Choosing a moisturizer from a sea of colorful bottles all claiming to do amazing things for your skin can feel like an extreme sport. And that’s before you try to make sense of the alphabet soup of ingredients listed on the packaging.

Fortunately, once you know a little about the makeup of moisturizers and the ingredients that work best for your skin type, it’s much easier to make a smart choice. With that in mind, here are a few guidelines to help you find a moisturizer you’ll love.

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Choose the right moisturizer for your skin type

Everyone can benefit from using a moisturizer, even if you have oily skin. That’s because the right moisturizer doesn’t just keep your skin from drying out. It also helps it from becoming too oily; unmoisturized skin can overcompensate and produce extra oil. And whether oily, dry or in between, moisturized skin is better protected from irritants, germs and other external factors.

Most moisturizers contain 3 basic types of ingredients: humectants, emollients and occlusives. And each plays a role in keeping your skin hydrated and protected, says Heather Richmond, MD. She’s a dermatologist with the Dermatology & Laser Surgery Center in Houston.

But the ratio of each ingredient type in your moisturizer can make a big difference when it comes to seeing the benefits you’re after.

Here’s how each works and which ingredients are best for your skin type.


These ingredients bind with water molecules and hold them to your skin to help prevent moisture loss.

Skin types they’re best for: Oily or acne-prone skin. If you’re prone to shine, Dr. Richmond suggests looking for lightweight moisturizers labeled noncomedogenic (meaning they won’t block your pores).

Ingredients to look for: glycerin (or glycerol), hyaluronic acid, sorbitol and urea

Hyaluronic acid is a great choice for a facial moisturizer and for oily skin, says Dr. Richmond. It hydrates the skin, but it’s lightweight and won’t clog pores.

In a high-enough percentage, urea is both a humectant and a chemical exfoliant, Dr. Richmond says. This means it can both retain your skin’s natural moisture (so your oil glands won’t have to work overtime) and help remove dead skin that can block pores.


These ingredients fill in the cracks in dry skin and create a seal to prevent water loss. But they don’t actually add water, notes Dr. Richmond.

Skin types they’re best for: dry skin, eczema, mature skin

Ingredients to look for: ceramides, colloidal oatmeal and other lipids, such as oils and shea butter

If you have very dry skin, mature skin or eczema, ceramides are for you, Dr. Richmond says. Ceramides are part of the skin’s lipid barrier (aka moisture barrier). Using a moisturizer with ceramides helps restore the skin barrier and reduce water loss.

Colloidal oatmeal is a special form of oatmeal made from ground oats. It’s rich in fats, vitamins and minerals that help soothe and soften skin. It also helps boost your skin’s moisture content. Plus, its anti-itch properties make it a good choice for people with eczema, Dr. Richmond says.


These ingredients create a protective layer over your skin.

Skin types they’re best for: Very dry skin and people with eczema. Moisturizers with more occlusive ingredients are good for dry, cracked skin because they last longer and reduce water loss from the skin, according to the Mayo Clinic.

That said, they can block your pores, notes Dr. Richmond. So they’re often not recommended for use on your face, especially if you have oily or acne-prone skin.

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Ingredients to look for: petroleum, mineral oils, lanolin, beeswax and other oils

If you want an occlusive-rich product, check out Aquaphor Advanced Therapy Healing Ointment. Mineral oil is the first ingredient.

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What to avoid in a moisturizer

Some people have more sensitive skin than others, so what irritates one skin type might be no big deal to someone else. There are a couple of features, though, you might want to skip.

  • Fragrance. Scented moisturizers might smell nice going on. But for people with sensitive skin, they can cause burning, redness and irritation.
  • Chemical sunscreens. Protecting your skin from the sun is a must. But if given the choice, go for mineral sunscreens, says Dr. Richmond. Many dermatologists recommend against using chemical sunscreens, whether on their own or in a moisturizer. That’s partly because they may pose higher allergy risks.

The 2 most common mineral sunscreen ingredients are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. These are also the only 2 sunscreen ingredients generally recognized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as safe and effective to use. Here are our favorite skin protection products for sunny days.

How the different types of moisturizers compare

So now you know more about the ingredients you’d want in your moisturizer. Next you have to decide what form it comes in.

The main types of moisturizers are lotions, creams, ointments and serums. They all have different thicknesses and ingredients, Dr. Richmond says.

  • Ointments. Mainly oil- or petrolatum-based, these are better for very dry or cracked skin, Dr. Richmond says. They can clog pores, so skip them if you’re prone to acne.
  • Creams. These are typically a 50/50 ratio of oil and water. Some can be used for both the face and body, and many won’t clog pores.
  • Lotions. The ratio in lotions is more water than oil, “so they feel lighter and are less likely to cause acne,” Dr. Richmond says. Some lotions contain alcohol, she adds, and possibly more preservatives. That means they can be more irritating to the skin than creams or ointments.
  • Serums. There’s no official definition of serums. While some are oil-based, many are lightweight, oil-free formulations that contain active ingredients such as antioxidants, Dr. Richmond says. You can also layer a moisturizer over a serum.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed when you’re faced with so many enticing choices. But know this: No matter what moisturizer you choose, it’s a good idea to test it on a small area first. That’s especially important if you have eczema or sensitive skin, says Dr. Richmond. This way you can be sure you’re giving your skin exactly what it’s craving.

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Additional sources
Options for softer skin:
Mayo Clinic
Approval of sunscreen ingredients: U.S. Food and Drug Administration