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Humectants: What They Are and Why You Need Them

Humectants are the unsung hydration heroes of the skincare world. These are the ingredients in moisturizers, serums, and other skincare products that help the skin retain moisture. In this blog post, we’re covering everything you need to know about these hydrators and why they’re so great for your skin.

What are humectants?                      

Humectants are substances that attract and retain water molecules. They draw water from the air into the skin’s surface and help maintain that moisture, so skin stays plump and hydrated – think of them as tiny water magnets.

These tiny water magnets are amazing for the skin when applied in humid environments (such as a steamy bathroom). But when humidity levels drop, these humectants can have adverse effects by pulling water from the skin’s outer layer, leaving your skin drier than before.

What are the benefits of using humectants?

  • This is the main benefit of using humectants in skincare products. They are the star hydrators in the skincare scene, often holding up to 100 to 1000 times their weight in moisture.
  • By drawing in water, humectants can increase the plumpness and firmness of the skin. This effect will also help reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles emphasized by dryness.
  • Humectants are also very soothing for the skin, helping calm redness and irritation.
  • Prevents dryness. Humectants are an excellent tool for preventing dry, flaking skin.
  • Certain humectants (such as lactic acid) lightly exfoliate, removing dead skin cells from the surface to promote balanced, hydrated skin.

How do you use humectants?

As we mentioned earlier, humectants can have positive or negative effects on the skin, so being strategic with your application is crucial.
Humectants should be applied to damp skin, never dry skin. Applying them onto damp skin not only helps with ingredient absorption, but you want them to draw the water sitting on the surface deep into the skin. Lock in that hydration at the end of your routine with occlusive products like your go-to moisturizer or facial oil.
The best time to apply humectants is after cleansing, while your skin is clean but still damp. If your skin feels too dry post-cleansing, use a facial mist or essence to prep the skin for those water-loving hydrators.

Common humectants to look for:

  1. Hyaluronic Acid

This is the humectant we all know and love. Hyaluronic acid (HA) is a naturally occurring substance found in our skin. When applied topically, it can draw up to 1000 times its weight in water into the skin, helping soothe, plump, and hydrate. You may see it listed as hyaluronate sodium, hyaluronic acid sodium, or hyaluronic acid sodium salt.

  1. Sodium Hyaluronate

Sodium hyaluronate is a part of hyaluronic acid that is often used separately in skincare formulas. Sodium hyaluronate has a smaller molecular size compared to HA, so it’s more effectively able to improve hydration levels on deeper layers of skin. Because they are so similar, you’ll often see the two ingredients referred to as one another on labels.

  1. Glycerin

Glycerin is one of the most common but powerful humectants in skincare. Its low molecular weight makes it small enough to penetrate and hydrate deep into the skin.

  1. Lactic Acid

Yes, this exfoliating AHA is also a humectant! AHAs, in general, are hydrophilic (or water-loving), but lactic acid is one of the best humectants for pulling water from the environment into the skin, helping improve the skin’s moisture barrier.

  1. Sugar / Honey

Honey is all-around great for the skin, but its sugary structure makes it such a great humectant. Sugar is a natural humectant that draws water from the environment into the skin, so all sugars (including honey) will help hydrate. Sugar is also a natural form of glycolic acid, so it lightly exfoliates.

  1. Aloe Vera

Aloe vera is another popular natural humectant that helps keep skin hydrated. It also has other benefits, such as protective antioxidants and calming redness and irritation.

  1. Panthenol

Panthenol – aka vitamin B5 – is a lesser-known skincare ingredient that is amazing for improving hydration levels. As both a humectant and emollient, it helps support the stratum corneum (the outermost layer of skin) and soothes irritation.

  1. Urea

Urea is a naturally occurring organic compound found in our skin’s natural moisturizing factors. As a humectant, it helps increase skin hydration and smooth skin texture. Urea also works double time as an emollient, so it helps soften rough, dry skin.

  1. Propylene Glycol

As one of the most commonly used humectants in cosmetics and skincare, propylene glycol helps increase moisture retention and enhance the effects of other active ingredients.

The best products with humectants:

La Roche-Posay Hyalu B5 Serum


A hydrating combination of hyaluronic acid and panthenol, this serum visibly plumps skin, targeting dryness and fine lines. Use it by itself, or add it to your favorite moisturizer for a boost of hydration.

Revision Skincare Hydrating Serum


Want all the best hydrators in one lightweight serum? The Revision Skincare Hydrating Serum instantly plumps and nourishes with two forms of hyaluronic acid, honey, urea, glycerin, sea kelp, vitamin E, and loads of fruit extracts.

Neocutis HYALIS+ Intensive Hydrating Serum


This oil-free hydrating serum includes multiple forms of pure sodium hyaluronate to penetrate deep into the skin, helping reduce wrinkle depth, improve skin elasticity, soothe stressed-out skin, and (of course) hydrate.

SkinCeuticals Phyto Corrective Hydrating + Calming Gel Serum

This hydrating gel serum contains glycerin, sodium hyaluronate, propylene glycol, and cucumber (another natural hydrator) to soothe inflammation and treat dryness. It’s also formulated for sensitive, acne-prone skin and helps target other concerns such as acne, blotchiness, and signs of aging.