Moisturisers (and other ways to prevent dry skin)

Moisturisers. Many swear by them. Others, swear that they do nothing. Here’s a close up of moisturisers in action.

The UK cosmetics industry is estimated to add an annual £17bn to the UK economy1, with skincare making up almost a quarter of this in 20162. So are these really anti-ageing ointments or just modern-day snake oil?

Dr. Sweta Rai of the British Association Dermatologists says: “A moisturiser’s job is to maintain an outer armour on the skin which prevents against infection and helps skin conditioning. If you’re using a good moisturiser for you, then it will be doing a good job for your skin.”

Oil and water, bricks and mortar


Oil is one of the key ingredients in moisturisers, as it locks moisture into the skin. Dr. Rai thinks that a lot of us are probably not using the best kind of moisturiser to match our skin type. She suggests that those of us with oily skin should use moisturiser with more water, and if we have dry skin we should be using one with a little more oil3.

Skin is the body’s largest organ, with a surface area of about 2 square metres and a weight of 3.6kg for adults4It is built in layers of cells, the outermost of which are constructed of cells called corneocytes and various lipids (fats) between them. Together, the two are often compared to bricks (corneocyte cells) and mortar (the lipids between them), since this layer of skin forms a protective barrier to the more sensitive ones underneath5.

In this top layer of skin, the Stratum Corneum, dead cells (corneocytes) play a vital role in keeping water locked into the skin via various substances they contain. Holding the right balance of water in this layer (ideally 20-30% of its volume) is key to regulating the way the skin sheds dead cells, because the water effects the enzymes that control this process. When this process (known by dermatologists as desquamation) is out of balance, the skin can become dry or flaky.

Our skin naturally dries out as we get older, from life-long exposure to the sun, cold weather, and central heating or air conditioning systems.

Moisturisers: the key ingredients

Moisturisers come in many forms, each with a slightly different balance of ingredients, including:

  • Water: this is often listed as the first ingredient in moisturisers, many of which are oil-in-water emulsions. Dry skin is a lack of water, not oil, but without the oil the stratum corneum will struggle to keep water locked in
  • Occlusives: these hold water in the moisturiser itself after it has been applied or soak in water from the atmosphere
  • Humectancts: these draw water up from a lower layer of the skin (the dermis), as well as partly from the air
  • Emollients: these fill in rough areas and make the skin feel smoother, but don’t actually affect the skin’s water retention
  • Vitamins: Topical retinoid acid, which is a form of vitamin A, can reduce fine lines and wrinkles in the skin by stimulating the production of collagen. Other vitamins are sometimes used - Vitamin C for antioxidant properties, and Vitamin E for its preservative ones5.

Tips for preventing dry skin

Moisturisers might not be for everybody, but many find them useful for supporting the skin’s natural processes. Here are a few key tips for healthy skin:

  • Hot air normally has less moisture than cooler air, so turning your thermostat down could keep your home from drying your skin
  • However, air that’s too cold can also dry your skin, so protect yourself from cold weather
  • Lower the temperature of your bath or shower: hot water takes away the natural fatty substances in the skin which retain water
  • Wear looser clothes where possible: tight ones can dry your skin if they rub too much
  • Bath oils, diluted in warm water, can make a good post-shower moisturiser
  • Choose mild cleansers and soaps to retain the natural oils in your skin4

You can find out more about our dermatology services here, or book a dermatology consultation with one of our consultants. 

To find out more call us on 0808 101 0337
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