You might be surprised to learn that a lot of moisturisers on the market can actually contribute to the dehydration of your skin barrier with long term use. This may sound far fetched or strange, but if you have an understanding of how your skin functions, it's clear to see that most commercial moisturisers are not the best solution for maintaining healthy, hydrated skin. They can interfere with the function of your skin's natural barrier, causing moisture loss each time it comes into contact with water, leaving you dry and needing even more moisturiser to relieve the tightness or itchiness. This was the case for me for a long time, and if it sounds at all familiar, read on and find out why!
The cosmetic industry has long attempted to brainwash us with the same recurring themes: Dead skin is bad and must be removed; oil is bad and must be removed (or "oil-free" products should be used by people with oily skin); and that skin hydration depends entirely on the type of moisturiser you apply.
Let's look a bit closer at each of these ideas:
The outermost layer of your skin, called the stratum corneum, is made up of dead skin cells. They stack together like a brick-and-mortar structure. This incredibly thin layer is our body's first line of defense against the foreign bodies and toxins in the environment around us, and is integral to the health of the underlying skin layers.
Inside each of these dead skin cell "bricks" are water-soluble natural moisturising factors, which keep the skin beneath from drying out. Surrounding the "bricks" are fatty acids and ceramides - these are lipids (oil) and they form the "mortar".
When soap and water are introduced to the skin, this layer swells right up, and the water, aided by the soap, starts to travel in between the "bricks". When it is rinsed away, some of the lipids and the natural moisturising factors are stripped away too, leaving the skin drier than before. This is why people with dry skin feel that their skin is so tight and itchy after a shower.
The stratum corneum renews itself every 4 - 6 weeks, so excessive or overly aggressive exfoliation is not necessary and can easily disrupt this delicate layer. A damaged skin barrier will allow too much water to seep into the layers below, further drying out the skin. This is especially true for eczema sufferers, who have a malfunctioning outer layer of skin that is very easy to aggravate with incorrect products and bathing methods.
As mentioned above, lipids are the "mortar" surrounding the dead skin cells in the stratum corneum, that help to retain moisture in the deeper layers of the skin. Regular bathing with hot water and any product that lathers will strip this oil away, leaving the skin bare and compromising its barrier function. In some people this can cause an excess of oil production as the skin senses that something is wrong and tries to replace the lost oil. The lipids in the skin are absolutely crucial to maintaining its health, and people suffering from greasy skin should recognise that attacking this oil and stripping it away with harsh, drying products will only make the problem worse.
Pure plant oils and butters are rich in fatty acids and are highly beneficial to the skin. Applying these after bathing can help to regulate the oil production of the skin, which is helpful to dry and greasy skin alike. This is contrary to what many cosmetic companies will have you believe, as they try to sell you "oil-free" formulations for your oily skin.
Oily skin indicates out-of-balance skin, and rather than look for oil-free products, it is better to look at:
a) your diet, to see what could be missing that your skin needs, or what foods could be contributing indirectly to your skin's condition, and
b) what you are washing your skin with, and whether this is removing too much oil and sending the sebaceous glands into overdrive.
Skin care oils do not penetrate the skin barrier as quickly as moisturiser does. They absorb more slowly, helping to replenish any lost lipids. Some oils like jojoba and meadowfoam seed oil contain similar lipids to those found in human skin, which makes them excellent moisturisers because the skin can recognise and use the components in the oils to nourish itself.
While it all comes down to personal preference and everyone's skin is unique, I firmly believe that most commercial moisturisers can do more damage than good. They are made up mostly of water, with a small oil content and a mixture of alcohols to aid in absorption. Because a moisturiser is water based, it travels through the skin barrier much more quickly than pure oil. This can be a good or bad thing, depending on the other ingredients in the moisturiser.
Some moisturisers contain true alcohols. These are included for several reasons. They keep the formula stable, and make it light and easily absorbed, with a smooth silky feel. But to achieve that, the alcohols act like battering rams, penetrating the skin barrier to let the other ingredients deeper into the skin. This is great when it gives us immediate relief from dryness, but what about the damaged outer layer left behind?
The next time you hop in the shower, the water is going to seep into the skin barrier with ease, and leach some more moisture away with it when you towel off. This will cause your skin to feel tight and dry, and you will need to apply more moisturiser to relieve it - relief which will last only until your skin comes into contact with water again! This is an obvious vicious cycle, one that I dealt with for years, going through bottle after bottle of moisturiser yet always having dry skin. It is easy to see how this benefits the cosmetic industry... but how does it benefit YOU?
That said, not all moisturisers are made equal. Natural moisturisers are made with rich concentrations of nourishing oils, and no true alcohols to dry your skin. A truly natural moisturiser will not dry out your skin barrier with regular use.
I have found that it is good to alternate between a natural moisturiser and a body oil, to keep your skin balanced and capable of maintaining its barrier function. It may be hard at first to switch from commercial moisturiser to oil if you have very dry skin, but if you stick with it you will be pleasantly surprised at the results!