Water-Primarily based Moisturizer Vs. Oil-Primarily based Moisturizer: What is the Distinction?


Have you ever walked through a store looking for a new moisturizer only to be overwhelmed by all of the different decisions you have to make? First of all, you need to decide which brand to buy. Then you face another decision: should you buy an oil- or water-based moisturizer? And what is the difference between these formulations anyway? It is obvious that one contains water and the other contains oil, but is that the only difference? Read on to learn how oil and water based Moisturizers are different and why it is important to choose the right formulation for your skin type.

What is a water-based moisturizer?

As you can probably imagine, the main ingredient in a water-based moisturizer is water. Some of this water will penetrate your skin when you apply the moisturizer, but some will evaporate. To prevent evaporation, water-based moisturizers often contain one or more humectant ingredients.

The OH and NH2 groups combine with water via hydrogen, essentially “grabbing” it and keeping it on the skin. Humectants slow down the evaporation of the water and thus keep the skin hydrated. Examples of humectants include glycerin, amino acids, peptides, urea and hyaluronic acid.

A water-based moisturizer may also contain oil to help prevent water from evaporating. Yes, you read that right: it’s common for water-based moisturizers to contain oils or other occlusive emollients to help lock in moisture. If you don’t want to use oil on your face for fear of shine or pimples, look for an oil-free, water-based moisturizer for the face.

The term “water-based moisturizer” may actually refer to a water cream, lotion, or gel. The main difference between these products is the amount of water in each, which subsequently affects the texture.

Creams have the lowest water content and therefore have a thicker consistency than both lotions and gels. A water gel moisturizer has a high water content, which makes it light and much thinner than creams and lotions.

Water-based lotion falls in the middle of creams and gels; They have more water than creams but less than gels. If you’re looking for a lightweight moisturizer, a water-based lotion or gel is most likely your best option.

What is an Oil-Based Moisturizer?

In an oil-based moisturizer, all of the ingredients are dissolved in an oil base. You can easily tell whether a moisturizer is water-based or oil-based by looking at the list of ingredients. If the first ingredient is water, then it’s a water-based moisturizer.

If the first ingredient is an oil like jojoba oil or sweet almond oil, it’s an oil-based moisturizer. An oil-based moisturizer can refer to a thick cream, ointment, body butter, or face or body oil. Again, the main difference between these moisturizers is the amount of oil and texture. We mentioned above that many creams are water based moisturizers.

However, if a cream contains a higher concentration of oil than water, it is classified as an oil-based moisturizer. Ointments have a high concentration of oil (compared to creams), which means they are thick, greasy, and occlusive. Ointments are typically used as a skin protectant for very dry, cracked skin.

Body butter has a rich, buttery texture and is thicker than a cream but not as thick as an ointment. A face or body oil can be just one oil, such as jojoba oil or rosehip seed oil, or a mixture of oils.

Related: Best Moisturizers For Oily Skin

Is one formulation better than the other?

Now that you know the difference between an oil-based and water-based moisturizer, you may be wondering whether one formulation is better than the other. The answer to this question is not a simple yes or no. Rather, the formulation you choose will depend on your skin type and the type of condition you are treating. One of the most important factors to consider before choosing a moisturizer is whether your skin is dry or dehydrated. You may think these two words are synonyms, but they actually indicate two different skin conditions.

Dry skin means your skin is producing less sebum than normal. Sebum is the natural oil produced by the glands in your skin that lubricate the skin and act as a waterproof barrier. Dry skin can also occur when the skin’s lipid barrier is depleted. The lipid barrier contains about 50 percent ceramides, 25 percent cholesterol and about 10 to 15 percent fatty acids. Without these essential lipids, the barrier is weakened and the skin becomes dry. Overall, dry skin looks visibly dry and flaky, and can even be rough, cracked, and itchy. Dry skin can also lead to signs of aging such as fine lines and wrinkles.

In contrast, dehydrated skin is caused by a lack of water, not a lack of oil. In particular, the natural moisturizing factor (NMF) of the skin is used up. The NMF consists mainly of free amino acids and various derivatives of these amino acids, which work together to maintain adequate skin moisture.

The NMF can be depleted with age and by factors such as poor diet, excessive sun exposure, makeup, incorrect product use, sensitizing ingredients and much more. But this is where it can get confusing: When the skin is dehydrated, it produces more oil to make up for the lack of water. Because of this, the skin can feel dry and greasy at the same time. When this happens, problems like acne breakouts, irritation, and dry spots can occur.

Related: Best Moisturizers For Dry Skin

Who Should Use a Water-Based Moisturizer?

A water-based moisturizer is best for those with dehydrated skin in need of moisture. Ingredients like glycerin and hyaluronic acid are commonly used in water-based moisturizers and can provide highly hydrated skin with dehydrated skin.

Additionally, these water-based ingredients can provide temporary anti-aging benefits. Because the additional moisture is extra volume, which effectively plumps up the skin and makes lines and wrinkles less noticeable.

However, this effect is temporary – once the skin’s moisture levels decrease, lines and wrinkles return to their normal size. Finally, water-based moisturizers are a great choice for hot climates and summer months as they are typically lighter than oil-based moisturizers.

Who Should Use an Oil-Based Moisturizer?

An oil-based moisturizer is best for those with dry skin that has a damaged barrier or is suffering from sebum deficiency. The oil-based ingredients help to replenish the skin’s barrier function. Many oils also contain vitamins and fatty acids that give antiaging benefits. Rose hip seed oil, for example, contains provitamin A, mostly as beta-carotene. Beta-carotene has the ability to increase cell turnover and promote regeneration in the outer layers of the skin. Over time, this can help even out skin tone and add a “glow” to the skin. So this oil-based moisturizer not only helps replenish the skin’s lipid barrier, it also gives the skin a youthful glow.

Contrary to popular belief, most oil-based oils and moisturizers won’t clog your pores or cause breakouts. In fact, the opposite is true. The theory behind using oils on blemish-prone skin is that they actually help balance your skin’s production of sebum and allow the skin’s own oil to flow more freely (rather than clogging your pores). If you have oily or acne-prone skin, the most important thing when choosing an oil-based moisturizer is “non-comedogenic,” which means it won’t clog your pores. Examples of non-comedogenic oil-based ingredients are jojoba oil, linoleic acid, argan oil, and grapeseed oil.

Finally, oil-based moisturizers are good choices for cold climates and winter months. The combination of windy, cold, and dry weather outside and moisture-depleting heaters indoors can cause skin to become dull, ashen, and dry. An oil-based moisturizer with a thick texture can protect the skin from these conditions.

What is the Best Water-Based Moisturizer For The Face?

Our pick for the best water-based moisturizer for the face is Formulyst Super Hyaluronic Water Moisturizer. This lightweight formula contains hyaluronic acid, the key molecule involved in skin hydration. Hyaluronic acid supports the natural nourishing power of your skin by attracting atmospheric moisture and converting it into intensive moisture for your skin. Although it’s a water-based moisturizer, Formulyst Super Hyaluronic Water Moisturizer contains jojoba oil and apricot kernel oil to balance oil production. Both of these botanical oils are non-comedogenic, so you don’t have to worry about clogged pores or breakouts.

We have two top picks for the best water-based facial moisturizer – one from Formulyst and another from Carrot & Stick. Formulyst‘s Super Hyaluronic Water Moisturizer contains hyaluronic acid, the key molecule involved in skin hydration. Hyaluronic acid supports the natural nourishing power of your skin by attracting atmospheric moisture and converting it into intensive moisture for your skin. Although it is a water-based moisturizer, Formulyst Super Hyaluronic Water Moisturizer contains jojoba oil and apricot kernel oil to balance oil production. Both of these botanical oils are non-comedogenic, so you don’t have to worry about clogged pores or breakouts.

Our other choice is The Moisturizer from Carrot & Stick. This water-based formula is plant-powered and ensures your most beautiful, glowing skin. It moisturizes, firms and revitalizes the skin. The moisturizer is formulated with vegetable proteins, vitamins, peptides and amino collagen as well as stem cell extract from hardy alpine roses. It also contains jojoba seed oil and a pinch of caffeine to freshen up the skin, while five different coconut elements help with cell renewal and general conditioning. The moisturizer is suitable for all skin types.

WellandGood.com “I used acne facial oils for a month and it happened” Oct 2016, HuffPost.com “The Best Products for Moisturizing Seriously Dry Skin” March 2017

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