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How to choose a moisturizer for the winter

Updated: May 19, 2023


Disclaimer: The information in this article is not meant as specific individual medical advice. Please consult your dermatologist or other medical professional about your skin or medical condition.


Winter is one of the hardest times for dry skin. The combination of low humidity from dry cold outdoor air and heated warm indoor air, can cause skin that is already dry to become cracked, itch and even become inflamed. I hope the information here can help you choose a moisturizer that is suitable for your skin type, especially for this winter.

Why use a moisturizer?

One of the most important parts of a skincare routine is a moisturizer. A moisturizer is meant to keep your face and skin hydrated, feeling soft and smooth. When the skin is dry and dehydrated, it is prone to cracking and becoming inflamed, which leads to redness or itching.

A moisturizer works by drawing moisture into the skin as well as preventing water from being loss from the skin to the environment.

What are the main ingredients in a moisturizer?

There are three main active ingredients in a moisturizer are

1. Humectants

2. Emollients

3. Occlusives

Humectants hydrate your skin by drawing water up from the middle portion of your skin (dermis) to the outer layers (stratum corneum) of your skin. In humid conditions, humectants also help to draw and hold moisture from the atmosphere to the epidermis.

Some common humectants found in moisturizers are hyaluronic acid, lactic acid, glycerin, propylene glycol, vitamin B5 (panthenol), ammonium lactate, urea and sorbitol.

Emollients are mainly oils and fatty compounds that fill in rough spots in the outer layer of the skin and function as lubricants to make the skin feel smooth.

Examples of emollients are lanolin, silicone derivates like dimethicone and cyclomethicone, stearic acid (in cocoa butter and shea butter), oleic acid (from olive oil), jojoba oil, castor oil, sunflower seed oil glycerides.

Occlusives provide a barrier to reduce moisture loss from by epidermis through evaporation. Several emollients also have occlusive function.

The most common occlusives are petrolatum, petroleum jelly, lanolin, mineral oil, beeswax, paraffin and silicone derivatives like dimethicone.

Other beneficial active ingredients in moisturizers are

1. Ceramides

2. Vitamin C

3. Retinol

Ceramides are naturally occurring fatty acids in the skin that plays a crucial role in forming a healthy barrier IT is like a natural glue that holds the skin cells together. They help keep moisture in, and harmful irritants out. While your skin naturally contains ceramides, sun damage and natural aging depletes the skin’s ceramide over time. When the skin is deficient in ceramides, it becomes dry and cracked. Ceramides found in moisturizers are eecially helpful for those with dry and sensitive skin.

Vitamin C (also known as ascorbic acid) is often added to mositurziers for its antioxidant effect. Vitamin C has been shown to protect against sun damage, increase collagen production and decrease skin pigmentation.

Retinols are derived from vitamin A, and after often added to moisturizing creams used at night. While retinols are different and not as strong as retinoids (like tretinoin), retinols help to stimulate collagen production, smooth out fine lines and reduce skin pigmentation. However, retinols commonly cause skin dryness, and is not recommended if your skin is already dry.

Main types of moisturizers

There are 4 main types of moisturizers.

1. Gels

2. Lotions

3. Creams

4. Ointments

Gels are water-based and feels light on the skin. It dries quickly, and is useful for people with oily skin type and dry areas.

Lotions are slight thicker than gels, and is also usually water-based. It also dries relatively quickly, and is useful for people with normal skin.

Creams are thicker than lotions, and may be water or oil-based. These stay on the skin for longer and is helpful for people with normal and dry skin.

Ointments are the thickest form of moisturizers, and are oil-based. These stay on the skin and leave what feels like a coat of oil on the skin, and is especially helpful for people with dry skin.

How to choose a moisturizer for your skin type?

It is important to know your skin type when choosing a moisturizer.

There are 5 basic skin types:

1. Normal skin - where skin is well balanced, not too dry or oily

2. Dry skin - where skin feels tight, rough, flaky, scaly or even have cracks and splits in the skin

3. Oily skin – where the skin feels greasy from excessive sebum production

4. Combination of dry and oil skin – where the skin is oily in certain areas like the T-zone of the face, and dry in others

5. Sensitive skin – where the skin tends to be irritated by skin care products leading to redness, burning or breaktouts

For most people with normal skin type, where the skin is not excessively dry, a lighter water-based moisturizing gel, lotion or cream will be sufficient for reducing dry skin.

For people with dry skin, a heavier oil-based moisturizing cream or ointment will be more effective. Ceramides in moisturizers also helpful with reducing dry skin. Retinols which dry the skin are probably best avoided.

For people with oily skin or combination oily skin with dry areas, it is better to use a lighter water-based moisturizing gel or lotion, and apply it only to areas that are dry. Retinol may be helpful in reducing oil production on the face.

For those with sensitive skin, it is important to choose fragrance free moisturizers as fragrances are one of the most common ingredients in skin care products that cause skin irritation. In addition, select a moisturizer that has overall fewer ingredients to avoid being exposed to a potential skin irritant.

How to apply a moisturizer?

The best time to apply a moisturizer is when the skin is still moist, like after a shower.

For facial skin care routines, it is best to apply the moisturizer after cleaning the face while the face is still damp to lock in the hydration.

The steps in a typical morning facial skin care routine are:

1. Cleanse

2. Prescription treatments or toner (if used)

3. Moisturize

4. Sun screen

Moisturizing products containing retinol are best used at night because they are degraded by sun exposure.

I hope the information in this article has been useful in helping you choose and use a moisturizer for your skin. For questions specific for your skin condition, please consult with your dermatologist or other medical professional.


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