Updated 08/10/21. Everyone wants plump, bouncy-looking skin, and keeping your skin hydrated is the key to achieving this. In this post, I’ll share my seven favorite hydrating skincare ingredients. Hint: there’s more out there than just hyaluronic acid!
Why Should I Be Using Hydrating Ingredients in My Skincare Routine?
Here’s the thing—skin cells are like fish in that they need water to survive. This is true regardless of your skin type or how much oil your skin produces. Yes, that means hydration is necessary for everyone—even oily, breakout-prone skin types! In fact, even if you have oily skin, it can still be dehydrated. Learn more about the difference between dry and dehydrated skin.
Hydrating skincare ingredients, like the ones I’ll be talking about in this post, deliver that much-needed water into the skin. In the short term, this plumps the skin, gives it a glow, and softens lines. In the long term, this keeps skin cells functioning properly to support a robust moisture barrier and to facilitate healthy aging. Now that’s we’ve established the importance of hydration for all skin types, keep scrolling to see my favorite hydrating skincare ingredients to use.
The Best Hydrating Skincare Ingredients
1. Hyaluronic Acid
Let’s start with one of the most popular and well-known hydrating skincare ingredients out there—hyaluronic acid. This is something your body produces naturally in order to keep skin, joints, and connective tissues lubricated. It’s a humectant, meaning it can plump and hydrate the skin by attracting water from the air as well as from the lower layers of the skin. It then binds the water to cells in the epidermis (the outermost layer of skin). It can hold around 1,000 times its weight in water.
It’s been around for a long time, but it’s become especially popular in the last few years thanks to coverage from traditional media and social media. It seems like someone latched on to hyaluronic acid as a go-to ingredient and everyone else followed. Because of this buzz and popularity, there’s a perception that hyaluronic acid is THE ingredient for hydrating your skin. While it undoubtedly does a great job, it gets a disproportionate amount of praise when the reality is that there are a lot of great hydrating skincare ingredients out there. Some of them even offer additional benefits and may actually be a better fit for you depending on what you’re looking to achieve. As always, it’s about finding what’s best for you and your unique skin type.
Speaking of skin types, hyaluronic acid is generally well-tolerated by all, but there is a potential drawback. If you’re using it in a dry environment where there’s very little moisture in the air, you run the risk of actually dehydrating your skin. What happens is this: hyaluronic acid draws water from the deeper layers of the skin. Because it can’t balance this by pulling water out of the air to “sandwich” the moisture, the water will evaporate. To avoid this, if you’re in a dry environment, pair hyaluronic acid with occlusives, which are ingredients designed to create a barrier between your skin and the surrounding air. This will seal water in. (Learn more about the difference between humectants, emollients, and occlusives.)
2. Sodium Hyaluronate
Sodium hyaluronate is the salt form of hyaluronic acid. It functions similarly to hyaluronic acid and helps recharge the skin’s moisture levels (it also binds up to 1,000 times its weight in water). Sodium hyaluronate is generally used more often than hyaluronic acid because of its ability to penetrate the skin more deeply. It has a smaller mole size than hyaluronic acid, so it can be absorbed more efficiently. Thanks to its salt form, it’s also less likely to oxidize, meaning it’s a more stable ingredient than hyaluronic acid. This makes it a great option for anyone who has a damaged moisture barrier and experiences a high rate of transepidermal water loss caused by over-exfoliation, dry climate, or sun exposure.
However, it has the same potential drawback as hyaluronic acid. If used in dry environments, it can actually dehydrate the skin. To avoid this, seal in the water it draws to it with occlusive ingredients, such as silicones. By the way, silicones aren’t all bad. In fact, some of them can be really beneficial for the skin, even for oily, blemish-prone skin. Read more about that, here.
Glycerin is another humectant that’s been around for a long time, and it’s also the most common. It’s derived from plant oils, the fermentation of sugars, or it can be synthetically produced. It attracts moisture from the air as well as from the lower layers of the skin to deliver it to the epidermis. This helps hold water between the cells to make the skin feel moist and bouncy. One advantage glycerin has over hyaluronic acid is that it has a smaller molecule size, so it can penetrate the skin more easily. However, that doesn’t mean the water it binds can’t evaporate. Just like with hyaluronic acid and sodium hyaluronate, it’s important to use glycerin with occlusive ingredients so the water remains sealed into the skin.
4. Tremella Fuciformis
Of all the ingredients on this list, this one is my personal favorite! Trehalose is an antioxidant found in desert “resurrection” plants. When desert plants dehydrate from lack of water, this molecule takes the place of water within the plant’s cells and acts as a stand-in. Once the dehydrated plant comes back into contact with water, trehalose will absorb it. It fills out the plant’s dehydrated cells without any damage to the internal or membrane structures—even if the plant has been dormant for centuries. How cool is that? Imagine harnessing this power for the good of your skin.
Trehalose is used in skin care products to address dehydration and future moisture loss. This helps improve the function of the skin’s moisture barrier. I formulated the Rapid Response Detox Masque with trehalose for this very reason.
Panthenol is a B5 provitamin, meaning the body turns it into vitamin B5. It softens the skin and acts as both a humectant and an emollient. That means it helps skin cells attract moisture and seal it in. The result? Skin cells stay hydrated and moisture barrier function is improved!
7. Sodium PCA
Sodium PCA is the salt form of pyroglutamic acid (an amino acid similar in structure to proline). It occurs naturally in various plants and is also part of your skin’s Natural Moisturizing Factor. Sodium PCA primarily acts as a hydrator thanks to its humectant properties. It doesn’t hold as much water as hyaluronic acid, but the two are often combined in formulas for a powerful hydrating effect overall.
There you have it. These are my all-time favorite hydrating skincare ingredients! Each of these ingredients is tolerated well by most skin types, and they can even be combined with one another to increase their effects. Even if they aren’t listed high up on an ingredient list, they can effectively fight dehydration (learn more about how to understand ingredient percentages).
Celebrity Esthetician & Skincare Expert
As an esthetician trained in cosmetic chemistry, Renée Rouleau has spent 30 years researching skin, educating her audience, and building an award-winning line of products. Trusted by celebrities, editors, bloggers, and skincare obsessives around the globe, her vast real-world knowledge and constant research are why Marie Claire calls her “the most passionate skin practitioner we know.”