What is a Humectant? (And Which Natural Ones to Look for in Anti-Aging Products)

What is a Humectant

The first time I heard the term “humectant,” an expert in the skin care industry told me it was an ingredient that “attracted moisture from the air into the skin.”

I remember thinking, “Yeah, right. It just magically pulls water from the air around us and deposits it on the skin—voila, you have hydrated and younger-looking skin.”

Turns out that what sounded like a far-out explanation actually wasn’t too far off. Humectants do attract water, but not necessarily from the air—they are more likely to pull it up from the deeper levels of your skin to hydrate the surface.

Still, who cares? Does it really matter?

If you want your anti-aging serum to work, it does. The wrong kind of humectant can rob your skin of hydration over time, leading to more sagging and wrinkles than you had to begin with.

Synthetic Humectants

Many of the humectants commonly used in skin care products pull water from the deeper levels of skin without replenishing it. This helps the surface of your skin to look more hydrated for a little while, but as it evaporates (which it regularly does unless you’re in a very humid climate), you’re left with less hydration overall, leading to dryness, dullness, and accelerated aging.

Skin care manufacturers like synthetic humectants because they cost less than natural ones. These will help prevent water loss to some extent, but they provide no real nutrients to the skin, and over time, can actually cause damage.

Some examples of synthetic humectants:

  • Propylene glycol: A by-product of petroleum refining (and natural gas), propylene glycol can help skin hold onto moisture, but it can also dry out the lower layers of skin, contributing to future dullness, fine lines, and wrinkles. It can also be irritating to sensitive skin, causing redness and rashes.
  • PEG: Polyethylene glycols (PEGs), like propylene glycol, are petroleum-based compounds that soften skin, but may be contaminated with carcinogens like ethylene oxide and 1,4-dioxane. These pull moisture from the lower layers of skin, but give none back.
  • Silicones: These are pervasive in today’s skin care products because they impart a smooth and soft feel on the skin, but these man-made chemicals also form a film over the skin's surface, keeping it from ‘breathing' normally. Results may include increased acne and irritation, as well as future dryness.
  • Urea: Urea is most often used as a preservative, but it’s also considered a humectant. It’s been shown to release formaldehyde, a carcinogen, and can increase risk of contact dermatitis.

These are just a few of the common humectants used in skin care products. If your product contains any of these, you may be hydrating in the short-term, but dehydrating your skin out over the long run.

In other words, you may be spending money for a product that’s really not going to help you.

Natural Humectants

Natural humectants, on the other hand, not only help attract water to the surface of the skin, but also deliver hydration and nutrients to the deeper layers, as well. This helps skin to keep itself hydrated on a regular basis.

  • Aloe: It’s a wonderful humectant. It penetrates skin deeply and quickly, hydrating at the surface and at the lower levels.
  • Honey: Honey has a natural ability to hold onto water (the perfect humectant), hydrating without creating an oily feel. It’s also a natural source of alpha hydroxy acids, which encourage exfoliation. This makes it even easier for skin to absorb the moisturizing elements.
  • Hyaluronic acid: This sounds like a chemical ingredient, but it’s not. It’s a natural molecule present throughout the body that helps hydrate and cushion joints, eyeballs, and skin. It has a natural ability to hold onto water, and seems able to adjust according to humidity levels, helping your skin cope with even dry climates. This is an important ingredient in our Anti-Aging Serum, which helps the skin look firmer and tighter as well as reduces the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.
  • Glycerin: It occurs naturally in every living cell so it's easily absorbed by the skin. It holds water really well and it works by finding an equilibrium between the water content in the air and in the skin. Along with the benefits of deep hydration, the texture of glycerin makes it perfect for skin care because it glides on smoothly and evenly.

These are only a few of the many natural humectants that are great for skin.

The important thing when looking for skin care that’s really going to help you look your best is to choose those items with ingredients that offer long-lasting benefits. A little synthetic hydrator may help your skin look and feel better today, but natural humectants do that and so much more, nourishing and hydrating skin to help resist the appearance of aging far into the future.

Have you noticed a difference using natural humectants?

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  1. Dee says

    Thanks for an amazing article.

    Can you add a few lines about glycerine, as it is so common in natural skin care? I am wondering does glycerine also dry out the skin over time?

    Thank you!

    • Annmarie Skin Care says

      Sure! We added a little blurb about glycerin but we definitely suggest doing extra research if you’re curious 🙂

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