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Hydrator vs Moisturizer | Weirdskin

Updated: Jan 9

There exists a variety of skincare actives when it comes to skincare that are reputed for hydrating and/or moisturizing the skin. But what exactly do these words mean? A lot of brands use these two terms interchangeably but do you understand what they mean? In this article, you will learn the difference between hydration and moisture in skincare and how to pick products based on this.

Hydrators and moisturizers from different skincare brands. Such as Eucerin, Cerave, Olay, T'IAM, The Ordinary, and Skin1004.

What is a Hydrator?

Hydration refers to the amount of water present in the skin. As such, actives referred to as hydrating or hydrators, are ingredients that help increase the levels of water in the skin.

The Ordinary's hyaluronic acid serum which serves as a hydrator in skincare.

These ingredients are scientifically called humectants, due to their ability to build up water or draw moisture from the atmosphere into the skin to increase its water levels. The most common hydrating actives include;

  • Hyaluronic acid

  • Panthenol

  • Aloe vera

  • Rice water

  • Glycerin

  • Snail mucin

  • Urea

  • honey

  • Lactic acid

What is a Moisturizer?

The word moisturizer can be used to refer to an ingredient that contributes to increase and retain moisture in the skin. They are classified into various categories which include emollients (nourish and reinforce the skin barrier), occlusives (trap water or moisture in the skin), humectants ( draw water into the skin), and protein builders.

A facial moisturizer from the skincare brand Cerave.

It also can be used to refer to a type of product whose specific goal is to increase and

/or retain moisture in the skin as well as nourish it. Body lotions and creams are all referred to as moisturizers as their main role is to keep the skin properly moisturized. Examples of moisturizing ingredients include;

  • plant oils and butters (shea butter, coconut oil, cocoa butter, etc.)

  • niacinamide

  • squalane

  • ceramides

  • peptides

  • Petrolatum

  • beeswax

  • mineral oil

  • lanolin

Hydration vs Moisture

The general misconception is that hydrating is reserved for people with dry skin types. This is pretty misleading as leaving oily skin dehydrated will send the sebaceous glands into overdrive and result in the production of even more oil on the face. I can’t stress this enough, every skin type needs to be constantly hydrated. This will guarantee the protective barrier of your skin stays healthy. Check my article on how to know your skin type if you haven’t yet figured that out.


While there isn’t a standard definition for what moisturizers and hydrators are, the difference lies in the way products falling under each category work to bring moisture to the skin.


The word moisturizer is used to make broad reference to 4 main moisturizer types: emollients, humectants, and occlusives. Now hold up a minute, we are going to break down these technical terms.

  • Emollients are lipids, oils, and butters that help restore the skin’s barrier e.g. coconut oil, shea butter, mango butter, etc.

  • Occlusives act as a physical barrier to help prevent water loss from the skin’s surface while protecting the skin from external irritants. Common occlusives included waxes (beeswax, jojoba oil), oils, mineral oil, lanolin, etc.

  • Humectants work by extracting water molecules from the air and pulling them into the skin’s surface. Common humectants include glycerine, honey, aloe vera, hyaluronic acid, molasses, etc.

Now here is where it gets a little tricky, products labeled as hydrating are so because they contain humectants while moisturizers are oil-based ingredients that carry emollients and occlusive agents.


Functionally, moisturizers and hydrators all work towards getting the skin hydrated. The importance of knowing the difference becomes vital when trying to address a skincare issue. Different skin types or skin conditions will demand the use of different products.

What then Works for Who?

The truth is every skin type needs a blend of humectants, emollients, occlusive, and even protein builders to maintain the general health of their skin. So the question in this case is not what works for who, but what is the best combination of these categories to achieve hydrated and healthy skin. I’ll try to answer this as easily as possible because a lot of the ingredients I will mention are multifunctional and can contribute to more than just skin hydration and moisture retention.

Hydrator and Moisturizer for Dry Skin

For dry skin, working with thick moisturizers that contain emollients and occlusives is essential to prevent water loss. Added to this humectants are also needed to increase water in the skin which dry skin needs direly as it is unable to maintain optimal levels on its own. So while humectants dry in water, emollients will nourish your skin and occlusive will keep moisture from leaving your skin. Humectants like hyaluronic and lactic acid are highly recommended. Emollients like jojoba oil, shea butter, mango butter, and squalane oil are ingredients you should look out for when purchasing your products.

Hydrator and Moisturizer for Dehydrated Skin

For dehydrated skin, hydrating ingredients, like hyaluronic acid, glycerine, niacinamide, and panthenol. Remember dehydrated skin is not dry skin. While dry skin is skin that is dry and flaky year-round, dehydrated skin is skin that is actively losing water at a point in time. Emollients and occlusives that condition the like fatty acids (stearic acid), plant oils, butters, and petrolatum are recommended.

Hydrator vs. Moisturizers for Oily Skin

Oily skin tends to easily become dehydrated because most people with oily skin wash their skin too often to get rid of the excess oil which only causes the skin to cause more sebum while weakening the skin’s barrier and reducing its ability to hydrate itself.


Just like with dehydrated skin, most humectants will work for oily skin. However, care should be taken when selecting emollients and occlusives so as not to clog your pores. Avoid greasy oils like coconut oil and opt for more non-comedogenic options like squalane, rosehip oil, and sea buckthorn oil. Select facial moisturizers that are mostly water or gel-based to avoid clogging your pores.


Should you pick hydration over moisturizers? Absolutely not. This will be very hard to do as most moisturizers contain a blend of humectants, emollients, and occlusives. Your best bet is to use both moisturizing and hydrating products. Just remember this rule: HYDRATION before MOISTURIZING.

For example, a hyaluronic serum will come before your moisturizing cream.


According to Healthline, here’s a list of ingredients and how they function in products to help you keep healthy skin.

​Ingredient

Moisturizer (Occlusive) or Hydrator (Humectant)

Hyaluronic Acid

Hydrator

Glycerin

Hydrator

Aloe

Hydrator

Honey

Hydrator

Nut or seed oil, such as coconut, almond, hemp, etc

Moisturizer

Shea butter

Moisturizer

Plant oils such as squalene, rosehip, tea tree, etc

Moisturizer

Snail mucin

Hydrator

Mineral oil

Moisturizer

Lanolin

Moisturizer

Lactic acid

Hydrator

Citric acid

Hydrator

Ceramide

Technically, neither. Ceramides strengthen the skin's barrier to help prevent moisture loss.


My Favorite Hydrating Products of 2023

This post would not be complete if I didn’t share with you guys my favorite hydrating products so far into 2023. I am a dry skin girl and my life depends on hydration so here are my top 3 hydrating skincare products this year ;

  • Jumiso Waterful Hyaluronic Acid Toner

  • SKIN1004 Hyalu-CICA First Ampoule

  • Cosrx Hyaluronic Acid Intensive Cream

My Favourite Moisturizer Products of 2024

When it comes to moisturizers are usually go for the perfect balance between hydration, nourishment, and skin barrier repair. These three products tick all three boxes.

  • Illiyoon Ceramide Ato Concentrate Cream

  • Isntree Hyaluronic Acid Moist Cream

  • SKIN1004 Hyalu-Cica Sleeping Pack


A few weeks back, I also tried out the Depology Micro Dart Patches. During usage, It infused my skin with anti-aging actives like hyaluronic acid, Argireline, and various amino acids. The result I got was more hydrated, glowing, and plumper skin.

FAQs

What is the Difference Between a Hydrator and a Moisturizer?

Hydrators are mainly humectants that draw moisture into the skin on the other hand moisturizer is a term that englobes humectants, emollients, and occlusives that all work to draw and retain moisture in the skin.

Do You Hydrate or Moisturize First?

When applying your skincare products apply hydrating products like toners, essences, and serums before your moisturizer.

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