While there are certain things I love about colder weather, like hot drinks, fireplaces, and being able to wear tons of cozy layers, I always dread winter for one specific reason: My skin becomes dry, scaly, and uncomfortable. I can’t get by with just a normal moisturizer—my clothes are not the only thing that needs layering in the winter.
I’ve always been a fan of sealing my favorite night cream with a hydrating oil for plump, soft skin, but last winter, I started mixing in humectants, and I totally changed my own life. I talked to dermatologists to get the lowdown on this miracle skincare ingredient. If you have dry skin, you’ll want to take notes—and get your own humectant to start using ASAP.
“Humectants are water-loving ingredients that attract and retain moisture from their surroundings,” says Azadeh Shirazi, dermatologist and founder of AziMD. This means that they pull in water to your skin for an instant plumping and hydrating effect.
You’ve probably heard of hyaluronic acid, which is one of the most well-known humectants. “Hyaluronic acid has the ability to bind up to 1000 times its own weight in water,” says David Kim, a dermatologist in New York City. “Polyglutamic acid is another example and has been shown to be five times more potent than hyaluronic acid.”
Not only do humectants hydrate and plump the skin, but according to Kim, they can also diminish the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. Since they mostly stay on the top layer of the skin instead of penetrating deeper, this result is temporary. Some humectants also work to exfoliate skin while hydrating it.
Everyone can use and benefit from humectants since they’re one of the key ingredients to properly moisturize your skin with (yes, even if you’re oily). “Since humectants draw moisture from wherever they can find it, both from the air and deeper skin layers, it’s important for the formulation to also have occlusives to help trap the moisture the humectant draws in the skin,” says Shirazi. “This is particularly important when the humidity is low and there’s little water in the air.”
Burgess notes that occlusive emollients can sometimes be comedogenic to oilier skin types, so heavy occlusives are best suited for drier skin.
The way you use humectants is important since, if you use them incorrectly, they might actually make your skin drier. For moisturizing benefits, apply humectants directly to damp skin—either after cleansing or after spritzing with a face mist—so that they have moisture to pull from.