Humectant, Emollient, and Occlusive Moisturizers: What’s the Difference?

Humectant, Emollient, and Occlusive Moisturizers: What’s the Difference?

Aside from simply washing your face and being heavy handed with the Great and Powerful SPF, applying a quality, properly formulated moisturizer is probably one of the most important things you will ever do for your skin. But did you know that there is actually more than one kind of moisturizer, each with their own respective purposes? It’s true! Moisturizers are broken into three different classes (humectants, emollients, and occlusives… Oh My!), which we know can by totally overwhelming. But our “who’s who in moisturizers” will help you figure out what’s best for your skin and get you glowing brighter than a gem-stone in no time!


Main Takeaways: Moisturizers are broken up into three different categories for the variety of ways in which each function and deliver moisture to the skin.

Good to Know: There’s truly no one size fits all approach to moisturizing and most people will benefit from employing a blend of all three kinds of moisturizers into their routine.

Recommended Products: Crème de la Cream Brightening Moisturizer.


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Why Moisturize?

Moisturizing is way more than just another step in your routine. It is instead a crucial practice which works to volumize the skin, keep it pliable, and preserve its “bounce”. All of this combined helps to minimize the appearance of wrinkles and fine lines. And by giving your skin the hydration it needs, you help balance your skin’s natural oils, ultimately preventing clogged pores, and keeping your skin clean and fresh as a daisy!

But ensuring proper moisture levels in the skin is actually way more important for skin health than it is for just its appearance. Thirsty skin can actually result in redness, flakiness, cracking, and even bumps – all potential signs of damage and systemic irritation. And while these symptoms can be common, and even more-so for certain skin types, they are far from safe. Your skin is your body’s largest organ and first line of defense against infection and allergens. So, keeping it smooth, strong and free of dryness that can compromise its protective barrier is critical not just for your face, but your whole body.

Unfortunately, it’s not enough to just slather on some bargain-brand or even best-selling cream each morning, especially if what you are using isn’t going to function the way you need. We hate to break it to you, but all moisturizers are not created equal. There are actually three different classes of moisturizers – humectants, emollients, and occlusives - and each of them function differently. But how does one decode that mystical mirage of ingredients to tell which is which? More importantly, how do you know which kind of moisturizer is right for you?

Humectant, Emollient, or Occlusive?

Well, here’s the real: it’s terribly unlikely that your skin craves just one. It’s not uncommon to need a combination of formulas to properly protect and deliver all that is necessary for your skin to look and feel its best. Furthermore, depending on the area in which you live, the time of year, your level of exposure to environmental stressors, your skin type, and your super unique skin blueprint, it may even be best to have all three in your big bag of tricks.


Humectants attract water to the skin. Everyone could and should employ humectants when moisturizing because they are perfect for all skin types. They tend to be on the lighter side and are absorbed pretty quickly, making them great for moisturizing oily or blemish-prone skin. And those with normal to dry skin, who inherently produce less of the natural compounds, like amino acids and hyaluronic acid (which are literally the humectant ingredients in many humectant moisturizers), benefit from their ability to support and replenish proper levels of these “natural moisturizing factors” or NMFs.

Most oil-free moisturizers and moisturizing gels qualify as humectants, but if you aren’t sure, you can always skim the labels for key ingredients. Some other humectants commonly found in skincare include:

These little moisture magnets are invaluable in keeping skin hydrated and healthy. But using them can require a bit of mindfulness. We know humectants bring water to our skin, but they mostly do so by acting as a middle-man and drawing water from wherever there’s more of it to wherever there’s less of it. And unfortunately, sometimes your skin gets shafted in the process. If the ambient air is drier than your skin was prior to you applying your moisturizer, humectant ingredients will actually transfer moisture to the atmosphere instead of your skin! Like, totes rude. Some products make the assumption that this will occur at some point and preemptively include other ingredients beside humectants in their formulas to ensure 360 moisture. And what kinds of ingredients are those? We are so glad you asked!


Emollients moisturize by filling gaps between skin cells with lipids. This softens the skin and helps repair any surface damage, providing for a smoother appearance and supporting your protective skin barrier. Emollients, which work wonders for normal to dry skin, are often found in thicker formulas like creams. Some of the more commonly used emollients tend to be richer ingredients like cocoa butter, colloidal oatmeal, lanolin, and various oils like safflower and sunflower oil (psst… make sure whichever ones you apply to your face are non-comedogenic). What’s interesting, however, is that emollients also tend to act as moderate occlusives, which brings us to our last kind of moisturizer!


Think of occlusives as little suits of armor, protecting against all kinds of nasties - dryness included! Occlusives create a barrier on the outermost layer of the skin, defending against moisture-loss and environmental damage (You, there! Yes, you; the one deaf to the sounds of bustling city life outside your high-rise. Occlusive-up!). Occlusives also cleverly coat any other moisturizers you may have applied prior to your occlusive, locking in all of their benefits! And realistically, this sort of technique is the way to go, as using occlusives on their own won’t get you nearly as far.

Occlusives are the oiliest of all three types of moisturizers and are great for those with dry or cracked skin. But as is the case with emollients, certain ones should not be used on the face for their ability to potentially clog pores; so, do your research. But if you need a rec, some of our favorite face-ready occlusives include argan oil and shea butter.

It’s easy to see how all classes of moisturizers complement one another. There are even some products out there that brilliantly blend humectants, emollients, and occlusives to make one master of moisture, like our Crème de la Cream! But if you choose to apply various forms of moisture separately, keep in mind that you can technically get too much of a good thing. So, remember a few things:

  • When using a humectant, be sure to pair it with an occlusive to protect all that moisture from environmental theft!
  • In the case of emollients and occlusives, be cautious when choosing which ones to apply to your face and use products only as directed.
  • Be sure to study up on your product ingredients and ditch any that are not considered non-comedogenic.

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