Here's The Difference Between A Water-Based Moisturizer And An Oil-Based Moisturizer

Skin hydration is an important measure of a person's overall skin health. A decent amount of moisture enables your skin to repair itself quickly from sun damage or bacterial infection, create new skin cells, and lessen the likelihood of skin issues. Without sufficient hydration, your skin becomes rough, tears easily, and lacks radiance. To keep your skin hydrated, therefore, it's important to apply moisturizer to your skin daily in addition to drinking sufficient water. According to St. Ives, a moisturizer can prevent water loss, slow the formation of aging lines, prevent your skin from producing excessive sebum, and soothe rough or itchy skin. The general rule of thumb in skincare is to use moisturizer on your face twice daily — every morning and every evening — to maintain the moisture content level in your skin.

While all moisturizers serve as a protective layer for your skin to seal in its moisture, they can vary in formulas and functions. It's safe to say that moisturizers powered with different active ingredients can deliver various benefits to people with different skin types. To reap the optimal benefits from a moisturizer, it's essential to know which one suits your skin type and needs. Below, check out the main types of moisturizers and what their differences mean for our skincare game.

Emollients, humectants, and occlusives

There are currently three types of moisturizers: oil-based, water-based, and occlusive. Oil-based moisturizers contain emollients, while water-based moisturizers contain humectants. A formula that contains a higher concentration of oil than water is classified as an oil-based moisturizer, and vice versa. Dermatologist Tiffany Libby explains the difference between these moisturizers in simple terms: "Humectants help hydrate and draw moisture into skin, emollients add back moisturizing oils, and occlusives then help seal in moisture to prevent moisture loss" (via Well + Good).

Containing oil, water, and an emulsifier, oil-based moisturizers are formulated to restore the lost lipids in your skin while putting up a protective barrier to trap moisture in the skin. Ingredients that are commonly found in oil-based moisturizers include mineral oil, ceramides, lanolin, and paraffin. Oil-based moisturizers, which are thicker and heavier than humectants, add oil to the skin and soften the skin's surface. Meanwhile, water-based moisturizers, which include famous humectants such as ceramides, sorbitol, glycerin, and hyaluronic acid, replenish the skin by drawing water from the environment into the epidermis. 

Since water is its first ingredient, water-based moisturizers are lightweight in consistency and texture. Similar to oil-based moisturizers, occlusives prevent water loss and lock in moisture. However, occlusive moisturizers are heavier and more suitable for those with extremely dry skin or wounds. Petroleum jelly and Aquaphor are archetypes of occlusives.

Is one formula better than another?

Due to their different textures and thicknesses, moisturizers can only deliver optimal results if used on fitting skin types. For instance, while oil-based moisturizers are good for most skin types, they are not cut out for those with naturally oily skin, dermatologist Nava Greenfield tells Byrdie. The reason being is that emollients, which are heavy and rich in oil, can clog pores and lead to breakouts. If you have normal, dry, or combination skin, oil-based moisturizers make a great choice for your skincare routine. If your skin is dry, an occlusive moisturizer can effectively replenish your skin's moisture content.

Meanwhile, non-greasy water-based moisturizers are a good choice for those with oily or acne-prone skin as they are not likely to clog pores and cause any flare-ups, per Free Agent Skincare. It is preferable to use oil-based moisturizers during colder and drier months rather than water-based ones since humectants can draw moisture from the deeper layers of the skin to the surface and cause your skin to become even drier. Water-based moisturizers are preferable in the summer since they are light and quickly soak into the skin. However, Dr. Libby points out that some moisturizing components work best when combined, which is why it's common to see formulas that incorporate both humectants and emollients. If you have existing skin conditions such as acne or rosacea, it's wise to consult your dermatologist for tips for choosing the most suitable moisturizer for your skin type.