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What’s the best moisturizer?

Wade wonders…I am questioning the efficacy of using a raw material versus a product with a specific formula that might contain these ingredients. For the sake of relevancy, lets use an example—a battle between two of the most highly regarded moisturizers in the cosmetic industry: VASELINE v. AQUAPHOR! So, in one corner, we have the best occlusive money can buy, and in the other, we have a cosmetic chemist’s concoction containing a mixture of moisturizers, including petrolatum. So, does Aquaphor work better than Vaseline simply because it has been formulated to be semi-occlusive (Claim made by Aquaphor’s website)? Which is truly more effective as a moisturizer, and why?

The Beauty Brains respond: 

Wade’s question is paraphrased from her (his?) discussion thread in our Forum. The answer has to do with the fact that the best moisturizers work three ways while single ingredients, like petrolatum, only work one way. (And like Sarah Bellum says “I’m always up for a good three way!”) Here are the three modes of action that you want your moisturizer to have along with a brief description of the best ingredients to get the job done.

3 methods of moisturization.

1. Occlusives
Purpose: To reduce how much water evaporates through your skin. (Cosmetic scientists refer to this as TransEpidermal Moisture Loss or TEWL.) Occlusive agents form a hydrophobic barrier on your skin that keeps the water on the inside. The most effective examples include petrolatum, mineral oil, and dimethicone. Some plant oils help occlude the skin but typically they are included more for their emolliency.

2. Hydrators
Purpose: In this context I’m talking about adding water to skin and the only ingredient that can really do that is…water. For some product types (like shampoo) water is just a carrier or solvent for other ingredients. But in the case of moisturizing lotions the water contained in the product is also hydrating your skin. (Neither of the examples raised by Wade include this category.)

3. Humectants
Purpose: To bind (or even attract) moisture to your skin.
Ingredients known as “polyols” have the ability to hold on to large amounts of water and keep it close to your skin. In some cases they can even absorb moisture from the atmosphere. These ingredients have two drawbacks: they can make your skin feel sticky and when the air is REALLY dry they can actually pull water out of your skin instead of the atmosphere. Examples include glycerin, sorbitol, and hyaluronic acid. Glycerin and sorbitol work pretty well and they’re cheap. Hyaluronic acid can hold hundreds of times its weight in water but it’s really expensive.

Vaseline vs Aquaphor

As Wade noted in the Forum, Vaseline Petroleum Jelly consists solely of petrolatum which is the best occlusive agent. Aquaphor also contains a good slug of petrolatum (41%) but in addition it contains mineral oil, ceresin, lanolin alcohol, panthenol, glycerin, and bisabolol. Based on its placement on the ingredient list, I doubt the product contains very much glycerin but at least theoretically Aquaphor could bind moisture to the skin through humectancy where as Vaseline can not. Mineral oil is also a good occlusive agent (not as good as petrolatum) and the other ingredients don’t really do much. (Note: if the formula contains a high percentage of panthenol, it could contribute to moisturization too.)

Aquaphor may have another advantage which is user compliance. Pure petrolatum is tough to spread across skin and it can be very greasy. A formulated lotion like Aquaphor is much easier to apply and will be more aesthetically pleasing on skin. Therefore, people will be more likely to reapply it which will make it work better in the long run.

Neither one of these products contain water so it would probably best to apply them to freshly showered skin which will be well hydrated.

Which is the better moisturizer? It’s tough to beat pure petrolatum for occlusion but a formula such as Aquaphor is probably the better choice in the long run.

{ 28 comments… add one }

  • Wade January 2, 2014, 7:28 am

    Thanks for answering my question, Randy. So basically you are saying that if a skin protectant (moisturizer) has all three properties, it is more effective than simply using an occlusive (say, petrolatum) on dry skin, yes? Ok, lets change the viewpoint to fully hydrated skin (“freshly showered”), thus eliminating #2… Is petrolatum + humectant more effective than just petrolatum?

    And Aquaphor wins simply because of it’s aesthetic properties? It might be more “usable” in the long run (I don’t believe it feels much different than petrolatum), but what about from a strictly physical/chemical point of view? Using “something” is always going to be more effective than using “nothing.” ;)

    • Randy Schueller January 2, 2014, 8:18 am

      Ah Wade, I admire your persistence. What I’m saying is that a well rounded moisturizer formulation (which can occlude, hydrate and provide humectancy) should outperform any single ingredient. But to look at Aquaphor from a “strictly physical/chemical” point of view and compare its ability to reduce TEWL as compared to petrolatum, I would expect that petrolatum would win. Here’s why:

      Aquaphor contains four ingredients that could be considered occlusive: petrolatum, mineral oil, ceresin wax, and lanolin alcohol. According to data presented in “Conditioning Agents for Hair and Skin, Chapter 5 Petrolatum: Conditioning Through Occlusion” by David S. Morrison, petrolatum is more effective than mineral oil and lanolin at reducing TEWL. (I couldn’t find any data specifically on lanolin alcohol or ceresin wax but there’s no reason to suspect that they would work any better.) The author presents data from three studies one measuring in vitro water vapor permeation, another measuring water loss on skin, and a third measuring a decrease in xerosis grade (which includes other skin dryness factors besides water content.) In each case petrolatum performed the best.

      So, without any other data to the contrary, I would have to say that pure petrolatum would reduce TEWL better than a mixture of petrolatum and other less occlusive materials.

      I hope this helps.

      • Wade January 2, 2014, 3:30 pm

        Thanks for clarifying, Randy. I am normally concerned with the raw properties, not human behavior/likelihood of use.

        So, a summary would be that a well rounded moisturizer formulation > straight petrolatum on freshly showered skin, yes?

        • Randy Schueller January 2, 2014, 5:10 pm

          Actually what I’m saying (and keep in mind this is an educated guess since I’ve never seen data from a study with these exact variables) is that on freshly showered skin, petrolatum would give better reduction in TEWL than a fully formulated lotion.

          But on dry skin (and for regular, extended use) I would expect a fully formulated lotion would provide a better overall moisturizing experience.

          • Wade January 2, 2014, 5:33 pm

            Yep, got it. So the hydrating effect of the shower can be sealed with petrolatum, and THIS would be the ultimate moisturizing experience.

            BUT without showering, the need for water is unmet by petrolatum alone, thus making a fully formulated moisturizer better in this specific context.

            Thanks again Randy, I really enjoy discussing this stuff. (My persistence comes from a desire to fully understand. :D)

          • Randy Schueller January 3, 2014, 12:05 am

            My pleasure Wade!

  • slender January 2, 2014, 10:57 am

    Thanks for the helpful evaluation. Can I infer from this that petrolatum is as effective or more so than say a moisturizer from one of the expensive ranges (costing anywhere from 80.00 dollars upwards? Is one permitted here to refer directly to brand names?

    • Randy Schueller January 2, 2014, 1:05 pm

      Hey Slender. Yes, you’re certainly allowed to mention brand names here so if there are any specific products you’d like us to look at just let us know. There have been multiple studies showing that a moisturizer’s effectiveness does not correlate with its price. Having said that, however, a cheap single ingredient like petrolatum won’t give you the additional functionality of a more expensive formula that contains a retinol, for example.

  • Linda Law January 2, 2014, 11:46 am

    Re the best moisturizers; no mention of clogging pore here. It’s a big problem for many of us.

    • Randy Schueller January 2, 2014, 1:12 pm

      Yes, Linda, that’s an important consideration. In this particular case it shouldn’t be a concern because petrolatum has been proven to NOT clog pores and contribute to blackheads and acne.

  • Slender January 2, 2014, 2:18 pm

    Hi, thanks for your answer. Actually I would be pleased if you could look at the Sensai/Kanebo series of emulsions and lotions (which I mentioned elsewhere today). Looking on the ingredients list, I see no mention of retinol. Unfortunately it also does not have any sunscreen, yet I have always found it to be a good moisturizer. Sensai claims that one has to use the coloured and equally watery “lotion” for the full benefits, but I have trouble believing this. It seems like a marketing strategy to me. Thanks for any insights.

    • Randy Schueller January 2, 2014, 4:47 pm

      Slender: If you can send me a link to the ingredients for the specific products you are interested in I’d be glad to take a look at them.

      • barbara filet January 2, 2014, 7:40 pm

        What about organic, refined coconut oil? Seems like vaseline.

        • Randy Schueller January 2, 2014, 7:43 pm

          Coconut oil is not as effective at reducing transepidermal water loss as petrolatum.

      • Slender January 3, 2014, 4:10 am

        Hello Randy,

        I discovered this link (it correlates with what is written on the packaging that I still have for cellular Performance Emulsion III) : http://www.cosmetic-ingredients.net/product.php?brand=645&type=moisturizer

        and for the equally expensive lotion II: http://www.cosmetic-ingredients.net/product.php?type=Toner&brand=645

        thanks.

        • Randy Schueller January 3, 2014, 6:58 am

          Slender: Looking at the ingredients of the two products you referenced I see no reason that you would need to use both of them in tandem.

          Kanebo III appears to be a good moisturizer which uses squalane (a good skin compatible lipid). It looks like it has a small percent of dimethicone but you really want to have about 5% in a superior moisturizer. There is no petrolatum or mineral oil so I’d expect this lotion to have a light texture. It also contains niacinamide which has been proven to reduce hyperpigmentated spots and red blotchiness.

          Kanebo II appears to be more of a liquid product without any heavy duty moisturizers. The 3rd ingredient is “alcohol” which I assume refers to ethanol. That’s NOT good for a skin moisturizing product because it can be drying to your skin.

  • Slender January 3, 2014, 9:01 am

    Dear Randy,
    thank you so much for your evaluation. I was never convinced about the “lotion” (kanebo II), also because of the alcohol content as well as its excessive price. It is extraordinary that various sales persons have told me emphatically that they cannot live without it! I wondered if Kanebo instructs them to say so. (Any way lets hope they don’t find themselves on a desert island with only coconut oil!). I can say that the emulsion (face moisturizer/liquid cream) was very effective for me for years – just applying it once every 24 hours and alone. It went a long way and indeed my complexion became more even and soft. However, I found since last year that it does not seem to moisturize enough and the next step up would be one of their creams (thicker in consistency) costing anything between 300 and 700 euros. I cannot pay that and also would refuse to even if I did have the money . I then began to consistently read ingredient labels and look for something comparable. I cannot believe that it costs that much or that the differences could be that great. It is a pleasure to read your site, thanks for the good scientific analysis. I still hope to find something comparable in effectiveness but affordable for my now drier aging skin.

    • Randy Schueller January 3, 2014, 9:13 am

      You’re welcome, Slender. Good luck in your search. (and you’re right, 300 euros is a LOT to spend on a lotion!!)

  • lindygirl1960 January 3, 2014, 9:08 am

    @ Randy – The aquaphor I have is Aquaphor Healing Ointment. Here is a link for reference : http://www.amazon.com/Aquaphor-Healing-Ointment-Irritated-Protectant/dp/B000052XOY/ref=sr_1_5?s=hpc&srs=2582359011&ie=UTF8&qid=1388761419&sr=1-5&keywords=aquaphor

    Does the same still apply? I noticed further up in this thread the product being compared to Vaseline was referred to as a lotion. This product is definitely NOT a lotion.

    Thanks!

    • Randy Schueller January 3, 2014, 9:15 am

      LG: Yes, I believe that’s the same Aquaphor product that Wade and I were discussing. You’re right it’s not a lotion because it’s not an emulsion of oil and water.

    • Wade January 3, 2014, 2:44 pm

      lindygirl1960—yes, the Aquaphor Healing Ointment is what we are referencing here.

  • Jeff Kennedy January 3, 2014, 10:41 pm

    And the winner is…….Aquaphor

    Thank you very much, it has dissipated me many doubts about it.

  • lindygirl1960 January 6, 2014, 2:19 pm

    I just knew I kept reading ‘lotion’ when I knew the product I have is more of an ointment. Thanks for clarifying.

  • Emi at Project Swatch January 12, 2014, 8:20 am

    What about layering moisturizers? i.e., is the best way to treat dry skin to layer a humectant & then an occlusive on damp skin? Or is an all-in-one product more effective?

    • Randy Schueller January 12, 2014, 8:35 am

      Taking the time to apply layered moisturizers just means that your skin will have more time to dry out more before you apply the final occlusive layer. Plus, it’s more work and you have to buy more products. Just stick to a good “all in one” approach and your skin’s thirst will be slaked. (Wow, I think that’s the first time I’ve ever used the word “slaked.”)

  • claddagh January 14, 2014, 9:42 am

    What about bees wax in this mix?

    • Randy Schueller January 14, 2014, 9:51 am

      Beeswax is not a good moisturizing lotion ingredient. It’s not as occlusive as petrolatum or dimethicone and, since it’s a solid, if it’s incorporated at high levels it makes the formula feel too waxy.

  • Mika February 18, 2014, 11:13 am

    Hey there I know this msg is a little late but what would recommend product(s) wise then? What IS a good “all in one” moisturizer that provides occlusiveness/hydration/humection?

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