One of the most vital elements for healthy skin is water. The level of water in our skin cells affects everything from skin clarity to oil production to texture.
So, how do we make sure our skin is getting (and retaining) enough water? Drinking water and eating hydrating foods quenches thirsty cells from the inside, and topically, we can look for moisturizers and hydrators. These two words are often used interchangeably, but they are in fact different and perform different functions on the skin.
Understanding the difference between moisturizers and hydrators can help you select the right products for your skin. So let’s clear up the confusion and simplify the science.
Moisturizing is about creating a shield on the skin known as an occlusive barrier. Occlusive ingredients (like natural butters and oils) create a barrier on the skin that helps prevent trans-epidermal water loss (TEWL). Essentially, the job of moisturizers is to prevent the water already found inside our skin from escaping. Within the green beauty realm, the most common moisturizers are face oils, balms, and butters.
Unlike moisturizers, hydrators act like magnets that attract and hold moisture from the atmosphere and bind it to the skin in order to rehydrate dehydrated tissue. Hydrating formulas include humectants that draw the water from the atmosphere towards your skin.
The job of a moisturizer is to prevent transepidermal water loss, "which facilitates the body's own barrier repair mechanisms" (Lippincott's Primary Care Dermatology, p. 30). In other words, we use a moisturizer to take the place of our skin's barrier mechanisms
So here’s where it get a little tricky. Moisturizers may contain hydrating ingredients (look for humectants like sodium lactate, honey, and hyaluronic acid). These formulas are ideal because they not only create a protective barrier on the skin but also deeply humidify cells below the surface. Most commonly, you’ll find a combination of moisturizers and humectants in lotions and creams that contain water (along with other ingredients that are not always plant derived).
By now I'm sure you are wondering - how do I know if I need moisture or hydration?
An easy way to tell if you require more hydration is if your moisturizer is still leaving your skin feeling dry. This is especially evident if you are using natural products that are not formulated with any water like a natural face oil, balms or butter. Remember, moisturizers only form a barrier on the skin. So natural oils and butters create a barrier but you’re not actually adding water to dehydrated skin tissue. The good news is there is an easy and effective fix that you can start incorporating today. Before applying your moisturizer, try dampening your skin with a mist, hydrosol, or plain water and layer your moisturizer on top. This creates a layer of hydration that you can seal in by layering your moisturizer on top.