The Right Brain replies: Humectant is a very misused word in the beauty industry. Many people use “humectant” interchangeably with “moisturizer” when in reality the two are very different. Let’s take a look.
How do humectants work?
Humectants are different from regular moisturizers because they are able to attract and hold onto water molecules. Chemicals that have this ability are said to hygroscopic. Examples of hygroscopic, or humectant, cosmetic ingredients include glycerine, sorbitol and propylene glycol. What do these ingredients have in common that allow them pull moisture from the air? They all have multiple OH (Oxygen and Hydrogen) groups that interact with water molecules in a process called hydrogen bonding. Chemicals that have multiple OH groups are known as polyols. Whew! Enough with the chemical vocabulary let’s get on with the answer to your question.
Can humectants cause dry skin?
If humectants can attract moisture from the air, can they also pull it out of your hair or skin? In theory, yes. If you were in a very dry climate and you slathered on a pure humectant (glycerine for example), the OH groups could pull moisture from the deeper layers of your skin up to the surface where it could evaporate. So in this particular example, a humectant could actually cause your skin to become drier.
Fortunately, skin lotions don’t contain pure humectants; they also contain water, emollients, occlusive agents and other water binding chemicals. Water provides an immediate burst of moisture to the upper layers of skin while the other ingredients help prevent water from evaporating from your skin. So the chances of the humectant having a drying effect on your hair or skin is pretty slight.
The Beauty Brains bottom line
Hair and skin lotions are formulated with multiple moisturizing agents. Even products like Gly-Miracle Skin Humectant cream contain more than just humectants. So you don’t have to worry about these lotions sucking you dry.