sorbitol.

Common ingredients in moisturizers

To get to know your moisturizers better, here are some of the most common ingredients you can find:

Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs)

Alpha hydroxy acids are found in over-the-counter skin products that contain alpha-hydroxy acids, such as glycolic, lactic, citric, and tartaric acids. This helps the appearance of pores, decrease the appearance of fine lines, irregular pigmentation, and age spots. AHAs break down dead skin to brighten up skin. It often comes in the form of lotions and creams.

Beta-hydroxy acid (salicylic acid)

Better known as salicylic acid, beta-hydroxy acid is most commonly used to clear acne, remove blackheads, and reduce oil by penetrating oil-laden hair follicle openings. Its job is to remove dead skin and improve the texture and color of sun-damaged skin. Numerous studies have shown that salicylic acid is less irritating than skin care products containing alpha-hydroxy acids.


An active form of vitamin A, retinol is found in many over-the-counter, anti-aging moisturizers and skincare products. It’s known to exfoliate skin and combat signs of fine lines, wrinkles, acne, and sun damage. Skin responds to products with retinol, because vitamin A has a molecular structure that is tiny enough to get into the lower layers of the skin, wherein can find collagen and elastin. It can decrease fine lines and wrinkles, as well as improve skin texture and skin hydration levels.


Parabens are cheap, synthetic preservatives that companies add to skin and hair care products to lengthen the shelf life of the product. It can be in the form of propylparaben, methylparaben, butylparaben, and ethylparaben, which can cause allergic reactions for some people. Parabens are believed to disrupt hormone function by mimicking estrogen, which can put women’s health at risk. These claims have been widely discredited by extensive research, but most brands still choose to create their products paraben-free to comply with consumer beliefs. But if you opt to buy products without parabens, make sure to use them all up by their indicated expiration dates.

Hyaluronic acid

Hyaluronic acid, also known as glycosaminoglycan, is known for its ability to “reserve,” or stop aging. It’s a naturally-occurring component of skin tissue that is recreated synthetically to help hydrate, restore, and protect skin from environmental stressors. Since it’s a component of the body’s connective tissues, it agrees with almost all skin types. It can cushion and lubricate the skin to keep it looking young.


Antioxidants are a group of natural and synthetic ingredients that protect the skin against free radicals and other environmental stressors that can damage the skin. Antioxidants come in the form of vitamins like C and E, green tea, lycopene, and niacinamide.

Aloe vera

Aloe vera is a popular plant that contains a soothing and hydrating extract with antioxidant benefits. It can offer a refreshing effect on sunburnt and irritated skin.

Argan oil

A common, natural moisturizer ingredient, argan oil is a moisturizing and fragrance-free plant oil made from the kernels of argan trees. This oil contains skin-benefiting antioxidants, fatty acids, and lipids. It’s best for dry skin and hair, like other plant oils such as jojoba, coconut, avocado, or rapeseed. When used in excess, the product can be greasy.


A humectant naturally found in the skin, glycerin helps maintain a soft, healthy, and moisturized look. It can be derived from vegetable or animal sources or made synthetically. Studies have shown glycerin to be very effective at restoring the skin.


Hydroquinone works to lighten hyperpigmentation on the skin, such as dark spots and age spots. They are often found in bleaching creams and lightening agents. If you’re allergic to hydroquinones, you might benefit from using kojic acid instead.

Kojic acid

Kojic acid is known as an effective lightening agent, but as for moisturizers, its use is best known for reducing pigment problems and age spots. It works similarly to hydroquinone. Kojic acid is naturally produced by several species of fungi Aspergillus oryzae, which has the Japanese common name koji.

L-ascorbic acid

L-ascorbic acid is the form of vitamin C that is useful in skincare products. There are many skin care products today that contain derivatives of vitamin C as an ingredient (like, for example, ascorbyl palmitate, magnesium ascorbyl phosphate, and more), but L-ascorbic acid is the only form of vitamin C that can really make a difference. Vitamin C is the only antioxidant proven to stimulate the production of collagen, which helps minimize fine lines, wrinkles, and scars. The decrease in collagen synthesis due to aging and sun exposure leads to wrinkles, so L-ascorbic acid can play a role as an anti-aging agent.

Copper peptide

Copper peptide is a naturally-occurring copper complex that is often referred to as one of the most effective skin regeneration ingredients. It acts as an antioxidant, promotes collagen and elastin production, and helps produce glycosaminoglycans (one example is hyaluronic acid). Studies have shown that this substance helps increase the benefits of the body’s natural tissue-building processes. As a result, it helps smoothen, soften, and firm the skin than most anti-aging skincare products. Studies have proven that copper peptides can also remove damaged collagen from the skin and scar tissues since they activate the system responsible for these functions.

Alpha-lipoic acid

Also referred to as a “universal antioxidant,” alpha-lipoic acid is an ultra-potent antioxidant that can help fight future skin damage and repair past damage. It’s considered a “miracle” ingredient because of its anti-aging effects. It’s soluble in both water and oil, making it absorbable by all parts of the skin cells. Due to this quality, alpha-lipoic acid is believed to provide great protection against damaging free radicals as compared with other antioxidants. Alpha-lipoic acid gives skin a healthy glow, diminishes fine lines, and boosts levels of other antioxidants.

Vitamin E

You can find a lot of anti-aging moisturizers containing vitamin E. It is because vitamin E is a well-known antioxidant that protects skin against damage. It also has moisturizing and healing effects that can help strengthen the skin barrier function. It’s also a natural anti-inflammatory ingredient, which can be soothing and calming to the skin.

Jojoba oil

Jojoba oil is a lightweight, fragrance-free plant oil that is used for treating dry skin without leaving a greasy feel like other plant oils, such as coconut and argan oil. This oil is produced in the seeds of Simmondsia chinensis plants, which are native to southern California, southern Arizona, and northwestern Mexico.

Mineral oil

Mineral oil describes a wide range of various odorless and colorless byproduct of the distillation of petroleum, which is a mineral source. It’s often found in moisturizer products because of its ability to soothe skin and help maintain moisture. However, mineral oil can be pore-clogging for some, because it can create a barrier effect on the skin.


Phthalates are salt of phthalic acid widely used in personal care products, such as hair sprays, moisturizers, and nail polishes. It can help moisturize and soften skin. However, many consumers now avoid this ingredient because of researches that show that they are damaging and toxic to human health. Most brands now make their formulas phthalate-free.


A substance derived from silica, silicone products produces a silky, slippery texture that helps smoothen the look of pores. It locks in moisture by forming a barrier on top of the skin, but with that barrier, it is believed to be able to also trap dead skin cells, bacteria, sweat, dirt, and other debris along with it. But it’s not dangerous or suffocating to the skin as some may say, and some people just don’t prefer its texture. Common forms of silicone found in skincare ingredients include dimethicone, cyclopentasiloxane, cyclohexasiloxane, and phenyl trimethicone.

Titanium oxide

Titanium oxide is an earth mineral used in natural sunscreens, as it can shield skin from UVA and UVB radiation with no risk for sensitivity. This is a safe ingredient, recommended for irritation- and redness-prone skin.

Sodium Hyaluronate

Sodium hyaluronate is a salt form of hyaluronic acid. Its ability to penetrate the skin and hold onto moisture makes it a popular ingredient for moisturizers. It’s considered as a more effective form of moisturizing ingredient than hyaluronic acid.

Ingredients to avoid in a moisturizer

1. Colorings and fragrance

If you have normal skin, then you may have no problem with these ingredients. But for moisturizing dry skin, sensitive skin, or a skin condition, most experts say to avoid unnecessary ingredients like fragrance and colors, which can possibly irritate your skin. Fragrances are the most common cause of allergies to topical creams and lotions.

2. Too many acids

If you have dry or sensitive skin, avoid glycolic acid, retinoic acid, salicylic acid, and alpha-hydroxy acids. These can penetrate the skin too deeply and can cause irritations and skin problems to delicate skin.

3. Oxybenzone

Typically found in sunscreen, oxybenzone is one of the highest-risk chemicals that you can find in skincare products. Studies have shown that this ingredient and its metabolites can disrupt the hormone system. It can also cause skin allergies.

4. Lactic acids or urea

If you have eczema or cracked skin, moisturizers with urea or lactic acids can only aggravate your skin condition. Stay away from these dry-skin friendly ingredients if your skin has cracks, redness, or other underlying skin condition that causes the dryness.

Pick the right moisturizer that will fit your needs and skin.  And be sure to apply it right and take the time necessary.