How to Find the Best Moisturizer for Your Skin Type

Skin Science, How To

How to Find the Best Moisturizer for Your Skin Type

by Christine Yu
March 27, 2023

Moisturizing is the foundation of a strong skincare routine. Most other steps vary by personal preference, but every regimen needs a way to protect skin from the elements, pollution and UV rays.

All that is fine until it comes to actually choosing one. How do you know which is the best moisturizer for your skin type? Which ingredients are important? And is there really a major difference in how all these different moisturizers work, anyway?

We've all accidentally blocked a beauty aisle staring at endless shelves of tubs and bottles, each of them promising to send dry skin packing for good. Finding the right product can make a world of difference in how your skin looks and feels. Luckily, there's a product for every possible skin type — you just need to know what to look for.

Why Moisturize?

Back in high school biology class, you probably learned that skin is made up of different layers. The outermost layer, the stratum corneum, plays an important role in how your skin looks and feels — and, notably, it protects your skin from irritants.

Smooth, well-hydrated skin has a stratum corneum that's between 10% and 30% water, according to Harvard Medical School. Moisturizers give this external layer a little extra hydration and help it retain water, which keeps the outer layer of skin healthy, happy and free of uncomfortable cracks and inflammation. To do this, moisturizers typically rely on a combination of three main building blocks, along with water:

  1. Humectants. "Water magnets" like glycerin, hyaluronic acid, honey and panthenol attract water toward the stratum corneum, both from deeper layers of the skin as well as from the air around you.
  2. Occlusives. These prevent water from evaporating from your skin. Without them, any extra moisture you add would quickly dissipate. Occlusives tend to be waxy or oily substances, such as petrolatum, lanolin, lecithin, mineral oil and cetyl alcohol, or silicones like dimethicone and cyclomethicone.
  3. Emollients. This category describes ingredients that make skin feel soft and help to repair your skin barrier. Some occlusives and humectants can also act as emollients.

The exact formulation and ingredients you should be on the lookout for depend on your skin's unique needs. A moisturizer that's perfect for someone with oily skin probably isn't going to be hydrating enough for their friend with dry skin. And a moisturizer that cures one person's parched complexion in the driest winter months may leave someone with oily skin looking more than a little greasy.

Here's how to find the perfect moisturizer no matter your skin type.

Best Moisturizer for Dry Skin

Does your skin feel tight or flaky? Welcome to the world of dry skin. If you have a dry complexion, chances are your skin barrier allows a decent amount of moisture to escape. For some people, dry skin is just seasonal, thanks to cold, dry weather (Hello, winter skin!) or blazing summer sun. For others, parched is the name of the game year-round.

Your first instinct may be to replenish your skin with the thickest, goopiest moisturizer available, but not so fast! A few other considerations should go into your decision.

The best moisturizer for dry skin will likely contain humectants — the previously mentioned "water magnets" like hyaluronic acid and glycerin that attract moisture. Hyaluronic acid, which is found naturally in the skin, draws moisture into its upper layer while glycerin gently soothes redness and irritation in addition to banishing flaky skin.

We recommend:

Hydro Boost Water Cream Neutrogena Hydro Boost Water Cream with hyaluronic acid replenishes vital water content within skin's surface for more resilient, glowing skin. Ideal for dry, sensitive, and acne-prone skin, this face cream from a dermatologist-recommended skin care brand instantly delivers 9x more hydration compared to untreated skin.
  • Clinically proven to provide hydration for 72 hours
  • Non-comedogenic
  • Fragrance- and dye-free

Best Moisturizer for Oily Skin

Oily skin can make it tempting to wash your face over and over again rather than apply a daily moisturizer. That's the best way to get rid of excess shine, right?

While it may seem counterintuitive, according to the American Academy of Dermatology, a good moisturizer could be exactly what your skin needs. The truth is that stripping your skin of oils, whether through excessive face washing or from drying ingredients like salicylic acid, prompts your body to create even more oil.

While, to you, your face may feel greasy, your body notices the sudden lack of oil and thinks it's experiencing dry skin. In turn, it starts pumping out extra oil to make up for the loss. Keeping your skin properly hydrated may actually help manage the cycle of excess oil production.

The best face moisturizer for oily skin will be a lightweight product that doesn't feel heavy on your skin but still packs in the hydration. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends looking for a product that's oil free and non-comedogenic, meaning it won't clog pores.

We recommend:

Hydro Boost Water Gel Face Moisturizer with Hyaluronic Acid for Dry Skin Neutrogena Hydro Boost Water Gel Face Moisturizer with hyaluronic acid delivers a refreshing burst of hydration to reveal glowing skin. Ideal for dry, sensitive, and acne-prone skin, this facial moisturizer from a dermatologist-recommended skin care brand instantly delivers 6x more hydration compared to untreated skin.
  • Clinically proven to provide hydration for 48 hours
  • Non-comedogenic
  • Fragrance- and dye-free

Best Moisturizer for Dry, Sensitive Skin

Not only is your skin dry, but it also tends to itch, and become blotchy, burn or break out in rashes at the slightest provocation. Dry skin can be unpredictable when it's also sensitive, but the right moisturizer will keep skin balanced and calm.

Moisturizers for dry, sensitive skin need to be equally hydrating and nonirritating. (No, the sting doesn't just mean it's working.) Look for products that contain both emollients (like dimethicone), which help to repair your skin barrier, and humectants (like hyaluronic acid and glycerin), which attract and retain moisture.

Since your skin may be sensitive to some ingredients, the American Academy of Dermatology suggests seeking out fragrance-free products and steering clear of anything with alcohol, retinoids or alpha hydroxy acids.

We recommend:

Healthy Defense® Daily Moisturizer with Sunscreen Broad Spectrum SPF 50 Allergy-tested, this daily moisturizer moisturizes and protects sensitive skin from UVA/UVB rays. An exclusive antioxidant blend with pure Vitamin E helps prevent environmental damage.
  • Lightweight, non-greasy
  • Allergy-tested, non-comedogenic
  • SPF 50 and anti-aging Helioplex® Technology
Oil-Free Moisturizer Broad Spectrum SPF 15 Dermatologist-recommended, this sheer lotion is oil-free and clinically proven to combine long-lasting moisturization. It has zero drying alcohol and is hypoallergenic and fragrance-free—a great combo for dry, sensitive skin.
  • Non-comedogenic
  • Hypoallergenic, fragrance-free
  • Absorbs quickly

Best Moisturizer for Sensitive Skin

If it feels like everything from skincare ingredients to laundry detergents to environmental factors causes your skin to go into panic mode — red patches, stinging, burning, rashes, hives — your skin may be too sensitive for moisturizers that would otherwise be a fantastic match for your skin type.

According to the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, moisturizers are key to protecting sensitive skin from inflammation and other symptoms of conditions like atopic dermatitis. But, while sensitive skin can be associated with dry skin, they don't always go hand in hand. You may not need a heavy moisturizer if your skin doesn't feel tight and dry.

Instead, look for moisturizers labeled hypoallergenic, dye free and fragrance free — not just unscented. Unscented products may still feature fragrances to cover the smells of other ingredients in the product. Chamomile and aloe may also have calming benefits for sensitive skin.

We recommend:

Oil-Free Face Moisturizer For Sensitive Skin Gentle and effective, this water-based formula is perfect for sensitive skin and won’t leave your face feeling greasy. It ticks all the sensitive-skin-boxes:
  • Non-comedogenic, oil-free
  • Hypoallergenic, fragrance-free
  • Dermatologist-tested
  • Won’t dry out your skin
Naturals Multi-Vitamin Nourishing Moisturizer Vitamins B, C and E pack a punch in this fortified naturally derived face moisturizer. It’s clinically proven to boost your skin’s defense against dullness and roughness.
  • Allergy-tested
  • Free of harsh chemical sulfates, parabens, petrolatum, dyes, phthalates
  • Non-comedogenic

Best Moisturizer for Acne-Prone Skin

If your skin is prone to acne, a moisturizer may be the last thing you want to include in your skincare routine. Trust us — moisturizer won't plug up your pores or cause more breakouts. In fact, regularly applying moisture soothes acne-prone skin and restores the skin barrier, actually preventing further breakouts.

According to The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology, people with acne-prone skin may naturally have an uncooperative skin barrier. Add in factors like drying products (including popular acne remedies like benzoyl peroxide and retinoids) and the temptation to scrub acne-prone skin within an inch of its life, and even after breakouts have healed, this skin is more likely to be red, inflamed, flaky, irritated and dried out. And when your skin is dry, it makes up the difference by massively oversupplying oil — ultimately leading to more breakouts.

It's no wonder that you may find it hard to continue with these treatments when your skin just doesn't feel great and the breakout cycle never seems to stop.

The good news? Moisturizing combats the skin barrier dysfunction caused by topical medications. To pick the best moisturizer for acne-prone skin, the American Academy of Dermatology recommends looking for moisturizers that are labeled oil free and noncomedogenic and that soothe dryness and irritation, making it easier to stick to acne treatments for the long haul.

We recommend:

Rapid Clear Acne Defense Oil-Free Face Lotion Address acne with 2% salicylic acid and moisturize with dimethicone, an ingredient to help create a matte finish while locking in moisture to protect and heal.
  • Non-comedogenic, lightweight
  • Soothing botanicals
  • 2% salicylic acid
Rapid Tone Repair Moisturizer SPF 30 Even skin tone fast—and we mean fast—with this moisturizer is clinically proven to reduce the look of dark spots and discoloration. Retinol SA, vitamin C and an exclusive booster help smooth wrinkles, too.
  • Helps brighten dark spots
  • Retinol SA, vitamin C
  • Broad spectrum SPF 30

Best Moisturizer for Combination Skin

Ever feel like your skin can't make up its mind? If your cheeks are dry but you have an oily forehead and nose, you probably have combination skin. Different parts of your skin have seemingly conflicting needs — however, all of it needs a good daily moisturizer .

The best moisturizer for combination skin will work double duty. Ideally, it should hydrate the dry areas of your face without making the more oil-prone areas feel greasy. The Mayo Clinic recommends choosing an oil-free, medium-weight formula, which should have the best chance of striking the right balance.

If you've experimented with different products and nothing seems to keep your whole face in line, give your skin what it wants and split up your moisturizing routine for different parts of your face. Apply an oil-free formula on your T-zone and an oil-based one on the dry areas.

We recommend:

Pink Grapefruit Acne Face Moisturizer Get lightweight, oil-free moisture while fighting breakouts with salicylic acid. This moisturizer helps reveal hydrated, clear, soft skin.
  • Salicylic acid
  • Non-comedogenic, non-greasy
  • Refreshing smell

The Best Moisturizing Routine

Once you've picked up a moisturizer designed for your skin type, you'll need a solid moisturizing routine. Here's a basic one to follow:

  1. Do a patch test. Test any skincare product — not just moisturizer — before slathering it on your face to make sure it doesn't cause an allergic reaction, redness or breakouts.
  2. Wash gently. Depending on your skin type, you should wash your face once or twice a day (and additionally as you feel it's necessary, such as after a workout). Use a gentle cleanser and warm (rather than scalding hot) water to rinse.
  3. Apply moisturizer to damp skin. Don't dry your skin completely after washing. Pat your face until most of the water is gone, and then apply your moisturizer while your skin is still damp. This will help your skin absorb the product and lock in extra moisture. If you've already dried your face, you can always swipe on a toner or spritz a face mist before you moisturize.
  4. Wear SPF for daytime. Don't forget to apply your broad-spectrum sunscreen after you moisturize in the morning! Reapply moisturizer and your sunscreen as needed — if your skin tends to feel parched by the afternoon, it's OK to whip out your moisturizer for a quick refresh.

If you use a topical medication, such as an acne treatment or a medicated steroid cream, your process will look slightly different. Apply your treatment right after rinsing your face, and then wait 30 minutes to moisturize. That way, the treatment has time to penetrate the skin and get to work.

Finding the best moisturizer for your skin type is no small project, but it's worth finding a staple that consistently gives your skin a natural, healthy glow. Don't be afraid to experiment until you find one with the perfect texture, scent and skin benefits. With so many moisturizers on the market, you're bound to find one that gives your skin exactly what it needs.

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I'm a New York City-based freelance writer covering health, science, and all things wellness who has finally embraced oil-based cleansers.

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