Beauty 

Why Moisturizers May Be Bad For Your Skin

September 04, 2021 6 min read

Why Moisturizers May Be Bad For Your Skin

At a glance

Just because dry skin isn’t typically a medical concern doesn’t mean it’s not a serious annoyance. Over time, dry skin can result in ahost of unpleasant symptoms, including itchiness, redness and general discomfort. While moisturizer is the remedy typically recommended for dry or scaly skin, some medical experts question whether this product does all that it claims. 


Moisturizers work bypreventing water loss in the skin’s outer layer. While many dermatologists recommend applying moisturizer to the face and body on a daily basis, others caution that using the wrong products—or overusing them—can have a negative effect on your skin’s pH balance. Over time, improper moisturizer use can cause the skin to thin and weaken while becoming less tolerant to environmental conditions. The end result is often clogged pores, breakouts and seriously dry skin.


Fortunately, there are steps you can take to ensure you’re choosing a moisturizer that will protect your skin rather than harming it. Moreover, there are moisturizers on the market that offer better support for sensitive skin. Keep reading to learn whether your moisturizer is harming rather than helping and discover what you can do to protect your skin for the long term. 

 

Is moisturizer doing more harm than good for your skin? 


An increasing number of dermatologists are positing that moisturizers may be doing more harm than good. UCSF dermatology professorPeter Elias, MD, has been conducting research on the topic for 45 years. According to Dr. Elias, many patients with dry skin initially felt relief after using moisturizer, but hours later their skin seemed dryer than before. 


Dr. Elias suggests that moisturizer can throw off the skin’s natural balance. The surface of the skin is made up of dead cells called corneocytes, which are held together by cholesterol, ceramides and fatty acids. According to Elias, these three lipids should be present in equal ratios. However, using the wrong moisturizer can alter the balance and prevent the membrane sheaths from completely filling the spaces between skin cells. The result is a situation Elias describes as“Swiss cheese” of the skin


The body may release cytokines in an attempt to heal skin that has been damaged in this manner. These small molecules work to trigger the inflammatory response, which results in healing. Unfortunately, in those with sensitive skin, the enzymes that produce those critical lipids fail to function appropriately. The body continues to release cytokines without healing the injury.

Moisturizers typically contain ingredients designed to prevent skin from overdrying. However, some lotions are missing “mortar” ingredients that fill the spaces between cells. While people with normal skin are unlikely to have a reaction to their moisturizer, individuals with sensitive skin may suffer inflammation, irritation and other negative symptoms.

 

Do you need to be careful when choosing a moisturizer?

Choosing the right moisturizer can have a profound effect on how your skin looks and feels. This is particularly important for those with preexisting skin conditions. For example, individuals with rosacea, atopic dermatitis, eczema or acne should take special care when selecting a moisturizer, as many of these conditions can be triggered by a new beauty item. 


If you’re suffering from rashes or redness, it might be time to switch up your moisturizingroutine. Considerchoosing a lotion that’s mild and fragrance-free. After all,fragrances are known to result in both skin allergies and irritation. Additionally, you may want to avoid beauty products containing retinol and hydroxy acids. Although these ingredients have anti-aging benefits, they are more likely to irritate the skin. When in doubt, stick to simple products with minimal ingredients. 


Finally, individuals with acne-prone skin should also take care when selecting a moisturizer. Some experts recommend using a serum or hydrating gel with hyaluronic acid instead of a cream, which may be more likely to clog skin. While acne patients are often focused on drying out their skin, they likely need to be using a daily moisturizer as well. Depending on your skin type, you may be better off using a water-based moisturizer rather than one that’s oil based.


Those with acne may also want to select lotions and makeups that are labeled as non-comedogenic. These products profess to be non-clogging or oil free, meaning that they don’t cause breakouts. Non-comedogenic moisturizers also work to break down excess oil without removing the natural moisture from your skin. 

 

a man stands in a bathroom looking in the mirror and putting moisturizer on his face

 

What’s the best moisturizer for sensitive skin?

People with sensitive skin need to take special care when choosing a moisturizer. It’s important to understand that skin functions like a sponge. In other words, your skin will absorb the products it needs while leaving the rest to sit on top of the skin’s surface. As a result, using too much moisturizer may mean letting your expensive lotion go to waste. Additionally, overusing moisturizer—or using the wrong type of moisturizer entirely—can lead to clogged pores, bumps and breakouts.  


If your skin is prone to irritation, you might want to choose a moisturizer that’s been formulated for repairing skin. These products contain the right proportions of “mortar ingredients.” According to astudy by Dr. Elias, using a moisturizer that contains the right amount of lipids resulted in lowered cytokine levels and reduced inflammation. In addition, individuals with sensitive skin should avoid moisturizers that contain the following:

  • Sulfates
  • Alcohol
  • Preservatives
  • Dyes
  • Fragrances
  • Salicylic, lactic and glycolic acids

While some ingredients are bound to irritate sensitive skin, other moisturizer components can have the opposite effect. Soothing and hydrating ingredients include ceramides, hyaluronic acid, soy, colloidal oatmeal and aloe vera. 

 

Choosing the right moisturizer for you 

The first step in selecting the right moisturizer is determining your skin type. Below are themain skin types along with the principal characteristics of each:

  • Dry: This skin type is prone to flaking and dryness, and may feel tight or irritated throughout the day. Dry skin tends to require a heavier, oil-based moisturizer.
  • Oily: If you’re suffering from congested pores or acne, you may have oily skin. Most people with this skin type benefit from a light, water-based lotion. 
  • Mature: Older individuals should seek out an oil-based moisturizer designed to preserve and hold in moisture. 
  • Sensitive: If your skin is frequently red, itchy or irritated, you likely have sensitive skin. Consider a moisturizer with soothing, gentle ingredients.
  • Normal/Combination: These individuals may suffer from dryness on the cheeks and oily skin on the t-zone (forehead, nose, and chin). If your skin is both dry and oily, opt for a light, water-based moisturizer or gel that won’t clog your pores.

You can perform a simple test to determine your skin type. Start by grabbing a few sheets of tissue paper. Then, simply press the paper to various parts of your face, paying attention to how much oil the paper absorbs. If there’s a lot of oil, you may have oily or combination skin. If the paper is dry, you’re probably experiencing dry skin. 


Your dermatologist can recommend a moisturizer based on your unique skincare concerns and goals, or you can do your homework online to find the right product for your skin type and lifestyle.

 

In summary

Consumers often make the mistake of thinking all moisturizers are created equal. Moreover, years of hearing about the importance of moisturizing has made some of us assume that we can’t go wrong by piling on the lotion. However, recent studies indicate that many of the moisturizers on the market lack the “mortar ingredients” needed to protect skin or contain them in the wrong percentages. As a result, individuals may experience a change in the skin’s pH and suffer negative symptoms like redness and irritation. 


If you want to avoid the condition some dermatologists describe as the “Swiss cheese effect,” it’s important to take care when selecting a moisturizer. If you suffer from sensitive skin, consider replacing your current lotion with a mild, fragrance-free option free from acids and sulfates. On the other hand, those withacne-prone skin may benefit from a water-based lotion or serum with hyaluronic acid.


Age also plays a role when it comes to choosing a moisturizer. While younger individuals may be more prone to oily skin and acne, older adults have a tendency to suffer from dryness. If you have mature skin, look for a hydrating moisturizer that also boasts anti-aging properties. 


April Maguire - Contributing Writer, Physician’s Choice