Humectants in Skin Care Products

What is a humectant?

Humectants are hygroscopic ingredients, meaning they are able to attract and retain water molecules from their surrounding environment.

Humectants are commonly found in moisturizers and other hydrating skincare products. However, there are a few caveats about when to use and when to avoid using humectants in your skincare routine.

Find out more about how humectants work, examples of humectant ingredients, and when to use them here.

To find out if humectant moisturizers are right for you- take the skin type quiz.

What is a humectant moisturizer?

What is a humectant moisturizer?

Humectant moisturizers grab water and bind it to the skin's surface.

They can temporarily plump fine lines and wrinkles and give skin a dewy glow.

Here are examples of humectant moisturizers:

Hyaluronic acid serums are the best humectant moisturizers.

How Do Humectants Work?

Humectants work to hydrate and temporarily plump your skin by drawing in moisture from either the deeper layers of your skin to the surface or from humid air to your skin. Hyaluronic acid (HA) is a great example of a humectant — HA molecules can bind to and retain up to 1,000 times their molecular weight in water!

However, if you are in a dry climate where there is little moisture in the air available for humectants to pull into your skin, using a humectant on its own can actually cause dryness. This is because the humectant ingredients will absorb water molecules from the deeper layers of your skin and pull them onto the surface, where they can eventually evaporate. To prevent this, pair humectant ingredients with occlusive ingredients, which act as a physical barrier between your skin and the outside environment, thus sealing moisture inside.

Humectants are also a type of emollient, which smooth and soften the skin. During the desquamation process, when new skin cells push old, flaky skin cells from the surface of your skin, emollients like humectants help to smooth the rough edges of these flaky cells to create a smoother and more uniform appearance.

Types of Humectants

There are two types of humectant ingredients: natural and synthetic. Both types can be found in a wide array of skincare and personal care products, including shampoo, conditioner, body wash, hair products, lip balms, and soaps. The specific humectant ingredients that are chosen for use in a given product depend on many factors, including the purpose of the product, how the humectants will interact with other ingredients, and others.

Glycerin and Hyaluronic acid are humectants

What is the most common humectant?

The 3 most commonly used humectants in moisturizers are:

  1. Hyaluronic acid
  2. Glycerin
  3. Aloe vera

Glycerin is a particularly interesting humectant (to me), because it is one of the only ingredients used in skin care that is capable of traveling through the aquaporin channels between skin cells. This ability allows glycerin to hydrate hard to reach layers and cells in the skin that other humectants could simply never reach. 

Another interesting fact about glycerin is that it is the primary humectant component of honey!

List of Humectant Ingredients in Moisturizers

Moisturizers and other types of skincare products contain natural humectants or humectants that are made in the laboratory. 

Natural and plant-derived Humectants

Some common naturally-derived humectant ingredients include:

Synthetic Humectants

Examples of common man-made humectants include:

  • Butylene Glycol
  • Dipropylene Glycol
  • Gluconolactone


  • Glycolic acid
  • Heparan sulfate 
  • Hexalene Glycol
  • Propylene glycol (PEG)
  • Sodium Lactate
  • Urea

Is coconut oil a humectant?

No coconut oil is not a humectant, rather it is considered an occlusive ingredient. Coconut is also comedogenic meaning it clogs pores!

Coconut oil does hydrate the skin, but not because it pulls water towards itself. Instead, coconut oil has saturated fatty acids that prevent water from evaporating off of the skin, while simultaneously providing a small concentration of unsaturated fatty acids which are capable of repairing the skin barrier.

Is squalane a humectant?

Squalane and squalene are not humectants. Squalane is an oily substance that is an example of an occlusive ingredient.

 They are also considered emollients.

Emollient is a fancy way of saying it makes things look shiny!

When Should You Use Humectants?

Use humectants to give skin a dewy glass skin glow. Use them in moisturizers, serums, toners, cleansers, and other hydrating skincare products.  Oily and dry skin types can use humectants, however, dry skin types should always combine humectants with barrier repair ingredients.

The best way to know if you need a humectant moisturizer is to shop by your Baumann Skin Type.

Dry Skin Types and Humectants

 If you are a dry Baumann Skin Type, use products that pair humectants and occlusives together.  The humectant draws in the moisture and occlusives  keep it sealed within your skin. Moisturizers with these types of ingredients will feel good on dry skin. However, this is a short term solutions to dry skin.  For the best long term results, 

 use a barrier repair moisturizer that contains ceramides, fatty acids, and cholesterol. These are lipids (fats) that your skin naturally produces on its own to maintain a properly functioning skin barrier. 

If you have very dry skin or struggle with conditions like eczema that cause itching and flaking, your skin does not produce enough  lipids in the proper ratio, and your skin barrier is damaged and will not be as effective at holding onto moisture as it should be. Combining a barrier repair moisturizer that also has humectants and occlusives is the best way to  moisturizer dry skin. Using a humectant alone can actually harm dry skin!

Oily Skin Types and Humectants

Oily skin types often prefer humectants over occlusives.  Humectants make oily skin feel dewy and moisturized without feeling oily or greasy.  I like to give my oily skin patients moisturizers with humectants such as a hyaluronic acid serum. This is the best way to make oily skin glow.  It might not look good on camera so try it ahead of time before you film any videos or take photos because humectants can make oily skin types look shinier.

When Should You Avoid Humectants?

In some specific instances, humectants should be avoided or limited.

If you live in a dry climate and have dry skin. In this case, humectants should always be paired with occlusive ingredients like argan oil, jojoba oil, or beeswax to ensure your skin does not lose moisture. Using humectants on their own in a dry climate can worsen dryness and flaking.

When using eye creams to diminish puffiness. Under-eye puffiness is caused by fluid retention in that area. You do not want to use humectants in this instance, as these ingredients will draw in more moisture and make puffiness worse.

When using lip balm. Look for a lip balm that contains a mixture of humectant and occlusive ingredients — not humectants on their own. Lip balms that contain only humectants can cause your lips to become “addicted” to lip balm, as these ingredients will actually dry your lips out over time, causing you to continuously reapply the product to pull in more moisture.

Will humectant repair the skin barrier?

Humectant ingredients have temporary results and do not repair a damaged skin barrier! To read more about the science of skin barriers- click here.Humectants should not be sed in dry skin types without barrier repair ingredients.

Humectants are useful hydrating ingredients that are generally best used in conjunction with occlusive agents to not only draw in moisture but also seal it within your skin.

To find the best moisturizers and skincare products for your skin type- shop for skin care products using your Baumann Skin Type.

Level up your skin care knowledge with medical advice from dermatologists

Best References and Scientific Publications on Humectants

  1. Baumann L. Moisturizers in Ch. 43 of Baumann's Cosmetic Dermatology Ed 3. (McGraw Hill 2022)
  2. Baumann, L. Ch. 24 Humectants Cosmeceuticals and Cosmetic Ingredients (McGraw Hill 2015)
  3. Sagiv, A. E., Dikstein, S., & Ingber, A. (2001). The efficiency of humectants as skin moisturizers in the presence of oil. Skin Research and Technology, 7(1), 32-35.
  4. https://lesliebaumannmd.com/what-are-humectants/
  5. Crowther, J. M. (2021). Understanding humectant behaviour through their water‐holding properties. International Journal of Cosmetic Science, 43(5), 601-609.
  6. BINTI ZULKIFLI, N. S., SAHUDIN, S. B., & KAHARUDIN, N. (2023). Natural Active Ingredients and Skin Hydration: A Systematic Review. Journal of Cosmetic Science, 74(1).
  7. OZAWA, T., NISIYAMA, S., HORII, I., KAWASAKI, K., KUMANO, Y., & NAKAYAMA, Y. (1985). Humectants and their effects on the moisturization of skin. Skin research, 27(2), 276-288.
  8. Verdier‐Sévrain, S., & Bonté, F. (2007). Skin hydration: a review on its molecular mechanisms. Journal of cosmetic dermatology, 6(2), 75-82.

Is aloe vera a humectant?

Yes aloe is a humectant and it also is considered an anti-inflammatory skincare ingredient.

Is honey a humectant?

Yes honey is one of the strongest humectants.

What are the side effects of using humectants?

When you use a humectant on the skin or lips in a dry environment without an occlusive ingredient. the humectant can pull water from your skin- increasing dryness.

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