Just say no to lizard skin


As we age, our skin becomes thinner and less plump and smooth as it loses fat.  One wrinkle appears, then dozens. Legs, elbows, and arms feel rough and scaly. Then winter arrives and heaps more abuse–wind, central heating, space heaters, fireplaces, low humidity, even cold-weather sunburns. Lizard skin seems inevitable. But we say, just say no.

The effects of cold winter weather can be minimized by adopting some healthy practices like staying hydrated, reducing the use of alcohol-based hand sanitizers, taking fewer or shorter showers and baths, with warm rather than hot water, gently exfoliating to remove dead skin, and using a humidifier. Then top off these routines by applying the right moisturizer.

Finding the right moisturizer 

Moisturizers are the most frequently purchased beauty category.  There’s a good reason for this:  we purchase body lotions, foot creams and hand creams, day creams and night creams for our faces and eye creams for under our eyes.  Moisturizers are also one of the categories most likely to disappoint buyers.  Why is that?

The anti-aging promise

Even smart, accomplished women with the strongest of resumes under their belts go weak in the knees and open their wallets for the promise of anti-aging ingredients.  Cosmetic companies spend millions of dollars on research in the quest for the moisturizer that smooths out surface lines (we know that nothing short of injections or surgery can take care of the deep ones) and makes our faces glow without makeup.  The truth is that many of these ingredients have different effects on different people.  And not only that, in this fast-paced world, we like to see results sooner rather than later.  If we don’t, we tend to believe that the product we purchased doesn’t work.

But does it feel good?

As much as anti-aging may be important to us, the first thing we tend to consider is how the moisturizer feels on our skin.  If it doesn’t feel good and fit into our lives without inconveniencing us, we are not going to use it. So how do you find the most effective moisturizer for your skin type?  Let’s leave the anti-aging promise behind for now and get down to basics.

First, read the label

Most people are savvy enough to read labels when they shop for groceries.  If you picked up a jar of peanut butter that claimed to be “the world’s tastiest peanut butter” you would still turn the jar around to read the ingredients.  But often we fail to be as diligent with a moisturizer’s claim of “the world’s most effective moisturizer.” Even if we did, what should we look for?  We’re here to help you find the most effective ingredients for your skin type, based on scientific research and the irrefutable principle of effective moisturization.

A quick biology lesson

Skin is the largest organ of our bodies and water is the key ingredient of young-looking skin.  Hydrated skin looks plump and healthy, which is reflected in the names that cosmetic organizations use to label their moisturizers, such as WaterDrench, Hydro Boost Water Gel, Tidal Brightening Enzyme Water Cream, Moisture Surge, Aquasource, and Overnight Water Pack. Just about any moisturizer on the market (and there are thousands) will give the appearance of working simply because it smooths the agitated cells of the stratus corneum—the cells that comprise the very top layer of your skin.  However, to have any long-term effect a moisturizer should have as its purpose a way to attract water to your skin or to preserve the water that is already there.

Skin cells renew themselves every two to three weeks, moving up from the lower level called the dermis.  During this progression through the skin layers, lipids are released into the spaces between cells.  Your skin has its own natural moisturizing factor (NMF). These lipids form a barrier to water loss and help retain the skin’s NMF. Disruption of this lipid matrix and subsequent loss of hydration can lead to dry, flaky skin.

Differentiating moisturizers by their properties

Typically, cosmetic moisturizers improve the condition of dry skin by utilizing one or a combination of three major ingredient types:  occlusive agents, humectants, and emollients.

Occlusive agents increase moisture levels in skin by providing a physical barrier to water loss. The classic cosmetic occlusive agent is petrolatum, or petroleum jelly (like Vaseline). It is a by-product of petroleum products and was first used as a cosmetic ingredient in the late 1800s. It is the most effective occlusive agent, capable of blocking 98% of water loss from the skin. Many occlusive agents can leave a heavy feeling on skin, particularly if you are going to apply makeup immediately afterwards, so they are often combined with other ingredients like emollients to improve consumer appeal.  Some oils, like castor, mineral, and jojoba oil, work as both emollients and occlusive agents.  Occlusive ingredients are ideal for dry and very dry skin types.

The most common occlusives (to prevent water loss) found in moisturizers are:

  • Petroleum jelly
  • Propylene glycol
  • Squalene
  • Lecithin
  • Silicone derivatives, such as dimethicone and cyclomethicone
  • Cocoa butter, mango and shea
  • Mineral oil, lanolin, paraffin

The queen of all occlusive moisturizers is Aquaphor® Healing Ointment. It received 4.5 out of 5 stars on Amazon from more than 1,700 reviews.  It is an Amazon best seller and an “Amazon’s Choice.”  On makeupalley.com Aquaphor® Healing Ointment is rated 4.7 out of 5 and, of 1,312 people, 93% would purchase it again.  It retails for between $10 and $15 on Amazon and comes in a jar or a tube. Aquaphor® is good for dry to very dry skin but only as a night cream.  Unless you have Sahara Desert skin that sucks up moisture as fast as you can apply it, you would not want to use this as a day cream.

Humectants are ingredients that attract water to the outer layers of the skin, thus making it look “plumped up”. Glycerin is a common humectant, frequently used due to its low cost and high efficacy. Hyaluronic acid is another.  Humectants may make the skin feel tacky.  This is one of the reasons that cosmetic companies distinguish between day creams (with less concentration of humectant ingredients) and night creams: tacky skin is not necessarily a problem if you are going to be asleep for eight hours but it’s not great if you plan to apply makeup right after you moisturize.  Humectant ingredients are ideal for normal or oily skin types. Even if you are blessed with normal or oily skin, in our age group our skin still needs help with hydration.

The most common humectants (to attract water) found in moisturizers are:

  • Glycerin
  • Hyaluronic acid
  • Propylene glycol
  • Butylene glycol
  • Sodium PCA
  • Sorbitol

A top-selling humectant cream is CeraVé® Moisturizing Cream.  It contains glycerin and hyaluronic acid, both humectants that draw water to the skin.  This product leaves the skin feeling slightly clammy so it is ideal for a night cream.  CeraVe® Moisturizing Cream is ranked 4.7 out of 5 stars by more than 3,000 reviewers on Amazon.com. A 16 oz. tub sells for about $15.

Emollients by themselves do not affect the water content of the skin like the other two categories. They simply improve the appearance of the skin by smoothing flaky skin cells.  Chemists put them into moisturizers to offset the drawbacks of humectants and occlusives by making the moisturizer easy to spread and giving it a nice feel on the skin.  Nothing will turn a consumer off faster than a cream that she feels is too tacky or greasy (and therefore not comfortable or convenient to use) or one that disappears almost immediately into the skin with seemingly no lasting effect (and therefore not good value for money.) Emollients added to the moisturizer in exactly the right ratio of emollient to occlusive or emollient to humectant will ensure a pleasant consistency and slip to the cream.  Emollients can be derived from petroleum, like mineral oil, isoparaffin, and isohexadecane, or natural oils (jojoba oil, olive oil, coconut oil), esters (octyl Palmitate, isopropyl stearate, isopropyl palmitate) and alcohols (octyl dodecanol).

Choosing the right moisturizer

Choosing a moisturizer is a very personal preference.  Some women are willing to put up with the inconvenience of a greasier cream for the hydration benefits.  Other women want no oily residue so that they are free to apply makeup or use their hands immediately after applying.  But the main thing to remember is that your skin will look its best when it is hydrated both on the surface and on the inside.  That means drinking lots of water (try naturally flavored carbonated water if still water doesn’t excite you) and choosing a moisturizer for your skin type that prevents evaporation of water from your skin or attracts water to your skin.

Your $50 mistake is fixable

Most women would have no qualms about returning a toaster that didn’t work but balk at the idea of returning moisturizers or cosmetics that don’t satisfy them.  The truth is that most retailers will take back your beauty purchases, including moisturizers. (See Sephora’s return policy for example.) Your skin may react adversely to the moisturizer that you purchase but it may take a week or two for you to know that.  Also, the moisturizer may feel just fine on the back of your hand in the store but you may decide that you don’t like the feel of it on your face after a number of uses.

When you purchase your moisturizer, particularly if it is a more expensive department store item, ask what the return policy is if the product does not suit you.  In addition, don’t forget to ask for packaged samples as well as scoops from the actual testers.  Many retailers, Sephora in particular, provide little plastic containers so that you can scoop some product and take it home with you.  The sales assistants will label and date the container so you know the name of the product and when you purchased it.

And one final note that will help keep money in your wallet.  You don’t need separate creams for different parts of your body.  Obviously you would not use your $110 facial moisturizer all over your body—that would not make economic sense.  Nor would it be wise to use a scented body lotion on your face because the skin on your body tends to be tougher than the skin on your face, which could react badly to the perfume.  Also, lotions are thinner than creams because they have to cover a larger area; facial moisturizers tend to be more concentrated, which is exactly what you want if you have dry facial skin.  But beyond these common sense considerations, you don’t need to pay for a vast array of different creams for different body parts, or pay a ransom for those that are.

Recently Consumer Reports published this:

If you opt for using an eye cream, don’t expect it to be a cure-all. A recent study of 107 people who tried 16 different eye creams found that none of them eliminated wrinkles outright. In fact, several of the changes noted were extremely subtle, and cheaper eye creams performed just as well, if not better, than more expensive products.

The only caveat to this would be if you use a day cream with a sun protection factor (SPF), it is advisable not to put it under your eyes since it may be too much for the delicate tissue (not to mention if it gets into your eyes!)  Many lines such as La Roche-Posay, Avène, Vichy, Desert Essence, etc. produce highly rated, reasonably priced, unscented beauty products that have a number of different uses.

As much as the promise of new technology and the latest “anti-aging” ingredients can still turn our heads when it comes to moisturizer, the true anti-aging ingredient is water.  And it is simple and inexpensive ingredients that have been around for a long time that work to keep water in our skin or attract water to our skin from the environment.

This post was originally published in February, 2017.

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