While there are certain things I love about colder weather, like hot drinks, fireplaces, and being able to wear tons of cozy layers, I always dread winter for one specific reason: My skin becomes dry, scaly, and uncomfortable. I can’t get by with just a normal moisturizer—my clothes are not the only thing that needs layering in the winter.
I’ve always been a fan of sealing my favorite night cream with a hydrating oil for plump, soft skin, but last winter, I started mixing in humectants, and I totally changed my own life. I talked to dermatologists to get the lowdown on this miracle skincare ingredient. If you have dry skin, you’ll want to take notes—and get your own humectant to start using ASAP.
What exactly are humectants?
"Humectants are water-loving ingredients that attract and retain moisture from their surroundings,” says Azadeh Shirazi, dermatologist and founder of AziMD. This means that they pull in water to your skin for an instant plumping and hydrating effect.
"[Humectants] can trap moisture within the skin as well as pulling moisture towards the skin," says Cheryl Burgess, dermatologist and founder of the Center for Dermatology and Dermatologic Surgery in Washington, D.C.
You’ve probably heard of hyaluronic acid, which is one of the most well-known humectants. "Hyaluronic acid has the ability to bind up to 1000 times its own weight in water,” says David Kim, a dermatologist in New York City. "Polyglutamic acid is another example and has been shown to be five times more potent than hyaluronic acid.”
What are the main benefits of humectants in skincare?
Not only do humectants hydrate and plump the skin, but according to Kim, they can also diminish the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. Since they mostly stay on the top layer of the skin instead of penetrating deeper, this result is temporary. Some humectants also work to exfoliate skin while hydrating it.
Are humectants best suited for certain skin types?
Everyone can use and benefit from humectants since they’re one of the key ingredients to properly moisturize your skin with (yes, even if you’re oily). "Since humectants draw moisture from wherever they can find it, both from the air and deeper skin layers, it’s important for the formulation to also have occlusives to help trap the moisture the humectant draws in the skin,” says Shirazi. "This is particularly important when the humidity is low and there’s little water in the air.”
Burgess notes that occlusive emollients can sometimes be comedogenic to oilier skin types, so heavy occlusives are best suited for drier skin.
How do you use humectants?
The way you use humectants is important since, if you use them incorrectly, they might actually make your skin drier. For moisturizing benefits, apply humectants directly to damp skin—either after cleansing or after spritzing with a face mist—so that they have moisture to pull from.
Our favorite humectants for dewy, hydrated skin:
1. L'Oréal Paris 1.5% Pure Hyaluronic Acid Serum
This hyaluronic acid serum is incredibly easy to incorporate into any skincare routine. Kim says that it's super light, making it the perfect humectant to apply for an extra hydration boost under your daily moisturizer. For $14, there's honestly no excuse not to start using it.
2. Drunk Elephant B-Hydra Intensive Hydration Serum
"It's gentle and light in texture yet very hydrating," says Kim. "I recommend this to a lot of patients." Doctor's orders.
3. AmLactin Daily Moisturizing Body Lotion
Yes, lactic acid is a humectant, and it helps exfoliate rough patches and bumps on your skin at the same time. Burgess recommends using ammonium lactate 5% as a humectant or, if you really struggle with dry patches, getting a prescription for 12% AmLactin.
4. AziMD Skincare Hydrate Rx
Shirazi loves applying this serum to damp skin to suck in moisture. Peptides and hyaluronic acid work together to smooth and soften skin.
5. The Inkey List Polyglutamic Acid Hydrating Serum
According to Kim, polyglutamic acid is even more potent than hyaluronic acid, making this serum a dry-skin superstar. Apply this whenever you need an extra shot of moisture. Pro tip: This also makes a great base for makeup, especially if you're going for a dewy look.
6. Vichy Minéral 89 Daily Skin Booster
The best thing about this serum is that it's also made with Vichy's iconic mineral water, which is sourced from French volcanoes. Think of it as a two-in-one: Mineral water provides instant moisture for hyaluronic acid to soak in.
7. Susanne Kaufmann Hyaluron Serum
This serum has sodium hyaluronate, which is a low-molecular-weight humectant that has the ability to penetrate more deeply into the skin than higher-molecular-weight hyaluronic acid that just sits on top.
8. Skin Proud Frozen Over Gel-to-Ice Hydrator
If you struggle with stressed, puffy skin, this hydrator is the product you need in your arsenal. Made to be frozen for the ultimate cooling effect, it also calms skin at room temperature thanks to soothing aloe vera.
9. Glossier Super Bounce
Glossier's Super Bounce serum is infused with three different molecular weights of hyaluronic acid, which means your skin will be extra plump and hydrated after use. Vitamin B5 also joins the party for hydration that lasts and lasts.
10. Dr. Barbara Sturm Hyaluronic Serum
Yes, it's expensive, but Dr. Barbara Sturm's hyaluronic serum has reached holy-grail status among beauty editors and industry experts alike. Two different weights of hyaluronic acid are able to plump skin instantly and work their way into the skin for deep hydration, while purslane defends skin from environmental damage and aggressors. You'll quickly realize why so many people swear by it despite the hefty price tag.
11. Skinfix Barrier+ Triple Lipid-Hyaluronate Serum
In clinical studies, 93% of participants said that their skin felt plumper and more refreshed after using this serum. Small seaweed hyaluronate particles make this possible by instantly sinking into skin.
Products to pair with humectants for a complete hydrating routine:
This is my biggest skincare tip: Mist this thermal water on your face, and apply a humectant immediately after. I promise the results are basically magic.
Shirazi recommends sealing in a humectant with this rich moisturizer.
If your skin is like mine and cannot get enough hydration, top off your entire skincare routine with this nourishing oil, which will lock in moisture and give you the perfect, glazed-doughnut glow.
Looking for more hydration tips? Check out 14 Body Butters That Will Make You Say "Feel How Soft My Skin Is."
Katie Berohn is the associate beauty editor at Who What Wear. Previously, she worked as the beauty assistant for Good Housekeeping, Woman's Day, and Prevention magazines, all part of the Hearst Lifestyle Group. She graduated from the University of Colorado, Boulder, with a major in journalism and minor in technology, arts, and media, and earned her master's degree at NYU's graduate program for magazine journalism. In addition, Katie has held editorial internships at Denver Life magazine, Yoga Journal, and Cosmopolitan; a digital editorial internship at New York magazine's The Cut; a social good fellowship at Mashable; and a freelance role at HelloGiggles. When she's not obsessing over the latest skincare launch or continuing her journey to smell every perfume on the planet, Katie can be found taking a hot yoga class, trying everything on the menu at New York's newest restaurant, or hanging out at a trendy wine bar with her friends.