Hydrating and Moisturising in Winter: Humectants, Emollients and Occlusives

Hydrating and Moisturising in Winter: Humectants, Emollients and Occlusives

It's safe to say that winter has rolled into town. With the colder weather and, in some places, drier air, our skins often go through changes too. With the change of season it makes sense that we may need to change our skincare routines to adjust.

I read an article the other day which said that normally up to 15% of the stratum corneum (the outer layer of our skin, also known as the epidermis) consists of water. When this drops below 10% our skin starts to feel dry and flaky. My skin is starting to feel pretty dry, so this really got me thinking!

Natural winter skincare is all about hydrating and then locking that moisture in. You can hydrate from the inside by drinking lots of water, as well as from the outside by applying the correct products. So let's chat a little about what products these are.

Moisturisers come in three forms: humectants, emollients and occlusives. These three kinds of products can really help beat the winter dryness when used synergistically together.



Humectants draw water to the skin, so this is definitely something we want in winter. Some well known natural humectants are glycerine, honey and hyaluronic acid. Glycerine is very easy to incorporate into a skincare formula; honey can be used directly on the face or in a facial mask - seriously give it a try, it's simply divine; and hyaluronic acid is the much loved skincare ingredient that purports to be high-end but that actually anyone can use.

Hyaluronic acid occurs naturally in our body, but applying it to our skin is a wonderful way to plump it up, increase elasticity and give it a more youthful appearance. The most interesting thing about hyaluronic acid is that it can hold many, many times its own weight in water. I recently added a pipette-full of hyaluronic acid into my hydrosol bottle and the whole consistency of the hydrosol has changed - the hyaluronic acid has swelled to incorporate it. It's some cool science in a bottle and feels great on my skin!

The only thing about humectants is while they do attract water to the skin, they aren't particular about where that water comes from. If the air is humid, they will draw moisture from the air (awesome), but if no moisture is available in the air they will seek it out elsewhere, even from deeper layers of our own skin. This is why I like to apply my hyalruonic acid after a warm shower when my skin has absorbed some water and is still wet, or I first spritz some hydrosol on and then apply the HA. This gives the HA some water to work with and you will see how it draws it into your skin. Sometimes I even go back and spritz more hydrosol on after applying the HA. (Tip: add some hyaluronic acid to your hydrosol bottle to get the benefits of both in one spritz.)



The second class of moisturisers are emollients. Emollients are a broad term referring to moisturisers that soften and smooth the skin, providing nourishment. Natural emollients can include any carrier oils, butters or unique ingredients such as squalane. Emollients can also include emulsions - lotions, creams, serums, etc where oils and water have been emulsified together.

Carrier oils are oils extracted from plants and are liquid. They vary hugely from oil to oil so you can really tailor your desired benefits by choosing appropriate oils. Carrier oils contain fat-soluble vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, among many other beneficial compounds.

Butters are extracted from kernels/seeds, beans and nuts. They are typically solid as opposed to liquid carrier oils, and have exceptional nutritional profiles which make them fantastic for skin. Butters typically contain essential fatty acids, minerals, vitamins, proteins, polyphenols, phytosterols, antioxidants and tocopherol (Vitamin E).

Oils and butters can be applied directly to the skin, blended together, or turned into an emulsion. Emollients are a pretty straightforward class, and one would apply them after applying a humectant to moisturise the skin after hydrating it.

Butters such as shea butteravocado butter and cocoa butter are amazing. They can be applied as is on the skin or you can blend them with other oils or in a cream. These butters are all packed full of beneficial properties and make fantastic additions to your winter skincare routine.

Our favourite skin oils are jojoba, pomegranate, argan, coffee oil and squalane but the list could go on. These oils are rich in vitamins, polyphenols, antioxidants and phytosterols, just the extra nourishment our skins need in winter.

These can all be used on their own directly on skin, blended together to make a skin oil blend, or incorporated into formulas.



Our last class of moisturiser is the occlusive. Occlusives create a barrier on the skin, trapping the moisture and hydration in; this is an important step in winter where moisture is often lost. Some natural occlusives are beeswax, candelilla wax, avocado oil and almond oil.

If you've ever used a cream or product containing a wax such as beeswax, you will have noticed its rich skin feel and how it left a feeling of 'product' on the skin. This is an occlusive and it created a barrier on your skin.

Occlusives aren't a mandatory part of any skincare routine but in winter they are nice to include to really help your skin retain its moisture and hydration, and prevent moisture loss to the cold, dry air.

Waxes are not used on their own but are incorporated into creams in small amounts. Another occlusive option is avocado oil which is a very rich oil.


Give your skin some extra love and banish the dryness this winter with natural plant-based moisturisers.