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In theory, electrolytes help your skin retain moisture. What about in practice?
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Swear by the Pedialyte hangover cure? The magic ingredients in this sweet drink are electrolytes — specifically the minerals sodium, chloride, and potassium.
Replenishing your body’s electrolyte stores is the secret to retaining the water you sip (goodbye, headache). But can applying an electrolyte cream to your skin actually keep it moisturized?
Do electrolytes really live up to all the hype? Here’s the scoop on the science behind this splashy new skin care ingredient.
Healthy skin is moist skin, which is why it has its own impressive built-in hydration system. Blood vessels supply skin cells with nutrients, water, and minerals known as electrolytes.
The skin’s outermost layer (called the stratum corneum) acts like Saran Wrap, holding in water and electrolytes and protecting skin cells from environmental pollutants and allergens.
Dry skin triggers
Dry skin is
When its barrier function is compromised, skin loses water and becomes inflamed, says Dr. Ife J. Rodney, FAAD, a dermatologist and founding director of Eternal Dermatology + Aesthetics in Washington, D.C.
This results in the breakdown of collagen, a protein that makes up about
“When collagen breaks down, fine lines and wrinkles appear,” says Rodney.
According to Dr. Bruce Robinson, FAAD, a board certified dermatologist in New York City and clinical professor of dermatology at Lenox Hill Hospital, water also plumps skin, reducing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.
The skin barrier
Moisturizing skin care products don’t actually add water to the skin. Instead, they support its barrier function to reduce water evaporation.
Ceramides are long-chain fatty acids that make up about half of your outer layer of skin. They’re also an ingredient in skin care products because they help form a barrier that locks in moisture and may protect against environmental damage.
Glycerin is a common skin care ingredient made from vegetable oils or animal fats that helps your skin retain moisture. It can actually dry skin when used alone, so it’s combined with another hydrating ingredient like rose water or hyaluronic acid.
What are electrolytes?
Electrolytes are minerals — including potassium, sodium, calcium, chloride, phosphate, and magnesium — that attract water. Blood vessels supply your skin with electrolytes from the food you eat and the water you drink. You lose electrolytes when you sweat.
“In the skin, electrolytes help conduct electricity when mixed with water, enabling cells to regulate pH levels and keep the body’s hydration system in check,” says Robinson. “They can help your skin to retain water… and [could] eventually help your skin get better at holding onto hydration.”
The question is whether electrolytes applied to the skin actually sink in well enough to boost hydration.
“When water or electrolytes are applied topically to the skin, they evaporate very quickly,” says Rodney.
While Robinson hasn’t seen any high-quality studies showing if electrolyte skin care works, “On paper, it makes sense,” he says.
Although he won’t recommend electrolyte creams to his patients until studies prove that they’re better than the (often significantly less expensive) moisturizers already on the market, they could be worth the splurge if they really do live up to the hype.
Electrolyte creams are ideal if you work out a lot, have dry, irritated, or sensitive skin, or if you have certain types of eczema, says Robinson.
Try these tips:
Look for skin-identical ingredients
“The skin is very finicky sometimes, so it only lets certain things in. That’s why it’s a good protective barrier,” says Robinson. “In order for mineral electrolytes to penetrate and reach the deeper layers of skin, they need to be linked to a skin-identical molecule.”
Check products for lactate, gluconate, and pyroglutamic acid (PCA). These skin-identical molecules perform similar functions to molecules naturally present in the skin and are paired with electrolytes to allow them to work more effectively.
PCA is a natural amino acid derivative, lactate is an alpha hydroxy acid, and gluconate is a carboxylic acid.
Pair with ceramides, glycerin, or hyaluronic acid
These ingredients help boost the skin’s barrier function to hold in moisture, say Robinson and Rodney.
Sprinkle in peptides
Rodney recommends creams with peptides, which are the building blocks of proteins like collagen. They’re advertised to support the skin’s barrier function and collagen production.
Use enough, but not too much
You’re not icing a cake — you just need a thin film of moisturizer to get the job done, says Robinson.
Apply twice a day, ideally to damp skin
It’s best to apply moisturizer after you shower. Pat skin dry so it’s still moist, then apply moisturizer. Robinson suggests reapplying once more before you go to bed.
Top off with SPF
If your moisturizer doesn’t contain SPF, finish with a broad-spectrum sunscreen to protect against further skin damage, says Rodney.
Robinson recommends Paula’s Choice Water-Infusing Electrolyte Moisturizer or Drunk Elephant F-Balm Electrolyte Waterfacial Mask. “They have a lot of those requirements, [including] skin-identical elements to bring electrolytes into the skin, ceramides and glycerin for hydration, and antioxidants,” he says.
Other products to consider:
- La Mer Crème de la Mer Moisturizing Cream
- Strivectin Re-Quench Water Cream Hyaluronic + Electrolyte Moisturizer
- Algenist Splash Absolute Hydration Replenish Sleeping Pack
Skip moisturizers with propylene glycol, a preservative that also helps other ingredients penetrate the skin. “A significant number of people have allergies or can get irritated by it,” says Robinson.
Also, check that any cream you choose is noncomedogenic (i.e., it won’t clog pores). “Some occlusive skin creams work by sealing in moisture, but they can also lead to acne breakouts,” says Rodney.
Electrolytes vs. hyaluronic acid
Rodney also likes hyaluronic acid, which absorbs water and holds it in place in your skin.
Hyaluronic acid is another naturally occurring compound known as glycosaminoglycans, or long chains of sugar molecules that support the skin’s structural proteins, like collagen. Because it binds to water, it’s used in skin care products to keep skin moisturized.
In theory, electrolyte skin care products could help your skin retain even more water, says Robinson.
Electrolytes attract water, which is why electrolyte creams theoretically help your skin retain moisture.
Look for a product with the identical molecules lactate, gluconate, or PCA. Make sure it also contains ceramides and hyaluronic acid for proven long-lasting hydration.
For now, there’s just not enough evidence that electrolyte creams actually sink into the skin well enough to do their job properly — but there’s no harm in giving them a shot.
Colleen de Bellefonds is a Paris-based health and wellness journalist with over a decade of experience regularly writing and editing for publications including WhatToExpect.com, Women’s Health, WebMD, Healthgrades.com, and CleanPlates.com. Find her on Twitter @ColleenCYNC.