Dehydrated skin is very common in winter, when cold dry air speeds up water evaporation from skin. It’s also made worse with air conditioning and recirculated aeroplane air. Exfoliants, moisturisers and masks help, but sometimes what your skin really needs is a targeted humectant product that will give a hardcore hydration boost.
What is dehydrated skin?
Dry skin occurs when you don’t have enough oil in your skin, while dehydrated skin occurs when your skin is lacking water. Dry and dehydrated skin are related issues, but they don’t necessarily appear together – your skin can be dry and hydrated, or it can be oily and dehydrated (like mine).
What are humectants?
Humectants are one of the three classes of moisturiser ingredients (the other two are occlusives and emollients). Humectant ingredients are good at holding onto water, a bit like a sponge. Applying a humectant moisturiser essentially means you’ll have a bunch of teeny tiny wet sponges sitting on your skin, keeping it moist.
(The more technical version: Humectant ingredients tend to contain lots of oxygen (O) and hydroxy groups (OH), which can form strong hydrogen bonds with water. This means it’s harder for water to evaporate and escape once it’s on your humectant-covered skin.
Glycerin, a common humectant ingredient, also has the advantage of being able to travel and take water through small channels in the skin called aquaporins, so it can hydrate more deeply.)
What are the benefits of humectants?
Humectants, occlusives and emollients are found in moisturising creams and lotions, which are a must for your morning and evening routines if your skin is dehydrated. However, in dry weather, your skin might dehydrate between moisturiser applications, or your regular skincare routine might now be enough.
Here’s where humectant sprays come in! Unlike occlusives and emollients, humectants are water-based. Since makeup and sunscreen is oil-based, applying oils during the day will mess up your makeup and sunscreen. The beauty of a humectant mist is that they will hydrate your skin with as little disturbance as possible.
Unfortunately, water-based humectant products usually don’t come in spray form! They’re commonly designed mostly to be used after cleansing and before serum in a skincare routine, so they come in toner-like bottles with a small hole so you can apply them using a cotton pad or your fingers (they’re sometimes labelled as toners too). I transfer these into cheap spray bottles from the variety store, and watch out carefully for signs of rusting (you can also get spray bottles from eBay or Amazon). It also makes them a lot more portable for hydration when you’re out or in the office.
Humectant waters don’t have a common name, so to find them you’ll have to look at the ingredients lists! You’re looking for a product that is quite watery, with a humectant near the top of the ingredients list. Common humectant ingredients include glycerin and hyaluronic acid.
Here are three products that I’ve been using:
Burt’s Bees Intense Hydration Nourishing Facial Water
Burt’s Bees Intense Hydration Nourishing Facial Water is the first product I’ve seen that’s specifically designed to be a humectant water, which I reviewed a while ago. It’s mostly water and glycerin with some fruit extracts thrown in for antioxidant effects and to make it smell nice. It’s $12.99 for 118 mL (4 fl oz) in the US, and $24.95 in Australia.
Ingredients: Water, Glycerin, Actinidia Chinensis (Kiwi) Fruit Water, Propanediol, Salix Nigra (Willow) Bark Extract, Salvia Sclarea (Clary) Extract, Caesalpinia Spinosa Gum, Polyglyceryl-4 Caprate, Sodium PCA, Fragrance, Potassium Sorbate, Sodium Benzoate, Phenoxyethanol.
Jurlique Activating Water Essence
Jurlique Activating Water Essence is a humectant water from the very luxe natural Australian brand Jurlique. The humectants in it are a bit more exotic, with biosaccharide gum-1, saccharide isomerate and Althaea officinalis (marshmallow) root extract alongside glycerin to hydrate in multiple ways. This is my favourite product of the three, but it’s not cheap at $70 for 150 mL in Australia (not sure what the US price is). It spreads nicely so you don’t need much product, and it’s a bit more hydrating than the Burt’s Bees water.
Ingredients: Aqua (Water/Eau), Propanediol, Biosaccharide Gum-1, Saccharide Isomerate, Glycerin, Caprylyl/Capryl Glucoside, Prunus persica (Peach) Leaf Extract, Althaea officinalis Root Extract, Xanthan Gum, Polyglyceryl-5 Oleate, Sodium Cocoyl Glutamate, Glyceryl Caprylate, Hamamelis virginiana (Witch Hazel) Extract, Equisetum arvense Extract, Calendula officinalis Flower Extract, Rosmarinus officinalis (Rosemary) Leaf Extract, Lavandula angustifolia (Lavender) Flower Extract, Urtica dioica (Nettle) Extract, Melissa officinalis Leaf Extract, Achillea millefolium Extract, Origanum majorana Leaf Extract, Salvia officinalis (Sage) Leaf Extract, Mentha piperita (Peppermint) Leaf Extract, Melia azadirachta Extract, Fragrance/Parfum, Citric Acid, Phenoxyethanol, Potassium Sorbate, Ethylhexylglycerin, Limonene, Linalool, Citronellol, Geraniol, Citral, Farnesol.
Thayer’s Alcohol-Free Witch Hazel With Aloe Vera
Thayer’s Alcohol-Free Witch Hazel With Aloe Vera contains irritation-killing witch hazel as well as glycerin, which will moisturise and hydrate. The bottle I have smells of rose, but it also comes in unscented and lavender varieties. It’s very inexpensive, at $8 for 355 mL (12 fl oz) in the US, but it’s not easily found in Australia (iHerb has it for $11.50) and the hydration effect is noticeably less long-lasting than the first two products, possibly because glycerin is a bit further down the ingredients list.
Ingredients: Purified Water, Aloe Barbadensis Leaf Juice (Certified Organic Filet Of Aloe Vera), Glycerin (Vegetable), Fragrance (Natural Rose), Hamamelis Virginiana Extract (made from Certified Organic Witch Hazel), Rosa Centifolia (Rose) Flower Water, Citric Acid, Citrus Grandis (Grapefruit) Seed Extract.
For a super-budget version, you can also mix your own humectant-based spray using glycerin and water in a 1:10 ratio, but you’ll have to remake it frequently if you don’t add preservative.
There are also a whole bunch of budget-friendly toners from Asian skincare brands that look very hydrating, but I’m yet to try them.
What about alcohol-based humectant sprays?
There are a bunch of alcohol-based toner sprays available, which contain humectant ingredients. However, alcohol acts like the opposite of a humectant – it grabs onto water and speeds up its evaporation, so it can make dehydration worse! The humectants in the spray can counteract this, but it still means the humectants aren’t hydrating as well as they could be. For that reason, I don’t like using alcohol-based sprays in winter, even though I don’t think there’s enough evidence that alcohol damages the skin in any other way.
Why are the humectants so watered down?
You might be thinking that a pure humectant would work the best, to get the highest concentration of beneficial ingredients on your skin. However, if your humectant product doesn’t contain water, it’s like applying dry sponges to your skin. This causes water to come up through the lower layers of your skin to sit at the top. While this does make the surface layers moist, and theoretically your body is an almost-bottomless vat of water, it can cause very temporary dehydration in your skin later on, and you won’t get an instant boost of moisture. Additionally, pure humectant moisturisers tend to be unpleasantly sticky. So you want the product to be mostly water!
Do you use a separate humectant product? What’s your favourite?
Burt’s Bees and Jurlique products were provided for editorial consideration, which did not affect my opinion. This post also contains affiliate links – if you decide to click through and support Lab Muffin financially (at no extra cost to you), thank you! For more information, see Disclosure Policy.