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Now that temperatures are rising in many parts of the country, dry skin — and moisturizing — may seem like the least of your worries. However, dry skin isn’t just a wintertime issue. Certain medications and products can dry out the skin, according to the American Academy of Dermatology Association. By the time we’re in our 40s, our skin also produces less sebum, an oil that moisturizes and protects the skin. With the right skin care regimen, you can give your skin the moisture and protection it needs.
To help you shop the vast market of products for dry skin, we spoke to dermatologists, aestheticians and estheticians about ingredients that hydrate dry skin, and got their recommendations for their favorite moisturizers. Since the skin on our face is more sensitive and requires different products than the rest of our body, we focused on face moisturizers.
SKIP AHEAD the best face moisturizers for dry skin
What is a moisturizer and how does it work?
Both lotions and creams are considered moisturizers. However, their different formulas serve different purposes.
According to Dr. Annie Chiu, a board-certified cosmetic and general dermatologist and founder of The Derm Institute in California, a moisturizer’s job is to “bring moisture, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants into the skin, not just to its surfaces.” She noted that they are typically formulated with sealing agents — aka emollients — to help the skin retain moisture.
The main differences between lotion and cream are the textures and the percentage of water and oil in the ingredients, explained board-certified dermatologist Dr. Barry Goldman and licensed aesthetician Jean Dachnowicz, both of New York City's Goldman Dermatology, which Goldman founded.
- Lotions are lighter and less greasy, making them better for people with normal to lightly dry skin, according to Chiu. Lotions tend to contain more water and liquid-based ingredients, giving them a thinner consistency.
- Creams, which provide “a heavier barrier to keep your skin moisturized,” are ideal for those with dry skin or sensitive skin, as well as for use during wintertime.
The best face moisturizers for dry skin, according to experts
The experts we spoke to agreed that most effective face moisturizers for dry skin will be heavier and contain a combination of emollients, occlusives and humectants (in contrast to moisturizers for oily skin and other skin types that lean only into one or two of these). They also noted that the products should be free of ethyl alcohol, exfoliators and other ingredients that might irritate or dry out the skin. With that in mind, the dermatologists and estheticians we spoke to shared with us their favorite face moisturizers for dry skin.
If you’re looking for a relatively affordable drugstore moisturizer, licensed esthetician Rani Gupta is a fan of La Roche-Posay. “[The products] are very gentle and very hydrating,” she said. The brand’s Double Repair Face Moisturizer — which was recommended by several dermatologists we spoke to — is formulated with ceramides, niacinamide and glycerin to absorb and retain moisture, according to La Roche-Posay.
Chiu, Goldman and Dachnowicz all recommended Neutrogena Hydro Boost for people with dry skin. “[It] addresses the dryness and [helps] the face feel hydrated,” Goldman and Dachnowicz said. Notable ingredients include hyaluronic acid, dimethicone and glycerin.
Goldman and Dachnowicz called Cetaphil Moisturizing Cream the “best overall moisturizer for dry skin.” The cream, which can be used on your whole body, is formulated with moisturizing ingredients like glycerin, petrolatum and vitamins B3 and B5.
Gupta, who herself suffers from eczema, said that she personally uses CeraVe’s AM Facial Moisturizing Lotion. “It has ceramides and hyaluronic acid and the morning one comes with SPF, so in one tube you get everything,” she explained. According to the brand, the lotion is non-comedogenic, which also makes it a good choice for those who are prone to acne flare-ups. CeraVe also offers a nighttime version of its Facial Moisturizing Lotion, which contains all of the same ingredients as the AM formula, minus the SPF.
Aquaphor is an occlusive moisturizer that can be helpful for “skin that tends to be flaky, cracked and/or scaly,” according to Goldman and Dachnowicz. The ointment, which can be used as a lip moisturizer, hand cream and more in addition to a face moisturizer, is fragrance-free and includes several occlusive ingredients, including mineral oil and glycerin.
Petroleum jelly is the occlusive moisturizer behind the popular skin care trend “slugging” — people put the product on their face after their skin care routine to lock in moisture. The American Academy of Dermatology says that petroleum jelly products have several skin care benefits, including helping dry skin.
This fragrance-free cream from First Aid Beauty is formulated with colloidal oatmeal, an emollient that “helps strengthen your skin barrier and adds moisture to it,” according to Goldman and Dachnowicz. Chiu said this is a great option for those suffering from dry skin in the wintertime, and the brand says it’s also helpful for those with redness and eczema.
According to Chiu, Tatcha’s The Dewy Skin Cream “couples antioxidant ingredients with deep moisture in an elegant, non-greasy formula.” According to the brand, the cream is formulated with a blend of Okinawa algae and hyaluronic acid to restore water levels to the skin. Other nourishing ingredients in the moisturizer include glycerin and dimethicone.
Goldman recommended Vanicream for dry skin. The brand’s facial moisturizer is made with hyaluronic acid, ceramides, glycerin and squalane, a popular emollient.
If you have a little bit more in your budget for skin care products, Chiu recommended Skinbetter’s Trio Rebalancing Moisture Treatment for dry skin repair. “[It] has urea and provides deep moisture without the heaviness,” she explained. According to the brand, it’s also formulated with hyaluronic acid to hydrate the skin and ceramides and squalane to lock in moisture.
Avene’s Cicalfate cream is “great for sensitive skin,” according to Chiu. The brand says the cream uses its proprietary restorative ingredient to help restore the skin. It also contains occlusive ingredients like mineral oil and humectants like glycerin.
For people who want a “quick absorbing moisturizer,” Chiu recommended this “unique gel formulation” from Biossance. It uses ingredients like squalane oil and probiotics to help hydrate skin, reduce redness and decrease pore size, according to the company.
How to shop for a moisturizer for dry skin
Most moisturizers formulated for dry skin have a similar thick texture to provide a heavy barrier on the skin. “Greasy creams and ointments work best for dry skin,” Goldman and Dachnowicz emphasized.
You should also pay close attention to the ingredients in each product you’re considering. Typically, these ingredients (and the products themselves) can fall into one of three categories, experts told us:
- Humectants draw water to the skin’s surface and help the skin retain moisture.
- Emollients help soften the skin and lock in moisture.
- Occlusives create a physical barrier over the epidermis that prevents water loss.
Humectants, emollients and occlusives all work together to hydrate the skin and lock that moisture in.
Humectants draw water to the skin’s surface and “break down dead skin cells, further improving moisture penetration,” according to Chiu. Common humectants found in moisturizers include urea, glycerol, sorbitol, glycerin, aloe vera gel and lactic acid.
Hyaluronic acid is arguably the most common — and important — humectant: It “works by absorbing moisture like a sponge from the air and draws it into the skin,” Goldman and Dachnowicz explained. Ceramides are another popular humectant — “[they] are lipids that make up half of the skin’s lipids to form our natural skin barrier,” Gupta said. “They help to keep the skin plump and hydrated by locking the moisture in our cell membrane.”
Emollients, which can be found in creams, gels, ointments and lotions, “are beneficial to aging or dry skin when natural lipids have been depleted,” Chiu said. These ingredients trap in moisture and soothe and moisturize the skin, experts previously told us in our guide to SPF lip balms. Common emollients include shea butter, isopropyl palmitate and colloidal oatmeal.
Occlusives provide the skin with a physical barrier to help prevent water loss and shield the skin from potential irritants. (The popular “slugging” trend relies on occlusive products.) According to Chiu, they are a good option for those with dry skin “since they aid in moisture retention and skin barrier restoration.” However, if you have acne-prone skin, Goldman and Dachnowicz said occlusive ointments might clog your pores. Common occlusives include waxes like beeswax and silicone and oils like olive oil, lanolin, mineral oil and dimethicone.
What to avoid while shopping for moisturizers for dry skin
As you’re shopping for moisturizers to heal and revitalize your dry skin, you might notice that most of them are labeled as fragrance-free and alcohol-free. That’s because fragrances and denatured alcohols can dry out the skin, which is counterproductive when you’re trying to solve for dryness.
According to our skin care experts, here are some of the ingredients you should avoid while shopping for a face moisturizer for dry skin.
- Denatured alcohols: On skin care labels, denatured alcohol will appear as ethyl alcohol or SD alcohol. These alcohols “will dry out skin even more and draw moisture out of the skin, which can affect the skin barrier function and cause sensitivity and redness,” according to Chiu. Not all alcohols are denatured alcohols, so don’t worry if you see “alcohol” on the label of a moisturizer advertised for dry skin.
- Fragrances: Chiu, Goldman and Dachnowicz all said they prefer unscented moisturizers, since fragrances can irritate the skin.
- Exfoliants: The experts we spoke to noted that exfoliants can irritate dry skin and potentially even make it worse. Common exfoliating ingredients to avoid include salicylic acid and glycolic acid.
How to apply a moisturizer to dry skin
When you’re trying to fortify your dry skin, experts said you should apply moisturizer at least twice a day: once in the morning and once at night. The moisturizer should ideally be applied after you take a shower or wash your face so that it can lock in the moisture and do its job.