Moisturizers, whether straight oils or light, water-based lotions, keep your skin from drying out, thereby improving its overall tone and texture and sometimes minimizing imperfections such as wrinkles or peeling. As your skin's health has such a direct effect on physical appearance, it's no wonder that moisturizers enjoy such popularity -- walk the aisles of any drug store and you'll see shelf after shelf of moisturizing products, each claiming special powers.
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How Moisturizers Work
Moisturizers break down into two groups, and they aren't lotions and oils, which in many cases are more similar than different. Rather, moisturizers work in one of two ways: They are either occlusive, creating a physical barrier over the skin, or they are humectants, attracting water into the skin. Occlusive agents include oils, waxes and petroleum products. However, these elements are not only found in moisturizing oils; many lotions are also oil based. By contrast, humectants include lactic acids, amino acids and glycerine; they may also be found in either oils or lotions.
Oil in Moisturizers: Pros and Cons
Your main decision as a consumer is not between oils and lotions, but between oil-based moisturizers and water-based moisturizers. The latter are a subset of moisturizing lotions. Thick lotions that have a high oil content, also known as water-in-oil products, are best for drier skin. The oils create an effective barrier to retain moisture, and they typically last longer than lighter products. Use petroleum-based products in areas where skin is exceedingly dry or cracked and for more mature skin. However, if your skin already tends to be oily, using an oil-based product can increase your likelihood of clogged pores and acne breakouts. Water-based products, often labeled "noncomedogenic," will keep your skin moist without adding extra oil.
Once you know whether you require an oil-based moisturizer or a water-based one, you can fine tune your selection by focusing on the balance of individual ingredients. For example, if you have normal skin, which is neither very dry nor very oily, you can use a light, oil-based product. These are also known as oil-in-water products because they have a relatively small amount of oil emulsified in a larger amount of water, in contrast to the heavier water-in-oil lotions. For light oil-based products, look for ingredients such as cetyl alcohol or silicone-based ingredients such as cyclomethicone. Ingredients that form an occlusive barrier include mineral oil, lanolin, vegetable oils, and fatty alcohols and fatty acids. Humectants, usually indicated as "active ingredients," include glycerine, urea, alpha-hydroxy acids and lactic acids. Most lotions contain a combination of the two, as well as preservatives and water. By contrast, moisturizing oils and ointments can be up to 100 percent oil.
An Additional Consideration: Sun Protection
Whether you moisturize with a thick oil or a light, water-based lotion, make sure that your skin-care regimen includes sunscreen whenever you go outdoors. The American Academy of Dermatology advises an SPF of at least 15 or 30 with both UVA and UVB protection to reduce any skin damage from either type of solar radiation. Even if you apply the ideal moisturizer religiously, your skin can become dry, cracked, unhealthy and even cancerous without proper sun protection.