What is an Emollient?

What is an Emollient? I Mirra Skincare

Now that it’s winter and the air is getting drier, our skin is getting drier as well. And you’re putting on thick layers of moisturizer every single day and night yet your skin still appears to be parched. Did you know that there’s different types of moisturizers? And that you may not be properly moisturizing your skin at all? Emollients, humectants, and occlusives work differently, so let's break them down. Starting with: what is an emollient?


1. The 3 different types of moisturizers

2. How your skin hydrates itself

3. What is an emollient & how does it work?

4. Your skin’s moisture barrier

5. How to incorporate emollients into your routine

Key Points

  • Dermatologists break moisturizers down into 3 different types: humectants, emollients and occlusives. 
  • Emollients work to fill in gaps with hydration and give the skin an overall smooth and hydrated appearance
  • In order to repair your natural mosture barrier, you need to hydrate, hydrate, hydrate!
  • Ingredients like mineral and plant oils, shea and cocoa butter and lanolin make great emollients. 

The 3 different types of moisturizers

Now I know this seems excessive. Everytime you turn around there’s a new skincare product or somebody telling you that you've been doing something wrong your entire life. But, this one is quite possibly one of the most important lessons to learn and it’s better late than never.

To begin, not all moisturizers are created equal. In fact, dermatologists like to break down moisturizers into three subcategories: humectants, emollients, and occlusives. Each one serves a different purpose in retaining moisture in the skin. But it all begins with your skin itself. Your skin is designed to hydrate itself. Everybody, no matter your skin mood, produces oil or sebum. While this sebum does keep skin lubricated in some cases, it’s not actually hydrating your skin.

How your skin hydrates itself

Hydration comes from within. Your skin cells pull water and fluids from your capillary blood flow to the surface in order to attempt to keep you hydrated from the inside out. But, for most people, this isn’t enough, not to mention water evaporates from our skin as it does from any surface throughout the day.

This is where products come in. There are all kinds of ingredients in the forms of serums, oils, and masks that are marketed to keep your skin looking healthy. But in terms of hydration, it comes down to basic science. In order to lock in your skin’s moisture, you must put something on top of it to prevent epidermal water loss, in less fancy terms: prevent the water from evaporating off your face.

In order to prevent the water from evaporating, there needs to be water present to begin with. This is why dermatologist’s recommend applying those serums and moisturizers while your skin is still damp after cleansing both your body and your face. Applying a moisturizer directly after washing your face ensures that some of that water content is still sitting on your skin, so now you’re trapping it with a moisturizer to keep it in all day and keep your skin hydrated.

What is an emollient & how does it work?

But not all moisturizers are created equal, and not all of them do the same thing. There are three main types of moisturizers: humectants, emollients, and occlusives. Keeping it short and simple, humectants work by pulling water from the dermis to the epidermis or the first layer of skin. Emollients and occlusives both preserve that water by creating a barrier to prevent the water from evaporating throughout the day. While their roles do seem similar, there are a few key differences.

To begin, emollients focus mostly on filling in, smoothing and softening the surface of the skin. They do this by helping to restore a skin’s natural moisture barrier and therefore soften the skin’s natural texture. While an occlusive also helps to smooth skin out, its main job is creating a thick layer to trap in as much moisture as possible, this would include products such as vaseline or aquaphor.

Emollients are the golden ticket of moisturizers because they are known to work for almost every skin type and in any weather or climate possible. They are a happy medium for most people, not too thick or heavy, but also keep the skin from getting dried out after a long day. Emollients are relatively lightweight and don’t leave your skin feeling tacky or as if you have a mask on. They sink into the skin throughout the day leaving you feeling hydrated but not sticky. 

The skin's moisture barrier

I mentioned that emollients are key to restoring your skin’s moisture barrier, and unfortunately most people don’t even realize it’s damaged. If your skin is excessively dry, red, irritated, or flaking, chances are you’re suffering from a compromised skin barrier and using occlusives is not going to solve the issue.

Using an emollient will not only calm your skin’s redness and irritation in the moment, but also help to restore and heal the barrier within a few weeks so that you’re left with healthy, calm, glowing skin that is able to better preserve its water content. In fact, it’s best to layer each type of moisturizer in this order: humectant, emollient, and occlusive if you are trying to restore a damaged barrier or having severely dry skin.

Restore skin barrier with emollients

How to incorporate emollients into your routine

But, if you are simply trying to achieve smoother skin, whilst also keeping your skin hydrated, emollients will be your best friend. They should be a staple in almost everyone’s skincare routine, day and night. If you have drier skin, you could opt to layer an occlusive on top or a humectant prior to the emollient at night. But it is essential to apply any moisturizer immediately after washing.

Whether you’re cleansing at the end of the day, or simply rinsing with lukewarm water in the morning, pat your face dry but not all the way dry. Leaving a bit of excess water on your skin or leaving your skin slightly damp allows the emollient to do its job to its fullest potential. This is also true for your entire body. Dry yourself off when you get out of the shower, and then immediately follow up with your body lotion (also an emollient) to keep your skin baby soft. 

Emollients are a broad category and include several different ingredients. Emollients can include mineral oils, shea butter, cocoa butter, and lanolin. You may have heard dermatologists use the term “triglycerides.” There are a variety of options for emollient moisturizers at various price ranges.

Popular emollient moisturizers include:

  1. La Roche-Posay Cicaplast Baume B5 ($15)
  2. CeraVe Moisturizing Cream ($16)
  3. First Aid Beauty Ultra Repair Cream ($36)
  4. Biossance Squalane + Omega Repair Cream ($58)

Overall, it’s best to layer your moisturizers in order to achieve the most hydrated and glowing skin possible. But if you’re just starting out with skincare or are hesitant to try multiple at once because you think you may break out, emollients are a great starting point for moisturizers. Just make sure you are applying them right after cleansing. Stick with your routine and prepare to watch your skin’s natural moisture barrier heal itself to reveal healthier, hydrated, and more even skin. 

Written by Jordan Hammaren


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  1. https://www.paulaschoice.com/ingredients/ingredient-emollient.html
  2. https://www.herocosmetics.us/blogs/news/moisturizers-explained-what-s-the-difference-between-humectants-emollients-and-occlusives
  3. https://gotoskincare.com/blogs/skin-school/the-three-types-of-moisturisers-humectants-occlusives-emollients#:~:text=Occlusives%20seal%20in%20moisture%20and%20stop%20water%20from%20evaporating.&text=Like%20emollients%2C%20they%20will%20seal,for%20those%20with%20oily%20skin.
  4. https://www.byrdie.com/emollients-for-skin-4774700
  5. https://www.dermatologytimes.com/view/pointers-with-dr-portela-how-to-fix-a-broken-skin-moisture-barrier

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