This is later than intended because I was traveling. Subscribers got a thing about which skincare I travel with and why, but for those of you who don’t subscribe, here’s my travel tip: focus on hydration, unless you’re going to the tropics.
OH ALSO Deciem (the parent company of Niod, The Ordinary, and other brands) is doing 23% off of everything for the whole month of November. It’s really a very admirable anti-consumerism statement while also being a great deal, as you can read here.
Guys, what do I even say about moisturizer? It’s just….moisturizer. Like, it’s so basic. People ask me for a moisturizer recommendation and internally I’m all “How can this be hard, you could just grab some Lubriderm and call it a day, this is the easiest part of skincare why does anyone need me for it?” That’s just on the inside, though, outwardly I’m all “CeraVe. Oh, you’re one of the poor 5% of the population whose skin hates all CeraVe products? Then Cetaphil, or Vanicream. Bye.” It’s the one product category where I struggle to take an interest in anyone else’s needs, sorry, I don’t know why I’m this way.
There are some basic principles to know that will help you when planning a routine, and I’ll go over those so you can Make Good Choices™. The super-cool thing about the moisturizer business is that it can be as basic or as souped-up as you like, depending on what you want your routine to look like. And once you understand the principles of what your skin needs, you can start mixing and matching and multitasking and feel like a total skincare boss. Exciting! (I know, I already also said it is boring. I am mercurial and enigmatic. A brilliant, maddening little fool. Et cetera.)
An important point that I’ll come back to after some faffing about is this: moisturizer is a product AND a behavior. And by that, I mean it really helps to focus on the verb and not the noun, here. You moisturize. I moisturize. We all need to moisturize. One (easy, popular, fast) way to do that is to apply a moisturizer. So just keep that in mind, as I blather on, okay? Okay.
The Moisture Barrier
I mentioned the moisture barrier when talking about cleansing but in case you don’t remember, it’s like your skin’s force field. (It’s also called the acid mantle, and sometimes the lipid barrier. We’re just gonna call it The Barrier.) When the barrier is all healthy and functioning, it keeps bacteria out and moisture in and all is happy in your skin world, huzzah.
Now look, some people - we know them and sorta hate them - can rub some Zest soap over their face in the hot shower and walk away, Zestfully clean and without a care in the gotdamn world. They do nothing else to their face for years and YEARS and they have great skin and wonder what the hell we’re all doing with our potions and unguents every night. These people are the skincare equivalent of people who can eat 4,000 calories of brownies and Doritos every day and never gain an ounce of fat even though their idea of exercise is, like, parking half a lot away from the store entrance sometimes. (Are you this person, with the zestfully clean skincare? Then why are you reading this, go away and enjoy your genes in peace.)
Those people all have terrific, resilient, fuckin Hercules Mulligan moisture barriers. Bully for them. The rest of us have one of two situations going on: (1) nice, average, accommodating-but-mere-mortal barriers, which generally do very well as long as we don’t abuse them and keep them fed and watered regularly; or (2) fragile, barely functioning barriers which need to be mentioned in the Special Prayers section of the church bulletin or they will fall into a coma and require a whole team of specialists to bring them out of it.
Okay, this is a lot of rambling about the nature of the moisture barrier, but I want you to understand that it’s really important and really variable. And if you hadn’t guessed yet, damage to the barrier is at the heart of a ton of skin problems, from the mundane to the truly unpleasant. Things like acne and eczema and rosacea? There’s a messed up barrier there. Skin feel tight or itchy or hot or stinging? Your barrier is under attack. I mean, don’t get obsessed or anything, but it is (hopefully obviously) very important to keep bacteria out and moisture in, so you want to take care of the barrier.
This vaunted barrier is made up of lots of things including various naturally occurring acids and a bunch of lipids. As in fats and oils. Specifically, your sebum. (Yes! It has a purpose!) This is why cleansing your skin is one of the unavoidably damaging things you do: you’re washing away (some of) the oil, which is protective. Other things you might use, like AHAs and BHAs and retinol and benzoyl peroxide (good things) and unnecessary fragrance and hot water (bad things), disrupt and disturb the barrier - and then shit starts going bad real fast.
So when the barrier is disrupted - when the balance of oils and fatty acids gets fucked up - you have to correct it. It got depleted and you gotta replenish it, see. And that’s where moisturizer comes in. The good ones, anyway.
Oy, I feel like this explanation is off somehow but I’m tired and don’t feel like googling around to make sure I’m not missing anything, sorry. Just basically? Your force field is gonna take some hits every day, and using a good moisturizer is like calling in the maintenance staff. Most of us need a few professionals with standard issue toolboxes to drop by after every attack just to keep things from falling apart. Maybe your maintenance team is just a couple of college kids with spackle and scotch tape, maybe you need several guys in hardhats with i-beams and a thrillingly competent lady at the controls of a bulldozer. Either way, let’s get you some skilled professionals you can count on to handle the slings and arrows.
What’s your POINT, moisturizer?
Here is the part where I start using Lots Of Unfamiliar Words.
There is this phenomenon known as TEWL, which stands for transepidermal water loss. It’s what causes your skin to be dry - the water in it evaporates, escaping the force field and becoming one with the universe. This is a naturally occurring process and is not The Enemy, except sometimes you might be experiencing more TEWL than is good for your skin. Like say, when the humidity is at rock bottom and the heaters are going full blast 24/7 in January and you are a walking ball of static electricity.
All skin experiences TEWL daily, to one degree or another, and moisturizers correct for its effects. A good moisturizer has three baseline functions: hydration, softening, and occlusion. Ready? Here we go.
Hydration: This is putting the water back into your skin. To do this, moisturizers need a humectant (something that attracts/retains water) and the most common one is glycerin, an old-school classic that never goes out of style. Other common ones include propylene glycol, sodium PCA, beta glucan, panthenol, urea - and the one that seems to have its own PR team working overtime lately, hyaluronic acid.
Softening: This is achieved through emollients like dimethicone, shea butter, isopropyl palmitate, jojoba oil, and so on. (As a side note, LOTS of emollients are also occlusives - like dimethicone and plant oils.)
Occlusion: This sounds like a bad thing but is actually what you want - to seal in all the moisture. If you don’t occlude, it’s like not putting the stopper in the sink basin: the water’s just gonna keep leaving. You gotta plug that shit up. Occlusives include petrolatum, cholesterol, beeswax, silicones, and about a thousand others.
Right, so the idea with a moisturizer is to put the moisture back into your skin and keep it there, with the added bonus of making it feel soft. And when you do all that, you are aiding and supporting your aforementioned moisture barrier. This is all clear? Lud, I hope so.
The difference between moisturizers - and one reason why I find it so difficult to cold recommend them - is in the proportions of these ingredients. Some are heavy on the humectants and light on the occlusives. Others seem to be made with a mission statement of All Emollient All The Time. Others are occlusive af and just throw in some hydrating ingredients as an afterthought. The variety is great, because everyone has different skin with different needs. Heck, just one person (such as myself) has different skin depending on the day - sometimes I need a ton of occlusion, sometimes I need exactly none. It all depends on the weather, my hormones, my health, the time of the month, what other skincare cocktails I’ve splashed on my face lately, and lord knows what else.
Here’s what I’ll say, though: if you have a very definite skin type, you probably think you know what kind of moisturizer you need, but you might be wrong. Dry skin types are usually certain they need heavy, thick creams; oily skin types seek permission to shun moisturizer for the rest of their natural lives. That’s because we all tend to forget the hydrating part of the moisturizer, and look only at the occlusive portion of the events. Try not to make that mistake. Your skin will suffer if you do, mark my words.
Dehydration vs Dry Skin
Lots has been written on this topic so I’m not going to say much besides the basics. But it’s an important thing to understand because all of us suffer from it at times and you can’t properly moisturize if you don’t know what you’re dealing with. So here we go with dehydration vs dry, at least as far as I understand it.
If you have dry skin, it’s your skin type - not a temporary state. Skin is dry because it habitually lacks oils, because your sebacious glands just aren’t pumping it out in adequate amounts. (Hence why dry-skinned people tend to have tiny pores.) And when there’s no oil to keep the moisture in, the skin dries out. As a side note, this is why it’s a myth that drinking more water will help dry skin - because dry skin isn’t lacking water, it’s lacking oils. (I mean I doubt that swallowing oil would help either, okay, the epidermis only responds to a select handful of oral treatments for anything but also you don’t need more oil in your body, you’d need your oil glands to produce more on the surface. But anyway.) Also good to keep in mind that for most of us, our skin gets drier as we get older. Which can be a real freaking shock, let me tell you.
If you have dehydrated skin it means your skin is, for whatever reason, lacking water - but it might have enough oil (and often more than you want/need.) It’s not a skin type so much as it is a situational thing, though it’s very possible to have skin that tends to get dehydrated easily. Some skins have more difficult time handling the TEWL, or the barrier is a little more inclined to temper tantrums. But for many of us - no matter our natural skin type (yes, dry skins can be dry AND dehydrated, and they very often are!) - dehydration happens in response to some kind of external stimulus. Like the weather (winter!) or overexfoliation or lots of sun exposure.
Lord, I feel like I’m not stating this clearly and am probably making it very confusing. Please do google around for better explanations than my own, for some reason I am not doing so hot on the topic of moisturizers, like something inside me has exactly zero desire to discuss it and I have no clue why, quite frankly the attempt is sapping my will to live. There’s apparently some hitherto unbeknownst-to-me beef between my internal skincare nerd and Big Moisturizer. Who knew? Life is truly a rich tapestry.
OKAY LET’S TRY TO SPIT OUT SOMETHING USEFUL NOW.
Dehydrated skin can be hard to spot, because dry and flakey is dry and flakey, ya know? But basically, the tightness is the thing. Even if your natural skin type is dry, you don’t necessarily feel like your skin is tight - unless it’s dehydrated. In oily skin, it’s a bit easier to spot because you’ll feel the tightness and dryness WHILE ALSO having oil all over the place, like an oil slick on a drum skin, if you will.
So now you have that possibility to consider, while assessing the moisturization needs of your skinsuit. You’re welcome.
MoisturiZING vs MoisturiZER
So if you haven’t nodded off yet, what I hope you’re getting from all this is that there is a very big difference between oil and water, and your skin needs both in the proper proportions to maintain a healthy barrier. That’s what it all comes down to.
The objective of moisturizing is to regularly get the nutrients that your moisture barrier needs. And stick with me, here: it is possible to get all the things your barrier needs without a product that says Moisturizer on the label. HOWEVER, I believe it’s a rare person who can get away with never using an actual moisturizer. This all comes back to what I said at the beginning: focus on the verb and not the noun. The Moisturize step of your routine is the most variable, because it’s entirely based on what your skin needs in that moment and depending on what other products you’ve used.
Just a quick word here: there are people who will say they “moisturize” with an oil. These people bring out the testy motherfucking pedant in me like little else, because you cannot moisturize with an oil. Oils can occlude. Oils can be emollient. Oils cannot hydrate, which everyone who has ever in their life heard the phrase “like oil and water” should know, ffs. And you cannot MOISTURE-ize without MOISTURE omg why does it irritate me so much, I know, but words MEAN THINGS, people, we live in a SOCIETY.
If, however, you splash on a good amount of an excellent hydrating essence or toner or serum or whatever, and then top it off with a nice layer of oil? Congrats, you’ve performed the function of a moisturizer!
But. BUT. I must note that there are really vital things in a good moisturizer that you just don’t tend to see in other products (ceramides being the most important, as well as some cholesterol) and most people prefer to just use a good moisturizer and cover all their bases, instead of trying to make sure they got all their nutrients à la carte. Also many people don’t necessarily relish spreading an oil on their face every day. And honest to god, if your barrier gets into trouble, you want the full maintenance team to show up, not just the skeleton crew. And a good moisturizer is your full Barrier Maintenance Staff.
First, one of the best/worst things about moisturizer is that it doesn’t have to JUST moisturize. It can be - and often is - a multifunctional product. (I love this about it. The fewer products I have to use, the better.) Many, many good sunscreens can function as your daily moisturizer, even if they don’t call themselves that on the label. Lots of treatments you might want to try come in a moisturizer format. I have a moisturizer with retinol, for instance, which eliminates any need for a retinol serum. Some moisturizers have exfoliants built in, and oodles of antioxidants, or lightening agents for hyperpigmentation, etc.
But I’m just going to give you some good, basic moisturizers here, because it is my very strong belief that everyone need a nice, relatively bland, all-purpose moisturizer on hand at all times.
Oh! And you don’t have to use a “night cream.” Or more precisely, you can use a night cream any damn time you want. Same for day/a.m./morning creams, but those are usually called “day” because they have SPF in them, and why waste SPF at night. Your skin doesn’t need anything different at night, and nothing extra special is going to happen in your sleep if you use a designated night cream. Often nighttime moisturizers are heavier (hence the “cream” terminology), but that’s about it.
FURTHERMORE, if you get a really good moisturizer chock-full of great ingredients, it can be used as an eye cream. Just put your moisturizer all over your face including around your eyes, is all - or if you want a thick lotion on your face but something lighter around the eyes, use two different (good) moisturizers. The ongoing scam of eye creams is that they are just moisturizer with an inflated price. (This is so obviously, breathtakingly, verifiably true that I cannot believe people still fall for $80 eye creams.)
Okay, on to recommendations!
Look. CeraVe is going to feature heavily here, and that’s because all their moisturizers have all the absolute essentials every moisturizer should have, while not having what good skincare shouldn’t include - that is, fragrance. It works for most people, but there is a subset of skin that reacts poorly to something in CeraVe’s formulas, so I will list some others for those poor unfortunate souls.
Overall, Blanket Recommendations:
These are bog standard, not fancy, no-nonsense, skin fixer-uppers.
Cerave PM Facial Moisturizer: Use it any and all the time, not just PM. It’s very light, and has ceramides, hyaluronic acid, AND a very good dose of niacinamide - which is a wonderful thing for your barrier and you want it on your face, trust. (Note: a tiny handful of people have a reaction to niacinamide where they flush just after putting it on. Who knows why, but don’t be alarmed if you turn pink. Do be alarmed if it hurts though, duh.)
CeraVe Daily Moisturizing Lotion: Basically exactly the same as the PM moisturizer, but without the niacinamide. I buy the value size and use it all over, not just my face. I love it so much.
CeraVe Baby: I just started using this and really enjoy it. It’s creamier than the other two without being heavy. It has niacinamide (not as much as the PM version) AND allantoin (soothes irritation) while also being free of sulfates which can be irritating to some sensitive skin types.
Klair’s All Over Lotion: Exactly as it says, use it all over. I always say, if you can’t use CeraVe Daily, use this one because it’s very similar - except this one has a real nice silky feel.
Others: Cetaphil Daily, Vanicream, Lubriderm, La Roche Posay, Neutrogena, Hada Labo, The Ordinary’s Natural Moisturizing Factors — I mean, there are a million, and you shouldn’t spend a lot on a (basic) moisturizer. Just try to avoid anything with fragrance or essential oils - look at the ingredients, and make sure you’re not accidentally getting a dose of glycolic you don’t want, or something. Experiment away!
For Sensitive Skin (that can’t tolerate the above)
First Aid Beauty has two great ones: their Ultra Repair Cream and the BarriAIR. Also check out La Roche Posay’s Toleriane Fluide, it has saved many an epidermis, as has Stratia Liquid Gold, which has achieved cult status. Avène has several, but their Skin Recovery Cream is the one I hear about the most and is the one I’d give a go.
For Dry Skin (or if you prefer something very rich)
CeraVe’s Moisturizing Cream - the one in the tub - has achieved god-like status among the dry skinned of the world. (It’s pretty fucking great, that’s why.) Also beloved is Klairs Rich Moist Soothing Cream (I love it like whoa.) La Roche Posay has Cicaplast Baume B5 which you want to look into, and the Dove DermaSeries Dry Skin relief is worth trying out.
For Oily Skin (or if you prefer something very light)
I mean, the CeraVe PM should do it for you, but if it doesn’t then take a look at some of the water gel-creams out there. This summer I fell in love with Simple’s Water Boost Hydrating Gel Cream, and Trader Joe’s has an Ultra Hydrating Gel that will do the job nicely. Also, there’s this new Laneige Cream Skin Refiner which is basically liquid lotion (I’m using it lately, it’s good), and since it’s the consistency of water you can’t get much lighter than that.
I think that’s all I have to say on the topic, and I hope it was a little helpful. Sorry if it wasn’t, I think I’m coming down with something and also I didn’t realize how much moisturizers would annoy me, what a voyage of self-discovery this has been. Just as an added aside, I personally think of moisturization kinda like clothes: I wear layers depending on the weather. Shirt, cardigan, vest, bulky sweater, wool overcoat, cashmere scarf, giant down comforter with a belt. I like having all the options, all the layers. Sometimes I need long-johns and a puffer coat, sometimes I just need a tank top, most times I need something in between.
Okay, so now we are done with the four major elements! You have some grounding, hurrah. I guess I should talk about making a routine next? Hopefully you’ll have got all these basics sorted and have settled on your daily products that work for you, and can now go on to Specific Treatments. Not that you have to have anything more than these basics, of course, but if you want to, then I’m your huckleberry. (Look for my upcoming exposé, Huckleberries In Skincare: Better Than Opium?) (Haha, just kidding, nothing is better than opium.)
Now I’m going to go wash my face and, because it’s turning to winter where I am, put on a rather heavy dose of moisturization. Like my sex* life, I might not enjoy talking about it to people, but I sure love doing it.
Yours in Hydration,
*also good for the moisture barrier