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  5. How Do Humectants Benefit Your Skin?

Are the dry winters causing your skin to feel dehydrated and appear flaky? Do you feel your skin looks dull and dry? Well, humectants can help. They add moisture to your skin to make it feel soft, supple and healthy.

Here is all you need to know about humectants and what they can do for your skin.

What Is A Humectant?

A humectant is a hygroscopic substance. This means that it possesses the ability to attract moisture from the environment and add it onto another substance to keep it hydrated and moist. Humectants may be used in skin or hair care products and food additives. They are also used in various other sectors to keep substances moist.

Humectants in skin care comprise ingredients that attract moisture from the deeper layers of your skin and the environment to soften it. They help to keep the skin lubricated. They work similarly for hair care products, by drawing and retaining moisture.

How Does A Humectant Work?

Humectants tend to form hydrogen bonds with water. This contributes to moisturized and soft skin. They work by:

1. Attracting moisture from the environment onto the surface of your skin.

2. They also tend to pull moisture from the second layer (dermis) of your skin, keeping its top layer (epidermis) moisturized (1).

3. The epidermis is made-up of dry and dead skin cells that make it appear dull and flaky. A humectant works by reducing the appearance of dry skin.

4. While there are various humectants used to address dry skin and hair concerns, each of them work differently.

5. Even though all humectants are used to eventually moisturize the top layer of your skin and reduce frizzy hair, they are used in different strengths to specifically cater to your skin and hair type.

What Are The Types Of Humectants?

Humectants come in various types to address different concerns. This makes them popular in both skin and hair care and the food industry.

beautiful spa woman with water splashes moisturizing

Humectants In Skin Care

Humectants are popularly used in the skin care industry, in moisturizers and lotions. They are basically used to keep your skin moisturized and hydrated. They prevent your skin from experiencing flakiness.

1. Glycerin

A naturally occurring liquid, glycerin acts as a moisturizing agent in most of your skincare products, especially moisturizers. It traps the moisture into your skin, keeping it hydrated.

2. Hyaluronic Acid

Hyaluronic acid is naturally found in our skin. However, as we age, various external factors like skin exposure to UV rays may contribute to a reduction of hyaluronic acid. It contains water preserving properties that keeps our skin healthy and soft (3).

Hyaluronic acid may be used in skin care products to increase moisture in epidermis and improve skin-barrier and water preserving functions.

3. Urea

Urea is usually recommended for very dry skin. However, it is not suggested to be used for cracked skin. Do talk to your doctor about using it as a prescription-strength topical medicine (4).

4. Propylene Glycol

Propylene Glycol acts as a humectant and is used in several skincare products. Primarily, it traps water and pulls in hydration to the outer layer of your skin. It has moisturizing properties that keeps your skin soft and smooth. Due to its humectant property, it is also considered to be a beneficial ingredient for aged and dry skin. 

5. Sodium PCA

As a humectant that naturally occurs in your skin, Sodium PCA hydration of your skin besides protecting your skin barrier. It has anti-aging properties too.

6. Zemea

As a natural humectant, Zemea is used in a variety of skincare products like moisturizers, sunscreens, anti-acne products, cleansers, etc. 

7. Aquaxyl 

Aquaxyl is known to do wonders in optimizing your skin’s hydration flow. It strengthens your skin barrier too.

8. Lactic Acid

As an Alpha Hydroxy Acid (AHA), lactic acid is also a humectant that has the ability to draw moisture into your skin’s deep layers.

9. Mandelic Acid

Gentle on skin, Mandelic acid (an AHA), acts as a humectant. It is used to treat various skin concerns.

Humectants In The Food industry That Are Used For Skincare

Humectants are also used in the food industry, to prevent various edibles from drying-out. These are also used for their ability to attract moisture onto a food product.

These humectants are commonly used to keep food items moist.

1. Sugar

Sugar helps to prevent premature spoilage by pulling water onto the surface of a product.

Besides, sugar is used in many of your skincare products. As a humectant, sugar keeps your skin hydrated and soft.

2. Honey

closeup on young woman with honey on back holding honey plate

Honey is a natural humectant that is commonly used in food items to keep them moist. Honey is also a great option as it refrains from spoiling the texture of the product.

In skincare, honey is used as a great moisturizing agent. Moreover, it reduces formation of wrinkles. It is also found in sunscreen products that helps to smoother your skin.

3. Polyols

Polyols are a family of colorless and odorless compounds that work as thickening agents. They work like humectants and may also be used as a substitute for sugar. Examples are maltitol, erythritol, glycerin and sorbitol.

Polyols are also used in skincare products like creams, lotions, make-up, etc. it helps to maintain your skin’s elasticity and moisture.

What Are The Best Natural Humectants For Skin?

1. Aloe Vera

Aloe vera is a wonder ingredient that works to treat almost any skin issue, like pimples, dry skin and dehydration. It also aids in skin hydration and moisture retention. Research suggests that aloe vera may be effective in soothing dry skin due to its humectant-like mechanism (5).

2. Honey

Honey is a great ingredient that is popularly used to address dry-skin concerns. It is also used in skincare products that offer deep hydration. It works as an effective humectant and emollient when applied to the skin. Apart from this, it is rich in vitamins and enzymes that contribute to soft and healthy skin (6)

3. Glycerin

Glycerin may be derived from natural or artificial sources. It is derived naturally from plant-based oils. Research shows that glycerin works as an effective humectant that lubricates and adds softness to the skin (7). It is used in skincare products and works as a skin-conditioner that improves texture. It is widely used as part of hair care products to reduce frizziness.

Dr. Kaustav Guha, lead scientist at SkinKraft

Laboratories, says, “Glycerin is a great humectant that keeps your skin hydrated for a long duration. It is also derived from plant sources.”

4. AHA (Alpha-Hydroxy Acids)

These are very popular and are naturally derived from fruits. They are prevalently used in anti-aging products. AHAs are also great exfoliators that help to remove dead skin cells and allow other ingredients to seep through your skin without any obstruction.

Alpha-hydroxys are usually recommended in 10-15 per cent concentrations. AHAs are also said to improve skin barrier functions by increasing the amount of ceramides in the skin (8)


If you have sensitive skin, consider applying a little bit of alpha-hydroxy acid. You may incorporate the same in larger quantities eventually as your skin gets used to it.

How Does A Humectant Benefit Your Skin?

The various benefits of humectants are as follows:

1. Hydration

The main and most prominent benefit of a humectant is hydration. Humectants work by keeping your skin moisturized, soft and hydrated throughout the day. Humectants attract moisture from the environment onto the surface of your skin to do so.

2. Prevents Dry and flaky skin

Certain internal and external factors, however, may contribute to skin irritation, flakiness and dryness. Humectants keep the skin soft and hydrated, preventing itchiness and flaky skin.

3. Exfoliation

Humectants also work by exfoliating your skin. This allows for other ingredients to seep through its layers and do their work without any obstruction.

How Should You Use Humectants?

There is a certain way of applying a moisturizing agent to the skin. In order to reap its benefits, keep in mind to follow these guidelines listed by the National Eczema Association.

1. Take a generous amount of your moisturizing lotion or humectant and apply right after you’re out of the shower.

2. If you are using any topical medicine, apply it before the moisturizer.

3. Always rub-in a part of your moisturizer on your hands before applying it somewhere else to your skin.

4. Make sure that you leave a layer of moisturizer on your skin and allow it to absorb the same.

What Is The Difference Between A Humectant, Emollient And An Occlusive?

For prolonged results, humectants should be used in a combination with emollients and occlusives.

Emollients are also moisturizing substances that are mainly lipids. They soothe the skin. They work by filling-in patches of dry skin and adding moisture, thereby improving texture and making your skin smooth and soft. Emollients are usually the main ingredients that add softness to the skin.

Occlusives include a number of plant butters and waxes, that lock-in moisture. They form a layer on the surface of your skin that seals-in moisture. So while humectants attract water, occlusives keep the water intact.





How do they work?

Attract moisture from the environment onto the surface of your skin to keep it hydrated.

They work like fillers and make the skin smoother and softer.

They form a layer on top of your skin to seal-in water.

How do they feel?

Sometimes they may feel sticky.

Sometimes they may feel heavy or greasy.

May feel a bit heavy.


Some of them may cause skin irritation.

Don’t usually have any side effects.

May contribute to acne since they may clog pores.


Glycerin, AHAs, some BHAs, aloe vera.

Fatty acids, ceramides.

Mineral oils, silicones.

Important Note:

Look for a moisturizer that contains humectants, emollients and occlusives. Avoid using a moisturizer with a large amount of occlusives if you have greasy skin.

What Are The Side-Effects Of A Humectant?

The question of whether humectants can be bad for the skin, is a debatable one. However, researchers do believe that humectants may be harmful for the deeper layers of your skin as they draw water from there as well.

If you are in a dry environment, humectants will most likely draw water from your skin itself. This may be harmful to the skin in the long-run.

Wrapping Up

Humectants are a group of ingredients that attract water onto your skin from its deeper layers and the environment. These are popularly used in skincare, haircare and the food industries to keep the moisture intact. They are often supported by emollients that add softness and by occlusives that seal-in moisture. Before you opt for a humectant, choose one that suits your skin type. Checking with a dermatologist can help, if you have sensitive skin.

Begin By Knowing Your Skin

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