Skin Hydration: The Importance of Humectants In Skincare Products

humectants in skincare skin hydration how to hydrate dehydrated skin

When wanting to improve our skin, we’re often so busy searching for the best anti-aging, anti-inflammatory or anti-acne ingredients to include in our skincare routine that we often forget about one of the most important and basic things we can do to keep our skin healthy and glowing – hydration!

There are many ingredients that help to keep the skin hydrated, and although a lot of these sound boring, our skin does need them to maintain a healthy skin barrier, prevent fine lines and wrinkles, and reduce irritation and breakouts.

These ingredients are collectively known as humectants, and today I’m going to tell you about the best ones to look for in skincare products, so that you can make sure your skin stays hydrated and healthy.

Luckily, Korean skincare is all about keeping the skin hydrated – so there is no shortage of skincare products that contain humectants. However, there are some products that really top the rest when it comes to skin hydration, and I have included recommendations for hydrating skincare products throughout this article.

Don’t have time to read this entire article now, and just want some hydrating product recommendations?

What Are Humectants?

Humectants are the key to having hydrated skin.

But what are they exactly? And how do they work?

In simple terms (without going into the complex biochemistry), humectants are substances that have the ability to attract water molecules to themselves (they are hygroscopic). It’s their special chemical structure (either nitrogen-hydrogen or oxygen-hydrogen groups) that allows them to form strong bonds with one of the hydrogen atoms of water molecules (known as hydrogen bonds).

And when humectants are applied to our skin, it’s this strong hydrogen bond that prevents water molecules from evaporating into the air, keeping the outer layer of our skin (the stratum corneum) hydrated.

Sodium hyaluronate and humectant diagram- FutureDerm
A diagram which shows how humectants draw water from the environment around them as well as from deep within the skin (source: FutureDerm)

The most common humectants found in skincare products are hyaluronic acid (or sodium hyaluronate), glycerin, butylene glycol (as well as propylene glycol), and panthenol.

See further down if you’d like to know more about these ingredients (plus others such as aloe vera, alpha-hydroxy acids, beta-glucan, snail mucin and honey).

Why Is Skin Hydration So Important?

Water is absolutely essential to the normal functioning of our skin – especially the outer layer – the stratum corneum. Our skin carefully regulates the amount of water it loses (via trans-epidermal water loss), however this function only works properly if our skin’s moisture barrier isn’t damaged.

Skin which has a damaged moisture barrier has an increased rate of trans-epidermal water loss, which can result in dry, rough and flaking skin, which is then more prone to irritation, acne, fine lines and wrinkles and even dermatitis.

Skin which is not adequately hydrated is also not able to perform important functions properly – such as desquamation (the shedding of dead skin cells) and the formation of the cornified cell envelope (our skin’s first line of defence against environmental insults).

Of course, there are environmental factors that can increase trans-epidermal water loss, such as cold and dry air. Using high pH cleansers and other products with astringent ingredients (such as denatured alcohol and witch hazel) can also result in more water loss from the skin.

transepidermal water loss pH skincare products low pH cleansers skin hydration dehydrated skin
This Korean study, investigating the effect the pH has on trans-epidermal water loss and stratum corneum hydration (conducted using mice). Transepidermal water loss was greatest in skin treated with creams of higher pH (and was the least in creams with a pH of 3.5). Stratum corneum hydration was higher in mice treated with lower pH creams.

Does Our Skin Naturally Contain Humectants?

Yes, our skin does contain natural humectants within the corneocytes of the outer layer (the stratum corneum). Collectively, these are known as the skin’s natural moisturizing factor (NMF for short), and their job is to form a protective coat that keeps the stratum corneum adequately hydrated.

The skin’s NMF is primarily made up of amino acids (including pyroglutamic acid – the precursor of sodium PCA), however it is also comprised of lactic acid, sodium, urea, various sugars, minerals, and peptides.

Our skin’s NMF works so well that many skincare products are actually formulated to mimic the NMF by using a combination of humectants, emollients, and occlusives.

Interestingly, research has found that not only does the NMF work to increase the water content in the stratum corneum of the skin, but its components (especially glycerol and urea) also act to retain the fluidity of the lipids and proteins under dehydrating conditions. This ensures that our skin can still carry out vital functions, even in dehydrating conditions.

Without these natural humectants in our skin, the lipid barrier would be very rigid, making our skin less permeable to water and other beneficial ingredients (or topical medications). This is why you see humectant ingredients in so many skincare products – as not only do they help to hydrate the skin, but they also help other compounds (such as antioxidants) to penetrate our skin.

The Level Of Natural Moisturizing Factor In Our Skin Decreases With Age

But if humectants are already naturally present in our skin, why do we need skincare products to help keep our skin hydrated?

That’s an interesting question that I asked myself when researching for this article, and the answer is that the level of humectants naturally present in our skin decreases as we age. That’s why people with mature skin often start experiencing drier and more dehydrated skin.

Therefore, replacing or replenishing the supply of the NMF in the skin through the external application of skincare products containing humectants helps to keep the skin hydrated as we age.

Humectants Can Be A Double-Edged Sword

I just explained how humectants are really good at attracting water molecules to your skin – but where do the water molecules come from and how does this affect us?

Humectants pull water molecules from their surrounding environment. In most cases, this is from the air (if the humidity is high enough – generally greater than 80%).

However, if you happen to live in a dry climate (and there’s not much moisture in the air), chances are that the humectants will pull water from the deeper layers of your skin. This can actually dehydrate your skin more if those water molecules then evaporate into the surrounding dry air.

transepidermal water loss humidity dry conditions dehydrated skin hydration
This literature review on trans-epidermal water loss shows how there is a general pattern of decreasing TEWL with rising humidity.

Does this mean that you should avoid humectants if you live in a dry climate? Absolutely no. You can definitely still benefit from using humectant ingredients in your skincare routine by combining them with occlusive ingredients (occlusives are oily, waxy or silicone-based ingredients that form a seal on your skin to prevent water loss from occurring).

Luckily for us, many quality skincare products (especially moisturizers and eye creams) already contain occlusives for this reason.

The Most Effective Humectants To Include In Your Skincare Routine

There are many humectant ingredients used in skincare products, however some are more effective than others.

Glycerin (also known as glycerine and glycerol), hyaluronic acid (as well as its salt – sodium hyaluronate) and urea top the list when it comes to hydrating skincare ingredients. If you’re looking for a hydrating skincare product, such as a hydrating toner (which I wrote about here), you should always look for these ingredients first.

Although it’s quite common to see glycerin, hyaluronic acid or sodium hyaluronate on ingredient lists, urea isn’t used in skincare products as often (although its extremely effective and gives awesome results).

koreanskincareroutinetonerhadalabohyaluronicacidlotion
Probably THE skincare product that has helped make hyaluronic acid such a popular ingredient in Asian Skincare (Hada Labo GokuJyun Hyaluronic Acid Lotion). It’s available on Amazon

Glycerin As A Hydrating Skincare Ingredient

As I’ve already mentioned, glycerin (also known as glycerine and glycerol) is naturally found in the stratum corneum (as part of the natural moisturizing factor), where it defends against dryness and works to maintain the skin’s moisture level.

In fact, glycerin is found in all natural lipids (fats) – both animal and plants. It can be derived from such natural substances, however most skincare products today use synthetically-manufactured glycerin. The synthetic form of glycerin is chemically identical to naturally-occurring glycerin and both act the same way when applied to the skin.

Glycerin is considered an extremely safe and non-allergenic skincare ingredient, and its got a long history of use. Because it is found naturally in our skin, it is suitable for all skin types (even very sensitive and acne-prone skin). In fact, research suggests that people who has sensitive and dehydrated skin (as well as atopic dermatitis, psoriasis, and xerosis) have reduced or are even completely lacking natural moisturizing factors such as glycerin.

Since it’s the most-widely used humectant in skincare products, you shouldn’t have any trouble finding a moisturizer (or hydrating serum, eye cream or sheet mask) that contains glycerin.

My favorite moisturizing cream containing glycerin is the Etude House Soon Jung 2x Barrier Intensive Cream (available at Amazon and Yesstyle).

The Soon Jung line from Etude House is one of my favorite Korean skincare lines as these products are very hydrating. This barrier cream contains glycerin as well as other humectants such as panthenol and butylene glycol.

I love the Soon Jung line because all the products are suitable for sensitive and oily/acne-prone skin (as they don’t contain any fragrances or other irritants and have a low pH). This moisturizer contains madecassoside (one of the main active compounds found in Centella asiatica extract), to help soothe red and inflamed skin. Not only does it contain glycerin, but other humectants including panthenol and butylene glycol.

You can also opt to buy glycerin at the pharmacy and add this directly to your moisturizer (although the texture will be much tackier).

Hyaluronic Acid As A Hydrating Skincare Ingredient

Hyaluronic acid is one of the best skincare ingredients that you can include in your routine.

Chemically speaking, hyaluronic acid (also sometimes referred to as hyaluronan) is a glycosaminoglycan – which are compounds naturally present in our skin (in connective, epithelial, and neural tissues).

Glycosaminoglycans are all highly polar substances (meaning that they attract water). Their main function in the body is to keep tissues hydrated, lubricate joints and absorb shock (to prevent injury and damage to tissues).

Hyaluronic acid is mainly found in the extracellular matrix (the three-dimensional network of molecules such as collagen, which provide structural support of the surrounding skin cells). It is well known for its amazing capacity to attract and hold onto 1000 times its weight in water! In fact, just one gram (0.03 ounces) of hyaluronic acid can hold up to six litres (1.5 gallons) of water.

This means that in comparison to other skincare ingredients, hyaluronic acid is king at restoring the skin’s moisture content – which is why you will find hyaluronic acid in so many skincare products.

Is Hyaluronic Acid Better Than Glycerin?

So glycerin and hyaluronic acid are the most widely used humectants in skincare products, and it’s agreed that they are both able to improve skin hydration. However, with all the marketing buzz about how hyaluronic acid can attract and hold so many times its own weight in water, I wanted to know if it works better than glycerin.

The answer is actually a little more complex than I thought it would be (there is no simple yes or no):

Indeed, hyaluronic acid is comparatively much larger than glycerin, and it is able to attract and hold much more water – however, glycerin is still a very effective hydrating ingredient for the skin. It’s also much cheaper to formulate products using glycerin, compared to hyaluronic acid. This is because glycerin is produced using a simple chemical reaction, while hyaluronic acid is produced by the means of bacterial fermentation (although traditionally it was extracted from rooster combs!).

rooster combs hyaluronic acid skincare
I’m just as shocked as Mr Rooster here – did you know that hyaluronic acid used to be extracted from rooster combs? Thankfully it’s now produced via bacterial fermentation.

However, formulations containing hyaluronic acid tend to feel nicer when applied to the skin. Glycerin has a somewhat sticky/tacky feel to it (although this can be improved when glycerin is combined with hyaluronic acid in products).

Also, there are different grades of hyaluronic acid available (with varying molecular weights). The smaller the molecular weight and the deeper the hyaluronic acid molecule can penetrate into the skin. This means that skincare products that are formulated with various grades of hyaluronic acid can hydrate deeper layers of the skin – not just the surface.

This is why the Hada Labo Gokujyun Premium Lotion (available on Amazon) is so loved by both Western and Asian skincare enthusiasts: as it contains 5 different molecular weights of hyaluronic acid!

hada labo gokujyun premium lotion 5 different molecular weights hyaluronic acid
The Hada Labo Gokujyun Premium Lotion contains 5 different molecular weights of hyaluronic acid. it’s thicker and more viscose than the regular version of this hyaluronic acid lotion, however it hydrates at a deeper level of the skin.

Centella Asiatica May Prolong The Hydrating Effect Of Hyaluronic Acid

I came across an interesting study published in 2017 while researching for this article.

I’ve already written an article about Centella asiatica, which has fast become one of the most popular ingredients in Korean skincare for it’s soothing and anti-inflammatory benefits.

Although it’s not a humectant ingredient, the study I just mentioned found that Centella has the ability to prolong the effect of hyaluronic acid on the skin.

centella asiatica in skincare
Centella asiatica (commonly known as Asiatic pennywort or Gotu kola) is has strong anti-inflammatory and skin-soothing properties.

Previous studies have shown that the hydrating effects of hyaluronic acid decrease substantially after 24 hours due to degradation by the enzyme hyaluronidase. However, the authors of this study found that the skin of participants was significantly more hydrated after a 24 hour period where a solution containing Centella asiatica, hyaluronic acid and glycerin was applied (called Jaluronius CS). Trans-epidermal water loss was also significantly lower after 24 hours on treated skin. The authors concluded that the results they observed may be due to the ability of Centella asiatica to inhibit the enzymatic action of hyaluronidase.

centella asiatica prolongs hydrating time of hyaluronic acid korean skincare
Skin which was treated with the Jaluronius solution (containing Centella asiatica) was significantly more hydrated after 24 hours compared to the control.

transepidermal water loss centella asiatica hyaluronic acid skincare
The same study also found that skin which was treated with the Jaluronius solution (containing Centella asiatica) had significantly less transepidermal water loss occurring after 24 hours.

So if you’d like your skin to stay hydrated for even longer, perhaps apply a hydrating toner which contains Centella asiatica (such as the Etude House Soon Jung pH 5.5 Relief Toner – available on Amazon) before applying any skincare products containing hyaluronic acid.

koreanhydratingtonersbestkoreantonersforoilyacneproneskincentellaasiaticacicasoonjungtoner
The Soon Jung pH 5.5 Relief Toner by Etude House is a staple in my skincare routine as it really helps to hydrate my skin after cleansing (as well as return my skin to its optimal pH).

What’s The Difference Between Hyaluronic Acid And Sodium Hyaluronate?

Often times, the ingredients sodium hyaluronate and hyaluronic acid are used interchangeably by skincare brands when marketing their products. Is there actually a difference between the two?

Both of these ingredients are humectants that work really well at hydrating the skin, however the main difference is that sodium hyaluronate is the salt form of hyaluronic acid (it’s actually derived from hyaluronic acid). It also has a smaller molecular size than hyaluronic acid.

These properties mean that sodium hyaluronate is better able to dissolve in water and it is more easily absorbed by the skin (it is able to penetrate deeper into the skin). And yes, sodium hyaluronate also has the ability to bind up to 1000 times its own weight in water!

Many skincare products contain sodium hyaluronate (I actually see it in ingredient lists much more often than hyaluronic acid). This is because it’s more stable than hyaluronic acid (it is less susceptible to oxidation) – which is ideal when formulating skincare products as it gives them a longer shelf life.

Another benefit of sodium hyaluronate is that it is a cheaper ingredient compared to hyaluronic acid, which means that even budget skincare products can provide intense hydration for your skin.

Urea As A Hydrating Skincare Ingredient

I mentioned earlier that urea is naturally present in the skin, comprising about 7 percent of the natural moisturizing factor (NMF). In fact, healthy (non-dehydrated) skin typically contains 28 micrograms of urea per square centimeter! Conversely, xerotic (abnormally dry) skin conditions are associated with huge reductions in the concentration of urea in the skin (40% less in skin with psoriasis and up to 85% less in skin with eczema).

Not many people know about urea, although it’s one of the most effective hydrating ingredients for your skin (when used at concentrations below 10%). Research has even shown that it’s as effective as glycerin at keeping the skin hydrated – and with a more favorable (less sticky/tacky) texture. Unlike hyaluronic acid, urea is easily able to penetrate stratum corneum.

Urea actually has three additional benefits for the skin:

  1. It encourages natural desquamation or exfoliation of skin cells when used at concentrations above 10% (by breaking down the connections between dead skin cells). This makes urea a perfect ingredient for treating keratosis pilaris and for use in foot creams.
  2. It can help other skincare ingredients penetrate further into the skin.
  3. It helps to regulate the good bacteria on the skin (thereby enhancing skin barrier function). Studies also suggest that urea may be an effective ingredient for the treatment of fungal acne as it directly inhibits the yeast – Malassezia.

And yes, urea is also a component of urine, however there’s no need to be grossed out when it comes to the urea used in skincare products because it is synthetically-derived.

Some Skincare Products Contain Hydroxyethyl Urea Instead Of Urea

Some skincare products are actually formulated with a urea derivative called hydroxyethul urea instead of urea. One example is the Hada Labo Gokujyun Premium Lotion that I already mentioned above for it’s high hyaluronic acid content. It contains 3% hydroxyethyl urea.

Fortunately, hydroxyethyl urea is also extremely effective at binding to water and hydrating the skin. There really is no difference between how effective hydroxyethyl urea and urea are as humectants – just that many skincare brands prefer to formulate their products with hydroxyethyl urea. I suspect that the reason this is so is because hydroxyethyl urea doesn’t have the same exfoliating properties that urea has. This means that you can use products with higher concentrations of hydroxyethyl urea (compared to urea) without worrying that you’re over-exfoliating your face.

It’s important to note that the urea derivatives, imidazolidinyl urea and diazolidinyl urea do not have the same humectant properties as hydroxyethyl urea and urea. Instead, they are sometimes used as preservatives in skincare products.

The Best Hydrating Face Creams With Urea

Not many skincare products contain urea, even though it’s such a beneficial skincare ingredient. I’ve already mentioned the Hada Labo Gokujyun Premium Lotion above (which is a Japanese hydrating toner that contains hydroxyethyl urea).

However, there are 2 fantastic hydrating creams that also contain hydroxyethyl urea:

Hada Labo Tokyo Skin Plumping Gel Cream

This is an extremely luxurious silky gel cream that contains 5% hydroxyethyl urea, as well as a high concentration of hyaluronic acid too (and three different forms in fact!).

Available at: Amazon

Full Ingredients List: Water EG/PPG/Polybutylene Glycol-8/5/3, Glycerin, Squalane, Triethylhexanoin, Ammonium Acryloyldimethyltaurate/VP Copolymer, Agar, Alpha-Glucan, Arginine, Citric Acid, Dimethicone, Dipropylene Glycol, Disodium EDTA, Glucosyl Ceramide, Hydrolyzed Collagen (marine), Hydrolyzed Hyaluronic Acid, Iodopropynyl Butylcarbamate, Methylisothiazolinone, Sodium Acetylated Hyaluronate, Sodium Chloride, Sodium Citrate, Sodium Hyaluronate, Triethyl Citrate

Eucerin Advanced Repair Lotion

Although this is technically not a face cream, many people have seen wonderful results using this lotion on their face. It feels light on the skin and doesn’t feel greasy. It’s also hypoallergenic and fragrance free. It’s also super affordable as it comes in a large 500mL (16.9 fl. oz) pump bottle.

Available at: Amazon

Full Ingredients List: Water, Glycerin, Urea, Cetearyl Alcohol, Glyceryl Glucoside, Cyclomethicone, Sodium Lactate, Butyrospermum Parkii (Shea) Butter, Caprylic-Capric-Triglyceride, Methylpropanediol, Octyldodecanol, Dicaprylyl Ether, Tapioca Starch, Glyceryl Stearate SE, Hydrogenated Coco-Glycerides, Arginine, HCL, Sodium PCA, Dimethiconol, Lactic Acid, Chondrus Crispus (Carrageenan), Carnitine, Ceramide 3, Mannitol, Serine, Sucrose, Citrulline, Glycogen, Histidine, Alanine, Threonine, Glutamic Acid, Lysine, Sodium Chloride, Sodium Cetearyl Sulfate, 1-2-Hexanediol, Phenoxyethanol

Other Humectants That Can Help Keep Your Skin Hydrated

I’ve talked about glycerin, hyaluronic acid, sodium hyaluronate and urea in detail because you will see the most results from these humectants. However, there are other humectants that are worth mentioning and including in your skincare routine if you can.

Allantoin

Allantoin is widely used in Korean and Western skincare products (in concentrations up to 2%) for it’s humectant as well as potent healing and soothing properties. It’s also known as aluminum dihydroxy allantoinate, and is naturally present in the body (as the oxidation product of uric acid). It can also be extracted from plants (such as comfrey root), however most of the allantoin used in skincare products is made synthetically.

Allantoin is also keratinolytic on the skin – meaning that it helps to exfoliate and remove dead skin cells. This helps natural humectants bind and retain water in the skin.

cosrx advanced snail 92 all in one cream best korean hydrating creams humectants allantoin
My favorite Korean cream (the COSRX Advanced Snail 92 All In One Cream) contains allantoin (plus a bunch of other humectants). It’s available on Amazon

Aloe Vera

Have you applied aloe vera on a sunburn before and felt that your skin felt immediately refreshed and hydrated? Aloe vera is commonly used in skincare products due to these soothing and hydrating properties.

The use of aloe vera dates all the way back to the Ancient Egyptions – where it was regarded as the plant of immortality. Not only does aloe vera hydrate the skin, but it is also a rich source of antioxidant vitamins (such as vitamins A, C and E) and minerals (such as zinc), as well as phytonutrients with anti-inflammatory, antibacterial and analgesic properties.

The aloe vera plant is actually a succulent, which grows in extremely hot and dry conditions, such as those in the Arabian desert. The plants have an amazing physiological ability to hold on to water and survive without rain for up to 7 years! Sugars known as glycosaminoglycans are what give aloe vera its humectant properties (they are highly polar and attract water to the skin).

Glycosaminoglycans are naturally present in our bodies (I mentioned earlier that hyaluronic acid is also a glycosaminoglycan). Their main role is to keep tissues hydrated, lubricate joints and absorb shock.

The Benton Aloe Propolis Soothing Gel is a favorite when it comes to aloe vera skincare products. Added bonus – it also contains bee propolis!! It’s available on Amazon

Alpha-Hydroxy Acids

I have written a lot about alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs), although mainly in the context of their exfoliating and anti-aging benefits to the skin.

However, did you know that AHAs are humectants too? These molecules easily penetrate the skin as one end contains an alcohol (OH) group and the other end contains a carboxylic acid. AHAs contain a lot of oxygen molecules (for their size), which makes them polar (meaning they can easily dissolve in water) This is why they are often recommended to people with dry skin (over beta-hydroxy acids).

Glycolic acid and lactic acid are the most effective and widely-researched AHAs. This is because they are both relatively small molecules, which means that they can easily penetrate the skin surface. Interestingly, glycolic acid has also been found to increase the production of hyaluronic acid in both the epidermis and dermis (see one such study here).

However, it’s not recommended to use AHAs too often. you definitely couldn’t use them daily without experiencing skin irritation, redness and burning due to their exfoliating properties.

I’ve written an article on the best Korean skincare products containing AHAs, so take a look if you’d like your skin to benefit from AHAs.

best korean skincare products with alpha hydroxy acids AHAs
After many hours of research, these four products are what I concluded are the best when it comes to using AHAs in your skincare routine.

Beta-Glucans

Unlike most of the other humectants I have mentioned so far, our bodies don’t produce beta-glucans naturally. Instead, these polysaccharides (long chains of sugars bonded together) are naturally found in the cell walls of plants, bacteria and fungi. The beta-glucan used in skincare products is derived from oats.

Even though beta-glucans are relatively large molecules, they still pass easily into the epidermis and dermis of the skin. And some very interesting research has shown that beta-glucan is 20 times more hydrating than hyaluronic acid (when used at the same concentration). However, scientists and dermatologists say that this doesn’t mean that you should replace hyaluronic acid with beta-glucan (as hyaluronic acid is naturally present in the body and serves an important role as a humectant in our skin). Instead, it’s better to include both ingredients in your skincare routine.

Beta-glucans also have wound healing, anti-inflammatory and immune-enhancing properties (they stimulate other immune cells to attack pathogens). This makes them perfect not only for people with dehydrated skin, but those who have compromised skin barriers with eczema or dermatitis.

There is one Korean skincare product that I’ve been eyeing off for quite some time (and after writing this post will most likely include in my next purchase): it’s the Beta-Glucan Power Moisture Serum from iUNIK (check out my guide to iUNIK serums here). This beta-glucan serum contains 100% beta-glucan, so it’s super hydrating and it’s suitable for sensitive skin! It’s also available on Amazon.

iunik beta glucan power moisture serum best korean hydrating serums humectants skincare
I’m slowly adding more and more iUNIK serums into my skincare routine and this one is next on my list for it’s superpower hydrating properties!

Butylene Glycol (and Propylene Glycol)

Butylene glycol is a clear, low viscosity liquid which is commonly used as an alternative to propylene glycol. It’s probably the most widely-used ingredient in Korean skincare products (where it’s mainly used as a solvent and skin conditioner). I’ve already written an article about why butylene glycol is used in so many skincare products and whether it’s safe for your skin, so check it out if you’re interested.

The chemical structure of butylene glycol is very similar to propylene glycol and glycerin. It is a 4-carbon molecule with two alcohol (OH) groups attached, which makes it polar – meaning that it easily binds to water. Glycerin is also a 4-carbon molecule, however it contains 3 alcohol groups.

Honey

We all know that honey provides so many benefits for our overall health, especially thanks to its antimicrobial and antioxidant properties. But, did you know it’s also a natural humectant?

Honey is what is known as a supersaturated liquid (meaning it contains more sugar than can be dissolved by its water content at ambient temperatures. In fact, raw honey consists of almost 80% sugar (mainly glucose and fructose) and only 17-20% water. However it also contains other compounds in smaller amounts, such as many kinds of acids (including some alpha-hydroxy acids), proteins, amino acids, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.

Although honey is such a fantastic natural humectant (with many other skin benefits), it’s actually quite difficult to formulate skincare products with honey, while maintaining the benefits that honey provides. This is because although honey acts as a preservative on it’s own, most skincare products are water-based or contain water in some part (or other humectants which draw water from the environment).

And anything that contains water has an increased risk of microbial growth and contamination. In addition, honey’s high sugar content provides food for bacteria, mold and yeast to multiply very quickly.

It is for this reason, that you won’t find many skincare products that contain honey as a main ingredient. In fact, you might see an ingredient called honey extract more often than honey itself on ingredient lists. Honey extract is usually a mixture of honey extract (of varying origin depending on the ingredient supplier), water, glycerin and some form of preservative. It still has hydrating properties and is added to skincare products at concentrations of 5-10%.

The I’M FROM Honey Mask is a wash-off mask containing 38.7% pure honey, as well as propolis and bee venom to hydrate as well as nourish the skin. It also contains jojoba, macadamia, sunflower and hazelnut oils, which help to clear pores of dirt, bacteria and sebum. It’s available on Amazon.

i'm from korean natural skincare brand honey cream honey skincare products humectant honey
The Korean skincare brand “I’M FROM” features simple, yet extremely effective products containing only the purest and highest quality ingredients sourced from natural environments in South Korea (such as ginseng, sea buckthorn, honey and propolis, rice, mugwort, and volcanic rocks.

Panthenol

Panthenol is an amazing skincare ingredient that doesn’t get enough spotlight. It’s actually naturally present in all living cells and it’s used quite commonly in many skincare products (as well as hair products and topical ointments that treat sunburns, mild burns, minor skin injuries and disorders).

Apart from it’s humectant properties, panthenol also reduces itching and inflammation of the skin (especially when used longer than 4 weeks), improves skin elasticity, and accelerates the rate of healing of epidermal wounds. It also has the added advantage of acting as an emollient too (it smooths and softens cracks in the skin and helps to prevent water loss from occuring.

Panthenol also has an amazing ability to penetrate into the lower layers of the skin. Upon application, it is immediately converted to pantothenic acid (vitamin B5), which then binds to and holds water.

You’ll find panthenol in many Korean skincare products, as it’s such a versatile ingredient that our skin tolerates without any kind of sensitization (it’s even the main ingredient in Bepanthen – a baby diaper rash cream).

cosrx 92 advanced snail all in one cream snail mucin skincare skincare products with panthenol best hydrating creams korean skincare
Here’s a closer look at the super-hydrating COSRX Snail 92 All In One Cream. You can’t see it but in that gooey goodness is also panthenol.

Seaweed and Other Algae

Marine extracts can have loads of benefits for your skin too. Did you know that seaweed and other types of algae have humectant properties?

Marine algae (which includes seaweeds) are mainly comprised of carbohydrates, some of which have powerful humectant properties. Of course, this makes sense since algae requires water to survive, however it needs to have a way to hold on to that precious H2O in sea water (remember osmosis from high school??).

In particular, Saccharina japonica extracts from brown algae have been found to have a profound ability to retain moisture in the skin. Amazingly, the low molecular weight polysaccharides derived from S. japonica have been identified as a better humectant than hyaluronic acid (see study here).

In addition, marine algae has also been found to have photo-protective, anti-inflammation, skin-whitening and anti-aging properties (see a VERY comprehensive literature on the benefits of marine algae on the skin here).

There is an unsubstantiated rumor on the internet that algae is extremely comedogenic. However, there is no science to suggest this and you definitely don’t need to avoid algae if you are prone to acne since it is completely water soluble (and therefore unable to clog pores).

If you’d like to try incorporating marine algae into your skincare routine, then I highly recommend the Benton Snail Bee Ultimate Hydrogel Eye Patches (available at SokoGlam). These eye patches are sure to keep the skin underneath your eyes plump and hydrated! Not only do they contain multiple seaweed extracts, but other humectants too (including glycerin, snail mucin, butylene glycol, sodium hyaluronate, beta-glucan, aloe vera extract, and panthenol!

Benton Snail Bee Ultimate Hydrogel Eye patches humectant hydrating skincare products seaweed skincare
These Benton Snail Bee Ultimate Hydrogel Eye Patches are a great choice if you’re looking to try incorporating seaweed into you skincare routine.

Snail Mucin

No ingredient can define Korean skincare more than snail mucin (which I’ve written an article about here).

Snail mucin contains many beneficial compounds that have anti-aging, skin-brightening, wound healing, and collagen-boosting properties. A few of these beneficial compounds are hyaluronic acid, glycolic acid and allantoin – which are what give snail slime its humectant properties.

Just like with my seaweed example, it’s clear why snails might benefit from humectants in their secretion! They are extremely prone to drying out very quickly and their soft bodies also need some sort of lubrication to protect them from injury when moving across rough surfaces. Therefore, some sort of mechanism to help their bodies retain water is very beneficial.

There are many Korean skincare products containing snail mucin, however my absolute favorite is the COSRX Snail 92 All In One Cream – which I think I’m mentioning for the third time in this post! It’s just so hydrating and makes my skin feel so smooth and plump. I actually feel that it is much more hydrating than the COSRX Snail 96 Mucin Power Essence, although it contains slightly less snail mucin.

Although the All In One Cream doesn’t feel sticky or greasy at all, I do have to be careful and not slather on too much, or I do feel my face produces more oil. And let me tell you, it’s really difficult to refrain from putting a very thick layer on my face because it just feels so nice!

snail mucin korean skincare hydrating humectants hyaluronic acid
I’m probably on my 5th jar of this now and I realise that I don’t know what I’d replace it with if COSRX ever stopped making it.

Sodium PCA

Sodium PCA is a skincare ingredient that doesn’t get mentioned very often, however it is a powerful humectant that is naturally present in the skin (as part of the natural moisturizing factor).

It is usually used at a concentration range of 0.2-4% in skincare products and it’s derived from plants (mainly grasses), fruits, or coconut oil. The PCA in its name stands for pyroglutamic acid, which is a natural amino acid derivative.

Sodium PCA is non-sensitizing (up to concentrations of 50% as reported on guinea pig skin and 32% as reported on human skin). No phototoxicity or comedogenicity has been found when sodium PCA is applied to the skin.

It’s quite an effective humectant as it’s able to hold several times its own weight in water. It’s even shown to be more hydrating then glycerin. However, it’s not used as often in skincare formulations as it is more expensive.

There are benefits to using sodium PCA in formulations over glycerin though – mainly that it isn’t sticky like glycerin and it doesn’t change the viscosity of the product.

The levels of sodium PCA naturally present in our skin do decrease as we age, so it’s a beneficial ingredient to include in your skincare routine if you’re in your mid-30’s or older.

A fantastic hydrating toner that contains sodium PCA (as well as sodium hyaluronate, glycerin, hyaluronic acid, aloe vera, hydrolyzed sodium hyaluronate, beta-glucan, panthenol and butylene glycol!) is the Isntree Hyaluronic Acid Toner (available on Amazon).

hydrating toners humectants sodium pca dehydrated skin korean skincare
Hydrating toners are used after cleansing to return moisture to the skin. The Isntree Hyaluronic Acid Toner’s formulation includes a long list of humectants!

Sorbitol

Sorbitol is a 4-carbon sugar alcohol that can be derived synthetically or from natural sources (such as berries, apples, pears and plums). It’s actually used a lot as a sugar substitute in foods (it has about half the sweetness of table sugar) and as a sweetener in chewing gums, cough syrups and toothpaste. It’s also often used in soaps as an alternative to glycerin (as it’s less expensive).

Although sorbitol is mainly used as a humectant in skincare products, it also functions as a thickening agent and helps to prevent gel-type products from drying out.

This study found that sorbitol decreases trans-epidermal water loss and improves barrier repair in skin exposed to arid environmental conditions.

The Hada Labo Gokujyun Premium Lotion (which I have mentioned already in this post) contains sorbitol. Since this product is almost gel-like, it makes sense that sorbitol is included in its formulation.

Conclusion

Our skin already contains its own hydrating system (comprised of a group of humectant compounds such as glycerin and urea). However, some people (particularly those with dehydrated skin and skin conditions such as dermatitis) are lacking some or nearly all of these compounds! Also, as we age, the concentration of these natural humectants decreases in our skin.

It’s so important to keep our skin hydrated, as dehydrated skin can lead to loss of barrier function and irritation, as well as increasing fine lines and wrinkles!

That’s why Korean skincare focuses so much on skin hydration and why you’ll find Korean skincare products full of humectant ingredients.

I’ve mentioned a lot of humectant ingredients for you to include in your skincare routine, but just to recap – glycerin, hyaluronic acid and urea are probably the most effective ones.

However, some of the other humectants I mentioned are great options too as they provide more than just hydration for the skin. For example. allantoin and aloe vera are extremely soothing, while snail mucin has anti-aging and wound-healing properties.

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