By Marie Suszynski | Medically reviewed by Lindsey Marcellin, MD, MPH
Knowing what your skin needs will help you make the right decision. (Hint: Choose one with sunscreen.)
Feel overwhelmed when you want to buy skin moisturizer for your dry skin? That’s no surprise, as there are dozens to choose from at the drugstore and hundreds more at high-end cosmetics and department stores — creams, lotions, ointments, some with sunscreen, others with an exfoliant. Choices range from the basic $1.50 jar of petroleum jelly to a $500 five-ounce tub of designer skin moisturizer. And all the options in between can make your head spin.
While choosing the right skin moisturizer may seem confusing, it’s actually very simple if you follow a few guidelines, says dermatologist Monica Halem, MD, of ColumbiaDoctors Eastside in New York City. Dr. Halem’s first rule of thumb? Don’t spend too much money.
How a Skin Moisturizer Works
Cleansers and moisturizers are the most important skin products, particularly for softening dry skin. A skin moisturizer works by sealing moisture into the outer layer of the skin and by pulling moisture from the inner layers of skin to the outer layer.
Key ingredients that seal in moisture are petrolatum, mineral oil, lanolin, and dimethicone. Glycerin, propylene glycol, proteins, urea, and vitamins help attract water into the outer layer of the skin.
Some skin moisturizers also contain an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA), which exfoliates dead skin, says Francesca Fusco, MD, assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City and a spokeswoman for the Skin Cancer Foundation. AHAs are a good choice if you have very dry skin.
Finding the Skin Moisturizer For You
It may take some trial and error, Halem says, so be patient. Follow these guidelines as you shop and, if you’re not getting the results you want, try a new one the next time:
- Note the first five ingredients. Look for common active ingredients, such as lanolin, glycerin, or petrolatum, Dr. Fusco says. Glycerin is less likely than lanolin to cause an allergic reaction, she says. She also recommends picking a moisturizer that’s made by a reputable company.
- Go for added sunscreen. Protecting your skin from harmful sun damage is one of the best things you can do to keep your skin looking young, so buy a moisturizer with a sun protection factor of at least 30. You’ll have to do some searching, but more companies are offering face and body moisturizers with sunscreen, Halem says.Make it skin-type appropriate. The skin on your face is thinner and more sensitive, so it’s a good idea to use a different moisturizer on your face than you do on your body, Fusco says and recommends buying one that’s labeled “non-comedogenic” because it won’t clog your pores. Of course, choose one that’s right for your skin type. If you know you have sensitive skin, it’s always a good idea to look for a moisturizer labeled hypoallergenic. If you have oily skin, go with a light, oil-free moisturizer. If you have dry skin, get something richer. And if you have combination skin, go with a lighter moisturizer for your whole face and dot drier areas with a heavier cream, Fusco says. Keep in mind that you may need a lighter lotion in the summer, and a cream or ointment in the winter.
- Consider using a moisturizer with retinol before bed. Retinol is vitamin A for your skin, Halem says. It works by increasing the speed at which your skin cells turn over. You can find it over the counter or by prescription, but use it carefully as it may cause a skin irritation, red skin, or dry skin.
Relief by PrescriptionIf your skin is very dry, consider a prescription moisturizer. Prescription moisturizers contain the AHA lactic acid, which softens the top layer of your skin and can do a better job if over-the-counter moisturizers aren’t working for you, Fusco says. AHAs such as lactic acid and glycolic acid can cause an allergic reaction in some people. Tell your doctor if you experience burning, irritation, red skin, itching, or a rash.
Another prescription option is a barrier cream, which contains humectants that hold on to moisture longer, Fusco says. Barrier creams penetrate a little deeper than standard moisturizers, she adds.
When to Moisturize
Once you find the right product, moisturize every day and you’ll go a long way toward preventing dry skin and even camouflaging wrinkles. While a skin moisturizer can’t get rid of wrinkles — because wrinkles begin much deeper in the skin due to collagen loss — it can plump up the skin and minimize their appearance, Halem says.
Whichever moisturizer you choose, it will work better if you apply it to damp skin. Think about a sponge that’s dried out, Fusco says. If you put moisturizer on it, it won’t go anywhere. But if you soak the sponge in water and coat it with moisturizer, the sponge will absorb it. Your skin works the same way, happily lapping it up.