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You may have heard that humectants are good for your skin or hair, but why?

A humectant is a common moisturizing agent found in lotions, shampoos, and other beauty products used for your hair and skin. They’re known for their ability to retain moisture while also preserving the overall properties of the product at hand.

Humectants can be good for your skin and hair, but not all humectants are created equal. It’s also important to look out for other ingredients that can undo the benefits of the humectant in a particular product formula.

Read on to learn more about how humectants work and what to keep in mind when choosing a product.

You can think of humectants as magnets that attract water. They pull moisture from the air into the upper layer of your skin.

Humectants work much in the same way when applied to your hair. They help your hair draw in and retain more moisture.

But not all humectants work the same way. Some supply your skin and hair with moisture directly. Others help get rid of dead skin cells first to even out the moisture levels in your skin.

Plus, not all humectants are used interchangeably for skin and hair. This is why you’ll likely see a difference in the humectants used in skin and hair products.

There are countless humectants that pop up in skin and hair products.

Here are some of the most commonly used humectants:

Alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs)

AHAs are naturally derived ingredients. They’re commonly used in anti-aging skin regimens. AHAs can also help get rid of dead skin cells. This allows your moisturizer to better penetrate your skin.

Salicylic acid

Salicylic acid is technically a beta-hydroxy acid. It’s commonly used for treating blackheads and whiteheads.

Salicylic acid dries out excess oil and dead skin cells that can get caught in the hair follicle and cause breakouts. This can also help your moisturizer penetrate your skin more effectively.

Some salicylic acids are naturally derived, while others are synthetically made.


Glycerin is a common cosmetic ingredient used in soaps, shampoos, and conditioners. It may also be found in various cleansing and moisturizing products for your skin. Glycerin may be derived from animal or plant-based lipids.

Hyaluronic acid

Hyaluronic acid is primarily used in wrinkle treatment products. It’s often combined with vitamin C to help lubricate dry skin.


Urea is recommended for extremely dry skin. However, you shouldn’t apply it to cracked or broken skin, since it can have stinging effects. Some forms of urea are available via prescription.

Other humectants

Other humectants you might see in an ingredient list include:

  • panthenol
  • sodium lactate
  • glycol

When looking for a product containing humectants, you might also come across occlusives. These are another type of moisturizing agent.

While humectants can help your hair pull in water, occlusives act as a barrier to hold that moisture in.

Occlusives are primarily oil-based. Examples include:

  • petroleum jelly
  • dimethicone
  • bath oils

Occlusives are particularly useful for dry skin and hair. They may also help with the treatment of eczema.

Humectants and occlusives may be used together or separately in a given personal care product. The key difference is that occlusives, due to their oily nature, are primarily found in products used for extremely dry skin and hair.

The type of humectant ingredient you’ll want depends on your overall skin and hair care needs.

If you have acne-prone skin, then a salicylic acid-containing product can help get rid of dead skin cells to clear up acne while ensuring your skin is moisturized.

AHAs can also get rid of dead skin cells. They’re useful for all skin types.

If you need some serious moisture, consider adding an occlusive ingredient into your routine. As a general rule of thumb, products that are thick or oily tend to contain occlusives.

Alternatively, you can double up with a product that serves as both a humectant and occlusive.

For example, Aquaphor contains several humectants, including panthenol and glycerin. But it also has petroleum jelly in it. This allows it to act as a kind of breathable occlusive.

Many moisturizing products contain additional ingredients, such as fragrances and preservatives. However, these ingredients can worsen certain skin conditions. You’ll definitely want to look for a fragrance- and preservative-free formula if you have:

  • eczema
  • rosacea
  • sensitive skin

Plus, these added ingredients can actually dry out your skin and hair.


Before applying any new product to your skin or scalp, it’s important to do a patch test first to make sure it won’t irritate your skin.

To do this, apply a small amount of product to your skin and watch the area for up to 48 hours for any sign of a reaction. It’s best to do this in a discreet area, like the inside of your arm.

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Humectant-containing products can benefit your skin and hair’s ability to retain moisture.

You can also retain more moisture in your hair and skin by following these tips:

  • Use lukewarm or warm (not hot) water for bathing and washing your face and hands.
  • Limit your shower times. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends no more than 10 minutes at a time.
  • Make sure all products are fragrance-free, including soaps and detergents.
  • Consider using a humidifier in your home, especially during cold, dry weather.