Humectant vs Emollient vs Occlusive Hydration: What’s The Difference?

Humectant vs Emollient vs Occlusive Hydration: There are several types of moisturizers: moisturizers, emollients, humectants, and occlusives, which have different formulas, with different functions and different benefits.

But what is the difference between them anyway? Today, let’s talk a bit about these different types of hydrators.

Humectant vs Emollient vs Occlusive Hydration: What’s The Difference?

Let’s take a look at a quick definition that may help you understand the difference:

  • HUMECTANTS bring water from the air to the upper layers of the skin
  • EMOLLIENTS fill the skin and leave it soft (tasty to the touch) 
  • OCCLUSIVES prevent transepidermal water loss, forming a film on the surface of the skin keeping everything there, without evaporating.

The hydration of the skin completely occurs in 3 instances: humectants, emollients and occlusives (which can be semi-occlusive as well).

These 3 instances occur naturally in our skin through the stratum corneum, corneocytes and sebum and these instances are also reproduced in a good moisturizing cream through specific ingredients. 

These 3 instances of hydration are essential to maintain the health of the skin barrier.

Search for a moisturizer and you will already have the 3 instances together.

Another way to encounter the three instances is by combining different products.

You can make this happen by applying a humectant like hyaluronic acid or aloe vera, then emollients like jojoba oil, squalEne (not squalAne) and lastly an occlusive like butters, thicker oils and waxes.

In the next lines, we are sharing with you a bit more information so you can better understand.

Humectant vs Emollient vs Occlusive Hydration: What's The Difference?


Humectar means to leave wet, so humectants are substances that contain water in their formulation.

Humectants bind water molecules to themselves and, in turn, to the skin. This is called the hydroscopic effect.

When applied to the skin, it creates a layer that protects the skin from losing water to the external environment, keeping it moist.

These substances do not permeate into the stratum corneum, they form a hydrophilic film on the skin, retaining water on the surface of the stratum corneum.

They are also added to cosmetics to improve the consistency of the product, and so that it does not crystallize. 

hummectants attract free water that they find in the skin (or hair), as well as water that comes from the cosmetics we apply, preventing its evaporation and, therefore, moistening the keratin.

Among the wetting agents, the following stand out: glycerin, D-panthenol and hyaluronic acid.

Examples Of humectants

Glycerin, honey, aloe vera, sorbitol (derived from sugar cane), hyaluronic acid, marigold extract, sodium PCA, lactic acid and hydrolyzed proteins from wheat, baobab and rice. Others of an identical nature such as lithium chloride, urea, glyceryl triacetate, propylene glycol, hexylene glycol and butylene glycol.

Vitamins: Some vitamins that are added to cosmetic products have moisturizing properties in addition to other benefits. Among them are: vitamin A, which helps to maintain the thickness of the stratum corneum within normal values ​​and has an anti-aging action, as it restores damaged tissues; vitamin B5 has an emollient action; vitamin C in the form of an organic silicon derivative, ascorbic acid and pectin, fights free radicals and moisturizes the skin; Vitamin E also acts as an antioxidant, protecting the skin from a range of damage caused by free radicals, especially those induced by UV radiation.

Humectant vs Emollient vs Occlusive Hydration: What's The Difference?


Emollient comes from the Latin emollire, which means to soften, while Humectant means to moisten. 

Therefore, in the case of a finished cosmetic product, the difference is that one softens the skin and the other moistens it.

These are usually oils that create a protective barrier that prevents dryness, softening the skin.

Emollients work perfectly on their own, but if you’re looking for beautiful, silky, glowing, baby-smooth skin, use it in combination with a humectant and occlusive.

The most common ingredients in this group are vegetable oils (almond, argan, jojoba, olive, passion fruit, grape, etc.), which can be found as pure oil or as part of the formulation of creams and lotions.

Emollients decrease water loss and maintain the proper level of moisture in the stratum corneum, allowing skin flexibility.

By moistening the skin scales, the humectant ends up softening the skin.

For this reason we can also say that humectants are also a type of emollient. 

In addition, emollient oils, by lubricating the skin, make it difficult for water to evaporate, making the skin more moist. 

Consequently, an emollient or humectant cream is a cosmetic that makes the skin softer and hydrated and is also called a moisturizer.

Types Of Hydrators: What's the difference?


Occlusive substances work to form a physical barrier, a film on the top layer of the skin and prevent transepidermal water loss, they keep moisture locked in, trapped in the skin.

Products in this category do not hydrate the skin but create a protective barrier that prevents water loss. 

They do not increase the skin’s hydration levels, they prevent the skin’s water reserves from being stealed by external sources such as wind or a dry environment.

Be careful with occlusive products because if they are applied to dry and dehydrated skin, this situation worsens.

They work together with humectants and emollients to keep skin feeling soft, hydrated and luminous. 

Examples of this group are petroleum derivatives such as mineral oil (found in Johnson’s Baby), paraffin (such as Nivea cream) and Vaseline (such as Vasenol).

They can come from plants like candelilla waxes, carnauba wax and palm kernel, heavier oils like macadamia and castor oil (castor oil) and cocoa butter.


BeeswaxVegetable Waxes (carnauba wax, palm wax, candelilla wax, palm kernel oil)Vegetable Oils and Butters Rich in OLEIC ACID (In general, most vegetable oils are considered to be emollients, but some oils, particularly those rich in oleic acid, also function as occlusives, because of their properties. These oils are usually thicker like olive, avocado, rice bran, macadamia, castor/castor, shea butter and cocoa butter) LecithinAllantoin


Hydrate means: keep with water. 

Everything that keeps water in the skin is a hydrating substance, but with a specific action. 

Hydrating substances are different from emollients, humectants and occlusives because they have the ability to permeate the stratum corneum (external and superficial layer of the skin), acting more deeply. 

These are products that are anti-inflammatory and in addition to water, contain antioxidants, vitamins and other activities that nourish the skin, once they can permeate the stratum corneum.

Types Of Hydrators: What's the difference?

Humectant vs Emollient vs Occlusive Final Thoughts

The level of skin hydration, that is, the water content of the skin, can be restored by several means: air humidity, sweat, occlusives, humectants, moisturizers, among others.

You can benefit from a series of creams and lotions that help restore it (at least in part) and keep it properly hydrated.

Types Of Hydrators: What's the difference?

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