What is a Humectant?

What is a Humectant? I Mirra Skincare

So, we’ve talked about emollients, and now we’re adding humectants to the conversation. What is a humectant? Humectants are an incredible substance that works with emollients and occlusives to preserve your skin’s moisture.


1. What is a humectant?

2. What do humectants do?

3. How to incorporate humectants into your routine

Key Points

  • Humectants are a type of emollient that are used in skincare to attract water to the skin
  • If you live in a humid climate, using a humectant will draw water from the air to your skin, but if not, a humectant will pull water from your deeper skin layers to the surface causing your skin to dry out
  • There are exfoliating humectants as well that can hydrate and exfoliate at the same time
  • Facial mists can be used throughout the day to give the face instant hydration, and then follow up with a humectant serum or moisturizer to lock that water content in

What is a humectant?

You may have no idea what a humectant is, or you may have heard the term thrown around in skincare routines or commercials, but what exactly is a humectant? A humectant is a substance in skin care that’s main purpose is to reduce the loss of moisture. 

Humectants, like all moisturizing substances, strive to keep the skin moisturized and hydrated. But, the special thing about humectants is that unlike emollients and occlusives, they have the ability to draw moisture from the outside environment into the skin. Emollients and occlusives are wonderful substances in skin care, but they only have the ability to prevent that moisture from evaporating throughout the day.

What do humectants do?

So, what exactly do humectants do and how do they do it? Well, humectants attract moisture from whatever environment they’re in. This moisture can come from deep within the layers of the skin or the air outside. For example, humectants work best in humid environments because they pull water content from the air to your skin, adding moisture and keeping skin plump and hydrated.

On the other hand, if you are in a very dry climate, using a humectant can actually dry your skin out more. Humectants attract water, it doesn’t matter whether the water content is coming from the outside or the inside. So, if there is no moisture in the air outside, the humectant will attract water from within your skin. This can cause your skin to dry out because you are using up all of the stored moisture from deep within your skin’s layers, and that moisture eventually evaporates.

Just because you live in a drier climate during the colder months or even all year round, does not mean that you can’t incorporate humectants into your skincare ritual. However, if you do want to include a humectant in your routine, it’s best to pair it with an occlusive to prevent that moisture from evaporating throughout the day and leaving your skin drier than before.

How to incorporate humectants into your routine

Humectants are great to use in any skincare ritual, but as I mentioned they are best used in combination with an occlusive. If you are someone that has moderate skin, humectants are perfect for you because they won’t necessarily dry your skin out, but they will help to add moisture.

If you are someone that has drier skin or oily skin, humectants can be tricky to incorporate because they can dry your skin out more if not used properly. Those with oily skin tend to believe that using ingredients that dry out their skin is not bad, but using drying ingredients can actually make their skin more oily. Using drying ingredients or failing to properly moisturize your skin will strip your skin of its natural oils, therefore causing your skin to overproduce oil.

The benefit of adding a humectant into your ritual is to draw in moisture, hopefully from the outside rather than the inside. But, if there is little to no humidity in your area, you can still pull moisture from deep within your skin but make sure to seal it in with an occlusive. It will keep your skin hydrated for longer throughout the day than using just an emollient by itself.

Well, the first step is to find which humectant works best for you and your skin type. Some humectants have exfoliating properties as well, so if you struggle with acne or texture, something with an exfoliating property would be beneficial to keep texture and breakouts at bay while simultaneously moisturizing your skin. Other humectants are simply for hydration and act as a humectant as well as an occlusive in one product.

Exfoliating humectants

  • Glycolic acid
  • Lactic acid
  • Phytic acid
  • Gluconolactone

Hydrating humectants

  • Hyaluronic acid
  • Glycerin
  • Urea
  • Propylene glycol

If you are using or wanting to start using an exfoliating humectant such as glycolic acid or lactic acid, it’s best to use them directly after cleansing on clean dry skin. Then follow up with your typical moisturizer.

If you are using ingredients like hyaluronic acid or glycerin in hopes to hydrate or plump your skin, it’s best to use these directly after cleansing as well, but it’s important to use them while your skin is still damp rather than completely dried. Using them when skin is still damp ensures that the water content that is still on your skin is locked in by the humectant and will prevent the ingredient from having to pull water content from within your skin and further drying it out. 

As mentioned several times, if you’re using a humectant, especially hyaluronic acid, it’s so important to follow up with an occlusive to lock the moisture in.

Occlusives to use

  • Petroleum jelly (vaseline, aquaphor, or cerave healing ointment)
  • Dimethicone
  • Bath oils

It’s also beneficial to include a facial spray underneath humectants. If you’re using a humectant, especially one in the form of a typical moisturizer or cream, misting your face with a hydrating spray will help to give you that damp skin effect without having to wash your face multiple times in a day. Evian and Avène both make great facial mists that work to simply provide the skin with an instant boost of hydration and water content for a humectant to hold onto. Keep the facial mist in your bag and whenever your skin begins to feel dry you can mist and follow up with a hyaluronic acid serum, glycerin serum or your favorite moisturizer.

Some of my personal favorite humectant products to use are:

  1. Aveeno calm + restore triple oat serum ($23.99)
  2. Krave beauty great barrier relief serum ($28.00)
  3. Cocokind ceramide barrier serum ($20.00)
  4. Avène hydrance intense rehydrating serum ($38.00)

Humectants are amazing steps to add into a skincare routine and have the ability to draw moisture in unlike other types of moisturizing substances. However, they are most effective and beneficial when used in combination with other emollients and occlusives. It’s obviously so important to find which type of humectant ingredient works best for you and your skin type, and remember you can use multiple types but make sure to slowly introduce any new ingredient into your skincare ritual to avoid irritation.

Written by Jordan Hammaren


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  1. https://lesliebaumannmd.com/what-are-humectants/
  2. https://www.healthline.com/health/humectant#occlusives
  3. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y4ooL6YzDRg
  4. https://www.byrdie.com/humectants-5197898
  5. https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/chemistry/humectant

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