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Can lotions make your skin drier?

We recently read an interesting article about skin moisturizing on the DermBytes blog. The author, Dr. Huang, points out that you can use creams, ointments or lotions to moisturize your skin and that creams are thick and white, ointments which are greasy and lotions tend to be watery and can “actually lead to more drying of the skin.”

We found that last statement puzzling. How could a lotion, no matter how “watery,” make your skin drier?

What makes a lotion “watery?”

First of all, what “watery” even mean? We suppose it could be a way of describing the viscosity, or the thickness/thinness of the lotion. But low viscosity does not automatically equal less moisturizing. For example a lotion could be based on mineral oil which is fairly runny yet is a very effective moisturizer.

If “watery” is meant to imply that the product is watered down, that it literally consists of mostly water and is lacking in oils that could seal in moisture, then it’s true that the product will be less effective. But that would be because of lack of oils not because of low viscosity. And, just because the viscosity is high (meaning the product is thick) doesn’t mean that it will work better. For example you could thicken water with a gum to the point of making it almost jelly-like and yet without oils it would not do a good job of moisturizing skin.

So that’s why we’re confused by Dr. Huang’s statement: there is no direct correlation between the viscosity of a skin moisturizer and its effectiveness. We left a comment on her post and she was kind enough to explain that water content increases as one goes from ointment to cream to lotion. While we don’t necessarily disagree with this statement we’re still confused why a lotion would make skin drier. We believe that the moisturizing efficacy of a given product is more related to the ingredients it contains rather than its viscosity. A thin lotion based on dimethicone will moisturize skin better than a thick cream based on shea butter.

Have you ever encountered a lotion that you think left your skin drier than it was before? Leave a comment and share your thoughts with the rest of the Beauty Brains community.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Grace March 13, 2014, 12:07 pm

    I have, but not “watery” ones. Any lotion that has a heavy perfume – to smell like the spray on version – makes my skin drier. I thoughtsuspected it was probably because ofcould be due to a higher alcohol content in perfumed lotions (with maybe higher evaporation). I stick to Lubraderm, Aveno, etc. and their generics rather than lotions that smell like their perfumes.

  • Eileen March 14, 2014, 11:27 am

    This just goes to show that the title Dr. doesn’t make a person an expert in all things. Over the years, I’ve heard and read some totally unfounded things from so-called experts. And now that we have the internet–where anyone can fashion themselves as an expert or guru–it has become even worse. Caveat lector!

    Perhaps the good doctor was thinking about the mechanism by which skin becomes chapped (the washing away of natural oils; leaving the skin unprotected from moisture loss) and then making an illogical leap by applying it to lotions. Like you, even after her woefully inadequate explanation in which she skated around answering your question, I was still left figuratively scratching my head. I also noticed in her response to one of her readers, that she doesn’t suggest lotion as an after-bathing moisturizer/sealant despite the evidence that some lotions are actually better than some creams at protecting the skin. I’m not a dermatologist or a chemist not am I an expert or a guru, but I can certainly judge the condition of my skin and have found many lotions to be easily up to the task of protecting my skin and keeping it soft and in good condition.

    In truth, because of her lack of scientific references, her strong and unfounded bias, and her lack of knowledge relevant to the topic, I can’t help but wonder if she is everything she claims to be 🙁

  • Carmen April 12, 2014, 4:25 am

    I read a similar article by a German dermatologist about moisturizers and skin creams in general (and I’m tying to translate quotes of it right now, which is not as easy as I thought) – it’s saying that healthy skin doesn’t need to be moisturized at all, because it will stop or at least reduce producing sebum on its own due to the oils and surfactants you put on it, thus getting a lot drier if you stopped using moisturizer than it would be if you hadn’t used any in the first place. He’s saying that by putting a cream on your face you’re basically getting your skin addicted to it.
    Normally I’d have thought that this is bullshit, but now I’ve read in one of your other articles that the sebaceous glands produce sebum depending on how much of it is already on the surface of your skin, getting triggered to produce more if there’s not enough. So if I put a moisturizer on my skin after washing it, will my skin still produce as much sebum as it would without it or does it get a “stop” signal, because there’s already a film on it?

    And if so – do I really “train” my sebaceous glands not to produce as much sebum in the long run if I’m using a moisturizer every day for a while and does this mean, they will have to “learn” to produce sebum again if I stop using it? (the dermatologist is telling people to not use any cream or anything on their face for at least four weeks, because this would be the time it takes for the skin to start producing enough sebum to moisturize itself again)

    The reasons I’m asking:
    1. I tend to have rather oily skin, even though it was a lot worse in my teens (I’m 26 now) and I still have a little bit of acne, which acutally wouldn’t bother me that much, if it didn’t hurt so much…so right now I’m using BPO in order to get it under control and it helps, but also dries my skin out pretty badly. So now I HAVE to use a moisturizer daily – and frankly: I hate it. I guess I’ll never understand why people like to put creams on their skin, because I just hate the feeling of it…
    but mostly:
    2. I’m just curious. 🙂

    And by the way: I looove your website! I just recently discovered it and I’m addicted! Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge!

    • admin April 12, 2014, 8:19 am

      With all due respect to the author of the article you mentioned, this doesn’t sound quite right to me for several reasons. One, sebum is a good but not great moisturizer. Two, it doesn’t seem to take into account the fact that you wash your skin one or more times a day so the sebum wouldn’t replenish itself that quickly anyway. Three, as you age your skin produces less sebum so giving it a boost with moisturizers certainly makes sense.

  • janet bongard September 11, 2016, 12:56 pm

    I’ve been having a problem with lotions being too thick, drying quickly and feeling tight and needing to apply more rather frequently. It feels like a thick layer of glue. I hate to say I want a greasy feel but my feet are dry and tight and I work at a job where I’m standing ALOT! I exfoliate every evening and apply lotion several times through the night. They feel so tight and I feel the need to wet them with a cool washcloth because the lotion makes it worse. Any suggestions?

    • Randy Schueller September 11, 2016, 1:23 pm

      If you can post a link to the ingredient list of the product you’re using I’ll take a look at it.

  • Candy February 20, 2017, 1:43 am

    My holy grail moisturizer was Deon Cetaphil. It did miracles for me, it was amazing. Over the years I’ve slowly developed a tree nut allergy and had to stop using it from what I’d get from the macadamia oil. Ever since, I’ve been on the quest for something that could replace it. 4 years has gone by and I’ve found a few that literally dried out my skin. I tried one from Eucerin and I can’t remember what it was called but it was supposed to be for chronic dry skin. My hands kept getting redder and drier until I realized it was this. I changed to another that I knew was decent (but not completely what I needed) and it took a few weeks to repair, but I cannot believe how much damage it did in so little time. I’ve tried CeraVe lotion twice and it also dried my skin. I just got done trying A Midsummer’s Night Cream from Trader Joe’s which I thought was doing a good job until I recently realized that it was making me a tad drier. These aren’t about they weren’t good enough, they completely dried out my skin. I tried Okeefe’s Working Hands in the jar and it did nothing to moisturize or project. It was virtually pointless, I was so surprised. I agree though that constancy has nothing to do with effectiveness and I never have believed that.