Is Moisturizing a Counterproductive (and Pricy!) Skincare Habit? Experts Weigh In

Is Moisturizing a Counterproductive (and Pricy!) Skincare Habit? Experts Weigh In
iStock/Martin Dimitrov

While a moisturizer should, in theory, do what it says on the box, some studies have shown that moisturizing can actually rob skin of its ability to repair and protect itself, pointing to negative effects on long-term skin health. Believe it or not, skin experts agree – if you’re not shopping smart, that is.

Debora Pokallus, CEO of Bel Essence, says that for years, she bought whatever grocery store moisturizer was on sale.

“My skin wasn’t improving,” she says. “There would be that momentary improvement, and it wasn’t getting any better.”

But just because some moisturizers are problematic doesn’t mean you shouldn’t moisturize at all.

“Moisturizers acts as a barrier between the skin and environmental aggressors,” explains Dr. Dendy Engelman, dermatologist at Manhattan Dermatology & Cosmetic Surgery. “A weak skin barrier will be more vulnerable and susceptible free radical damage, dryness, hyperpigmentation and other skin issues.”

So you do need to moisturize – you just need to put a bit more work in than just picking up whatever moisturizer’s on sale at the drugstore. Here are five top tips from the pros on how to keep your skin moist, healthy, and supple.

1. Eat Healthy

Keeping skin healthy starts on the inside. After all, your skin is an organ, like any other; in fact, skin is the largest organ in the body.

“If we have an unhealthy, unbalanced gut environment, toxins can be released into the bloodstream and cause inflammation throughout the body,” says Engelman. “Processed or artificial sugars, dehydration and nutrient deficiencies can play a major role in skin health.”

Unfortunately, even if you’re not eating that poorly, skin can also take a hit. Skin is often the last organ to get to take advantage of all of the great vitamins and minerals that you take in through your diet, so if you’re not eating enough of the compounds that promote skin health, that healthy glow might still be elusive.

“Our body has kind of a triage system,” explains Pokallus. “Whatever nutrition we take in goes to the most important functions first – and how our skin looks apparently is not top of the list.”

Vitamin A, C, and E as well as omega-3 and -6 fatty acids are just some of the compounds that are important for healthy skin, so it’s important to consume a diet rich in these compounds. That means eating lots of colorful fruits and vegetables for vitamin A and C, avocados and nuts for vitamin E, and organic meat and dairy, hemp seeds, or flax seeds for a good balance of omegas.

Some theories also point to the importance of a good balance of oleic and linoleic fatty acids.

“There’s a theory out there that if you are deficient in oleic fatty acid, then your skin tends to be dry,” explains Pokallus. “If you’re deficient in linoleic fatty acid, then your skin tends to be oily. If you keep that balance up in your system, then naturally, your skin is going to have what it needs to balance itself.”

Linoleic acid is found in soy and hemp, whereas oleic acid can be found in avocados, olive oil, and almonds.

2. Look for Natural Skincare Solutions

On top of eating healthy, our experts recommend you choose a great, all-natural moisturizer to keep your skin healthy.

“We strongly promote the use of natural ingredients as what you put on your skin is absorbed into your bloodstream within a couple of seconds – less that two minutes, to be exact,” explains Mituri Pradip of Nim-Veda Australia, a company devoted to Ayurvedic-based skincare.

Aside from skin absorbing synthetic compounds, Pradip also notes that some moisturizers can include drying ingredients, such as petroleum-based moisturizers.

“These products may feel initially that they are moisturizing the skin, but they actually seal off the skin, keeping air and moisture out.”

Denise Cartwright, master esthetician and founder of CRUDE Personal Care, also notes that many moisturizers include ingredients that could potentially be irritating to skin.

“Most of the 10,000+ ingredients used in personal care are under-studied and unregulated, and we just don’t know their broad effects on the skin,” she says.

Natural skincare ingredients, on the other hand, tend to be less irritating, and they are also often more beneficial than their synthetic counterparts.

“Natural oils penetrate into the deeper levels of the dermis – and that’s why people have found them so effective,” explains Rupinder Mangat of MEVEI luxury essential oils. “These oils are also made of ingredients that act in a similar way to the skin’s sebum layer and moisture barrier – reinforcing the skin’s protective layer, and providing protection from free radicals and pollution while locking moisture in.”

And different products have different benefits.

Nim-Veda’s products, for example, feature neem, a natural antibacterial, antifungal, and antiviral agent that helps keep skin clear and clean. Pokallus’ products, meanwhile, are made from a combination of antioxidant-rich all-natural oils including shea, olive oil, and avocado oil, which act like natural preservatives, keeping skin looking and feeling younger.

3. Choose the Right Moisturizer for Your Skin

People are often looking for a one-size fits all solution, buying into the trendiest new product and hoping it will have the same effect for them as it has for celebrities, Instagram stars, or friends. The reality, however, is that everyone’s skin is different, and you need to find the product that works for you.

“Dryness is not a single entity, but is characterized by differences in chemistry and morphology in the skin depending on the internal and external stressors of the skin,” explains plastic surgeon Dr. Ryan Neinstein.

Dr. Meghan Feely, board certified dermatologist and member of the American Academy of Dermatology, agrees that each patient needs his or her own moisturizer.

“Patients with acne often use medications that can irritate the skin, such as benzoyl peroxide and topical retinoids,” she says. “For a patient with acne, you would select a moisturizer that is non-comedogenic (i.e. does not cause comedones or “white heads”) and oil-free.”

But preexisting conditions aren’t the only thing you’ll want to consider.

“Many professionals in fields such as medicine, daycares, the food-service industry, etc. for instance experience dry skin due to repeated exposure to water from hand-washing,” says Feely. “Increased water exposure to the skin ironically dries it out.”

With so many companies trying to sell their products, however, what you really need to uncover the best natural skincare routine for you is an unbiased professional with your best interests at heart.

“In this century, where there are so many cosmetic companies, there is so much on the market, you have to find a person who truly works for you: not for her or his pocket,” says Anna Pamula of Renu Day Spa.

Several services are available to help people find the right skincare regimen for them, including Curology, a teledermatology company that provides access to high-quality dermatology care and custom prescription skincare, and The Skin Saint, which requires that patients fill out a Skin Checkup questionnaire with no fewer than 30 questions before offering counsel.

“Just like when you go to the gym, you’re looking for a personal trainer to teach you a few things, right, or you go to a class in yoga, you’re not the yoga teacher,” says Skin Saint founder and skin coach Holly Cutler, who notes that there are dozens of things that could affect skin, from time of year to travel habits to water and alcohol consumption.

“In our industry, everyone’s trying to figure it out for themselves, depending on what’s the latest article they read, and nobody has a true expert to guide them on their individualized needs.”

4. Change it Up

Just because a moisturizer works for a little while doesn’t mean it will work forever. Your skin is constantly evolving and changing.

“You should change your moisturizer two to three times a year with the seasons; it varies for everyone,” explains Souraya Hamdi founder of Scandic Botanica.

Skin can also change over time based on the products that are being used.

“If we do a consultation in July, and then we do a consultation in October, it’s a different skin,” says Cutler. “Your skin’s gonna be different in a month, in two months, just from the topicals that I put on your skin. It’s going to behave differently.”

She suggests checking in with an expert every quarter to make sure that your skincare regime is still right for you.

5. Cleanse Properly

One major element of moisturizing happens before you even put a cream, lotion, or oil on your face: cleansing.

“Properly moisturized skin actually begins with your cleanser,” says Cartwright. “Your skin’s sebaceous glands produce a natural, oil-based ‘shield’ that rests on top of your skin and acts as a barrier — keeping pathogenic bacteria out, and holding vital moisture in. Sudsing cleansers and exfoliants strip this shield, leaving your skin inflamed and unprotected, and you reliant on synthetic moisturizers and creams to replace what you stripped.”

“When you strip your skin of its natural oils like this, your body reacts by going into overdrive to compensate for the stripped oil, resulting in an overproduction of oil and potentially irritated, hypersensitive skin,” explains Mariska Nicholson, founder of Olive + M, a line of olive oil based skincare.

A plant-based, non-comedogenic cleansing oil can deep clean the skin without disrupting its natural moisture barrier.

“Though it sounds somewhat crazy at first, the idea of using natural oils to cleanse and moisturize the skin gently actually makes a lot of sense,” explains Mangat. “One of the most basic principals of chemistry is that ‘like dissolves like.’ The best way to dissolve a non-polar solvent like sebum/oil, is by using another non-polar solvent similar in composition: Other oils. By using the right oils, you can cleanse your pores of dirt and bacteria naturally, gently and effectively, while replacing the dirty oil with beneficial ones extracted from natural botanicals, vegetables and fruit that heal, protect and nourish your skin.”

Above all, with any of these tips, it’s essential to be patient. When using natural skincare solutions, it may take several weeks for your skin to fully react, but we promise, the results will be worth it.

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Emily Monaco

Emily Monaco is an American food and culture writer based in Paris. She loves uncovering the stories behind ingredients and exposing the face of our food system, so that consumers can make educated choices. Her work has been published in the Wall Street Journal, Vice Munchies, and Serious Eats.