Lotion Ingredients

If you suffer from dry, flaky skin, the moisturizer aisle can feel like a minefield. You don’t want to waste money on ineffective products or those that make unrealistic claims — or to buy a lotion that might even make your condition worse. Before you pick up another tube or bottle, read our glossary of the best moisturizing ingredients to find the antidote for your dry skin.


Ceramides are lipid molecules found in the membrane of skin cells that are credited with helping to prevent moisture loss. “Natural or synthetic ceramides will help maintain and restore skin barrier function, so that moisture is sealed in,” explains Ava Shamban, MD, an assistant clinical professor of dermatology at UCLA. Studies have shown that people who have eczema and psoriasis have significantly fewer ceramides than people with normal skin. By using products that contain, you shore up the skin’s own moisturization defenses.

Essential fatty acids

Also known as healthy fats, essential fatty acids are the fuel that cells require to undergo biological processes, like moisturization, that keep skin healthy and glowing. The body doesn’t produce essential fatty acids on its own, so the nutrients must be absorbed from a person's diet or from skin creams. “Olive oil, avocado, almond oil, and shea butter are all essential fatty acids that will help lock in moisture,” says David Bank, MD, president of the New York State Society for Dermatology and Dermatologic Surgery. Omega-3 fatty acids are present in such foods as salmon, mackerel, walnuts, soy, flaxseed, and safflower oil.

Glycerin, glycols, and polyols

These three ingredients are members of the humectant family — they “cause skin to draw in and bind extra moisture,” says cosmetic chemist Jim Hammer. For example, if you left glycerin out in the open, it would slowly but steadily absorb water from the air until it became about 20 percent water and 80 percent glycerin. That potent ability to pull in and retain water makes it a common ingredient in hydrating soaps and cleansers that are formulated to gently cleanse skin without stripping it of moisture. These humectants can appear in numerous variations on ingredient lists; two of the most widely usedr versions are propylene glycol and butylene glycol.

Hyaluronic acid

This is perhaps the most impressive of all moisturizing ingredients. “The hyaluronic acid molecule absorbs about 1,000 times its own weight in water,” Dr. Shamban says. That quick and effective hydrating action keeps collagen and elastin moist and functioning, and therefore helps skin look supple and youthful. And for oily skin that easily breaks out from the use of heavy humectants, hyaluronic acid is a lightweight, nonoily ingredient that is “safe” for even the most acne-prone complexions.

Sodium PCA

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Sodium PCA, another type of humectant, is found naturally in the proteins of human skin and binds water to cells. “Sodium PCA has excellent water-absorbing properties,” says Hammer. While water weight may otherwise be the last thing we want to hold onto, it’s exactly what you want in a moisturizer to guarantee the longest-lasting hydration. Sodium PCA is commonly found in moisturizers for the skin, though it’s also an excellent ingredient to look for in hair care products if you suffer from static — the hydrating molecule soothes hair and prevents flyaways.

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