As luxurious as putting moisturizer on your face can feel, all it takes is one wrong product to take things in the opposite direction. Rather than feeling like your face is encased in clouds, it’s suddenly covered in grease or simply not hydrated at all.
It’s true: Finding the right moisturizer (and moisturizing routine, for that matter) can be tricky—almost as tricky as settling on a cleanser. But that doesn’t mean it’s an impossible task. And it’s one that’s almost certainly worth the trouble.
So, here’s what dermatologists want you to know about finding the right moisturizer for your face.
First of all, everyone needs to moisturize
Your skin retains some amount of moisture on its own, but pretty much all of us need to use additional products in order to keep our skin properly hydrated.
“I liken [moisturizing] to providing mortar in bricks,” Temitayo A. Ogunleye, M.D., assistant professor of clinical dermatology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, tells SELF. “It ‘seals’ in the cracks between your skin and allows you to retain moisture for longer.”
If the skin’s moisture barrier—the stratum corneum—isn’t functioning properly, it’ll let water escape via a process called transepidermal water loss (TEWL). If that happens, you might notice dryness, flakiness, and sensitivity. With sufficient hydration, your skin will be noticeably softer and smoother as well as better protected against potential irritants.
And all sorts of things can contribute to water loss, including the climate, the other products you’re using, and certain skin conditions (like eczema). So the vast majority of us need to help our skin out at least once in a while with a moisturizer. But the type of moisturizer you need and how often you need to use it will depend on your skin type.
So, how do moisturizers work?
There are actually three different types of ingredients in a moisturizer that can increase the level of hydration in your skin, SELF explained previously: Humectants (things like glycerin and hyaluronic acid) draw water into the skin from the surrounding environment. Emollients (ingredients like ceramides, fatty acids, and some natural oils) get in between your skin cells—like the mortar between two bricks in Dr. Ogunleye’s analogy—to strengthen and soften the skin. And then occlusives (e.g. dimethicone, petrolatum, and most natural oils) sit on top of the skin and keep the existing moisture from escaping.
So, it’s not exactly the thickness of the product that determines how effective it will be for you—it’s the ratio of these ingredients (often oils) to water in a product that does the trick.
But Dr. Ogunleye doesn’t really speak in these terms about moisturizers with patients, she says. Instead, she focuses on the type of product: If you look at the spectrum of moisturizers out there—from lotions to creams to ointments—you’ll see that the amount of water in each type gradually decreases.
Lotions tend to have the most water, while ointments have the most oils, and both lotions and creams are somewhere in the middle. The more water in a moisturizer, the easier it will be to apply and the lighter and less greasy it will feel. However, moisturizers with more occlusives tend to be more effective at actually improving the hydration in the skin because they’re better at sealing it in, Dr. Ogunleye says. But they also tend to result in breakouts, especially for those with oily or acne-prone skin.
So finding the right moisturizer is really about figuring out the right balance of these ingredients for your skin.
Here’s how to find a moisturizer for your skin type
If you aren’t sure what your skin type is, Dr. Ogunleye says to go by how your bare skin feels a few hours after showering. If it feels oily and greasy, you can consider yourself in the oily camp, but if it feels tight and flaky, you’re definitely on the drier side.
As you could probably guess, people with oily skin won’t have the same routine as those with dry skin, since their skin naturally produces more sebum (oil) which helps keep their skin hydrated. Rather, Dr. Ogunleye says, oily skin types might not need to moisturize that often—for some, once a day could be their absolute maximum. However, if you use products with drying ingredients like salicylic acid, moisturizing regularly can help you avoid irritating or over-drying your skin.
On the other hand, people with dry skin—those whose skin still feels dry after using a gentle cleanser—may need to moisturize twice a day. Dr. Ogunleye says you can opt to use two different moisturizers, one for the morning and one for your bedtime routine, if you want, but it’s also fine to use the same moisturizer twice a day.
For the record, everyone—even those with oilier skin—should apply a lightweight sunscreen or moisturizer that has at least 30 SPF in it in the A.M., Julie Mervak, M.D., assistant professor of dermatology at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, tells SELF. Regardless of your skin’s exact needs, sun protection should be one of them. Beyond that, though, your skin type can do most of the choosing for you the next time you go shopping for a moisturizer.
If you have oily skin:
Those with oily skin should look for products that won’t add more oil to their face, so they should stick to products that say “oil-free” or “non-comedogenic.” And, as we mentioned, some people with this skin type might not need to use anything besides a sunscreen.
Additionally, Dr. Mervak says that gel-based moisturizers tend to be more drying than lotions, creams, and ointments, so oilier skin types are more likely to see benefits from them.
If you have dry skin:
In general, Dr. Ogunleye says people with dry skin could benefit from using a product with more oil in it than water, like a cream or ointment rather than a lotion. But that doesn’t mean you need to smear petroleum jelly on your face every night.
Both Dr. Ogunleye and Dr. Mervak recommend Vanicream and Cetaphil products as dry-skin friendly brands. Dr. Ogunleye says she may also recommend a moisturizer that contains ceramides (lipids that help support the skin barrier) for those with dry skin, which will also help the skin retain some of that moisture for longer. (Check out La Roche-Posay Double Repair Face Moisturizer, $20, for instance.)
If you have normal or combination skin:
Normal skin, which doesn’t get too dry or too greasy after cleansing, doesn’t need much more than a simple lotion, Dr. Mervak, such as CeraVe Ultra Light Moisturizing Lotion SPF 30, $18, or Cetaphil Daily Hydrating Lotion, $16. This type of middle-of-the-road option is also perfect for those with combination skin, which may have patches of dryness and oiliness. But something like a heavy cream or ointment (the type of product you’d scoop out of a jar rather than pump out of a bottle) will probably be too greasy for those with these skin types.
If you have sensitive skin:
Your golden rule is to keep things as simple as possible and avoid products with heavy fragrances or other irritants, Dr. Mervak says. She points to Cetaphil, Vanicream, and CeraVe as great and gentle brand options. Also note that moisturizers with more water in them tend to also have more preservatives to prevent bacteria from forming than other types of moisturizers (which may be irritating to dry or sensitive skin types).
That said, even if you follow these guidelines, it might take awhile before you find a moisturizer that you love. “I don’t feel like it’s one size fits all,” Dr. Ogunleye says. “A lot of it is trial and error.” So, you may have to try a few different products just to get an idea of what your skin needs and what you personally like.
Luckily, Dr. Mervak says that these are some of the most common questions dermatologists get—so you certainly won’t be the first to ask yours for a few specific recommendations.