Humectants Are The Hydrating Heroes Your Skin Care Routine Needs

Everything to know about the all-important beauty ingredients.

Originally Published: 
We may receive a portion of sales if you purchase a product through a link in this article.

If you pass someone on the street who has dewy skin, they likely drink a lot of water, get a lot of sleep — and slather their skin with humectants. This category of skin care ingredients is one of the keys to getting a perfectly plumped-up complexion, and derms say that everyone’s beauty regimen should include them.

That’s because humectants are molecules that work their magic by drawing water to the surface of your skin, says Dr. Kiran Mian, DO, FAAD, a board-certified medical and aesthetic dermatologist at Hudson Dermatology and Laser Surgery. “They are used in skin care products to attract moisture, whether from the air or within the skin, to keep the complexion hydrated,” she tells Bustle.

You can find humectants in skin care products like facial cleansers, serums, and moisturizers, as well as lip care products that have been formulated to deeply moisturize a dry pout. Shampoos and conditioners also contain humectants to help maintain moisture levels in your hair, notes Mian. Humectants are literally everywhere since they play such an important role (moisture is the essence of beauty, after all).

Keep scrolling below to learn more about humectants for skin and how to use them, as explained by dermatologists.

What Are Humectants?

There are many different types of humectants you’ll find in beauty products, including hyaluronic acid, glycerin, urea, propylene glycol, lactic acid, and aloe vera — just to name a few, says Dr. Courtney Rubin, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist and co-founder of Fig.1.

In the world of skin hydrators, humectants play one important role — but your regimen should also include emollients and occlusives to help them work even better. Emollients essentially fill in dry cracks in your skin to smooth your complexion, while occlusives are thicker ingredients that seal in hydration from humectants, ensuring water doesn’t evaporate from your skin’s surface.

The Benefits Of Humectants

Again, humectants work by drawing water into your skin so that it feels moisturized and can function properly. “They help maintain the integrity of the skin barrier,” Mian says. And having a nourished skin barrier is key to the overall health of your complexion — think of it as your skin’s security guard. “Our skin needs hydration to execute its cellular function,” Mian explains, and humectant-rich products play a large role in that.

Humectants will help with dry skin, but you’ll benefit from using them regardless of your age, skin type, or skin concerns. “Even those with oily skin can benefit from using humectants, as when the skin hydration levels are adequate, the skin will not need to overproduce oil for protection,” Mian says.

It’s also worth it to look into humectant-rich products if you have sensitive skin, rosacea, eczema, or a compromised skin barrier, Rubin says, as they will help repair damage and set things right.

Are Humectants Safe To Use?

Humectants are safe to use for all skin types. They also play nicely with other ingredients, Rubin says, which means you can seamlessly add them into your skin care routine without having to worry about any bad interactions. That said, it’s always a good idea to patch-test new skin care products and ingredients.

One thing to note? Because humectants draw moisture from deeper layers of the skin, Mian says it’s possible that they might make your skin feel even more dry — but that’s why you should seal them in with an occlusive (think a balm or thick cream).

How To Use Humectants

1. Slather On Morning & Night

According to Rubin, you can use skin care products that feature humectants every day, both in the morning and at night. They will set your skin up for a glowy day and they’ll also be hard at work as you sleep so that you wake up nice and dewy.

2. Try Multiple Products

It’s OK to use multiple products that contain humectants. “My routine includes humectants in my cleanser, toner, serums, and moisturizers — they show up a lot! — to moisturize and support my skin barrier,” Rubin says.

3. Combine Them With Harsher Ingredients

“Well-moisturized skin tolerates active ingredients better, so humectants are important in that they allow you to use harsher actives, like retinol, glycolic acid, and vitamin C, without irritation,” Rubin says.

4. Adjust For The Seasons

While a thick lotion or serum will feel good in the chilly winter months, Mian says you might want to cut back on humectants come summertime. “When the air has humidity, your skin may not require as thick of a cream or moisturizer, so a lighter lotion may suffice,” she says. “In the winter months, you may want to add more humectant-containing products to your routine to prevent your skin’s moisture from being pulled into the dry winter air.”

Shop Humectants For Skin

For Extra Dry Skin

This extra-hydrating face cream has lipids, peptides, and small-particular hyaluronic acid to visibly firm, brighten, and plump skin. Glycerin — a powerful humectant — chips in to deliver even more hydration.

For Lightweight Moisture

Mian recommends using a moisturizer that contains glycerin, like this one from Kiehl’s. The fragrance-free formula will hydrate your complexion via the all-star humectant as well as squalane, another ingredient that helps boost your skin’s moisture levels.

For Your Lips

If you’re sick and tired of chapped lips, snag this lip treatment from Paula’s Choice. It uses hyaluronic acid to restore suppleness and prevent moisture loss so that your lips are smooth and flake-free.

For A Dewy Glow

Mian is a fan of hydrating serums that contain hyaluronic acid, like this one from Glossier. It’s a fast-absorbing, non-sticky formula that can be layered underneath moisturizers and makeup. What’s more, the vitamin B5 (another humectant) in the elixir helps promote long-term hydration.

For Everyday Moisture

This ceramide-packed moisturizer from Fig.1 is full of humectants, like hyaluronic acid and glycerin, as well as emollients and occlusives for a well-rounded, deeply-moisturizing lotion that’s lightweight on the skin.

For Your Body

Ensure your limbs are properly hydrated with this lightweight body lotion. It’s super gentle, fragrance-free, and uses hyaluronic acid for the moisturizing job.

For Clean Skin

Use this nourishing facial cleanser in both your a.m. and p.m. skin care routine. Its silky texture features hyaluronic acid and oat bran extract to keep your complexion soft post-washing, so your skin’s left smooth and hydrated, not dry.

Studies referenced:

Crowther, JM. (2021). Understanding humectant behaviour through their water-holding properties. Int J Cosmet Sci. doi: 10.1111/ics.12723.

Hamishehkar, H. (2015). A comparative histological study on the skin occlusion performance of a cream made of solid lipid nanoparticles and Vaseline. Research in Pharmaceutical Sciences, 10(5), 378-387.

Harwood, A. (2022) Moisturizers. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2023 Jan-. Available from:

Lichterfeld-Kottner, A. (2020). Maintaining skin integrity in the aged: A systematic review. Int J Nurs Stud. doi: 10.1016/j.ijnurstu.2019.103509.

Lodén, M. (2003). Role of topical emollients and moisturizers in the treatment of dry skin barrier disorders. Am J Clin Dermatol. 2003;4(11):771-88. doi: 10.2165/00128071-200304110-00005. PMID: 14572299.

Rodan, K. (2016). Skincare Bootcamp: The Evolving Role of Skincare. Plast Reconstr Surg Glob Open. doi: 10.1097/GOX.0000000000001152.

Sethi, A. (2016). Moisturizers: The Slippery Road. Indian J Dermatol. doi: 10.4103/0019-5154.182427.

Spada, F. (2019). Use of formulations for sensitive skin improves the visible signs of aging, including wrinkle size and elasticity. Clin Cosmet Investig Dermatol. doi: 10.2147/CCID.S212240.


Dr. Kiran Mian, M.D., FAAD, board-certified medical, aesthetic dermatologist at Hudson Dermatology and Laser Surgery

Dr. Courtney Rubin, M.D., board-certified dermatologist, co-founder of Fig.1

This article was originally published on