Choosing the Right Moisturizer for Your Skin

How to find the right products for the type of skin you have.

From the WebMD Archives

Buy moisturizer -- it seems easy enough when you jot it down on your to-do list. But wander the skin care aisles and you quickly learn that the choices can be confounding. There are face creams, body and facial moisturizers, and lotions or ointments for dry, sensitive, light, or dark skin. Add in anti-aging ingredients and sunscreens and the confusion just grows.

So how do you know what moisturizer is best for you? Use these no-nonsense strategies from top dermatologists to help choose the right moisturizer for giving your skin the healthy glow you're after.

Cream, Lotion, or Ointment?

Picking a moisturizer is a must, no matter what kind of skin you have -- oily, dry or a combination of both.

If you've got itchy or dry skin, you'll probably want to lock in moisture with a thick ointment. Creams are thinner, help hydrate, and are good for normal skin. Lotions are the lightest (water is their main ingredient) and are a good match for oily skin.

Base the thickness of your moisturizer on when and where you use it on your body. Florida dermatologist Andrea Cambio, MD, says, "Choose a light moisturizer for day and a heavier one for nighttime." You can also use a thicker cream for your body and a lightweight moisturizing lotion for your face. Stick with lighter, hydrating moisturizers in the summer months.

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Moisturizing Product Guidelines

  • Sun protection. No matter your skin type, just about every dermatologist recommends getting a moisturizer with a sunscreen of at least SPF 30. If you’re getting it for your face, Cambio suggests looking for one that is oil- and fragrance-free.
  • Antioxidants. Moisturizers with antioxidants such as green tea, chamomile, pomegranate, or licorice root extract may help keep any skin type looking fresh and healthy. Antioxidants help neutralize free radicals -- molecules that break down skin cells.
  • Oily or acne-prone skin. "I like alpha-hydroxy acids, which are also anti-aging," Chicago dermatologist Carolyn Jacob, MD, says. If you're prone to acne, you'll also want to look for a non-comedogenic facial moisturizer that won't clog pores.
  • Dry skin. Aim for a heavier moisturizer and look for ingredients like hyaluronic acid and dimethicone, which help keep skin hydrated. Glycerin, propylene glycol, proteins, and urea also help attract water to your skin. Lanolin, mineral oil, and petrolatum lock in moisture.
  • Sensitive skin. Use a hypoallergenic and fragrance-free moisturizer. “In general, choose one that contains less than 10 ingredients," California dermatologist Sonia Badreshia-Bansal, MD, says. Fewer ingredients mean fewer potential interactions with fragile skin.
  • Itchy skin. If a hypoallergenic moisturizing cream doesn’t relieve itching, try a 1% hydrocortisone steroid skin cream for one week but no longer. Talk to your doctor if this doesn’t resolve the itch. You may have a more serious skin problem.
  • Eczema. Use a thick moisturizing ointment containing petrolatum, or simply use petroleum jelly to help sooth cracks and keep skin supple.

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What to Avoid When Choosing a Moisturizer

More isn’t always better when it comes to the list of ingredients in a moisturizer. To get the most benefit for your skin, avoid some popular extras.

  • Colorings and perfumes. Whether you want to moisturize dry skin, sensitive skin, or something in between, most experts say to avoid unnecessary and potentially irritating ingredients, like added colors and perfumes. Antibacterial agents can also be unnecessarily harsh, stripping skin of essential oils.
  • Body-friendly ingredients. What’s good for your body isn’t always good for your face. Cambio suggests avoiding facial moisturizers with popular body product ingredients like lanolin, mineral oil, waxes, or shea butter. "These can clog pores and cause acne on the face,” she says.
  • Too many acids. Avoid alpha-hydroxy acids, glycolic acid, retinoic acid, and salicylic acid if you have dry or sensitive skin. These ingredients may penetrate the skin too deeply and trouble delicate skin. Stay away from products with alcohols as well.
  • Overusing steroidal ingredients (for itchy skin). Limit your use of steroid cream or ointment to only one or two weeks unless your doctor recommends using it longer. Overusing these creams can make skin very thin and lead to other skin problems.
  • Urea or Lactic acids (for eczema or cracked skin). Stay away from moisturizers that contain these dry-skin friendly ingredients. They can aggravate existing skin irritations.

3 Tips to Get the Most Out of Your Skin Moisturizer

  • Use more than one moisturizer (if you need to). Nobody needs a cabinet full of moisturizing products. But a thin lotion for your face and a thick cream for your body may be just right for your all-over skin care.
  • Apply your moisturizer while your skin is damp. Smooth on your favorite moisturizer a few minutes after a bath or shower. Then pat your skin dry.
  • Make your moisturizer do double-duty. Be sure your moisturizer contains a sun protection factor (SPF) of 15 or higher. The pros recommend vitamin A or alpha-hydroxy acid for an anti-aging boost. Want to even out your skin tone? Look for a tinted moisturizer suitable for your complexion.

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Stephanie S. Gardner, MD on October 31, 2012

Sources

SOURCES:

Carolyn Jacob, MD, fellow, American Academy of Dermatology; director, Chicago Cosmetic Surgery and Dermatology.

Andrea Cambio, MD, board-certified dermatologist and dermatologic surgeon; fellow, American Academy of Dermatology; medical director, Cambio Dermatology, Cape Coral, Fla.

Sonia Badreshia-Bansal, MD; clinical instructor, dermatology, University of California, San Francisco; fellow, American Academy of Dermatology.

Elizabeth L. Tanzi, MD; co-director, Washington Institute of Dermatologic Laser Surgery, Washington, D.C.; assistant professor, dermatology, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Baltimore. 

National Eczema Association: "Bathing & Moisturizing."

American Academy of Dermatology: "Cosmeceutical Facts and Your Skin."

American Academy of Dermatology: "Dry Skin & Keratosis Pilaris."

American Academy of Dermatology: "Dermatologists' Top Tips for Skin Care on a Budget."

American Academy of Family Physicians: "Skin Problems: Dry, Itchy Skin."

American Academy of Family Physicians: "Eczema: Tips on How to Care for Your Skin."

WebMD Feature: "Dry Skin: Soothing the Itch in Winter."

KidsHealth: "Taking Care of Your Skin."

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