Whether it’s the simple changing of seasons or eating one-too-many sugary desserts, there are several environmental and self-inflicted obstacles that our facial skin deals with every day. The least we can do is give it the protection it needs with a good facial moisturizer (and, of course, SPF).
Washing your face with gentle cleansers, investing in a humidifier for dryer seasons and avoiding harsh exfoliants are just a few ways you can combat dry skin. At the very least, though, the best thing you can do is layer on the highest quality facial moisturizer you can find. To help you shop the vast array of facial moisturizers for dry skin, Select spoke to dermatologists, aestheticians and estheticians about the ingredients to look for in a facial moisturizer and the ingredients to avoid. Below, they share their wisdom and some of their favorite products.
SKIP AHEAD How to shop for face moisturizers
What is a moisturizer and how does it work?
Moisturizers bring moisture “into the skin, not just to its surfaces, said Dr. Annie Chiu, a board-certified cosmetic and general dermatologist and founder of The Derm Institute in California. Typically, they come in the form of lotions or creams, but can be gels, or ointments too: Lotions are lighter and less greasy, making them better for normal to lightly dry skin, says Chiu; creams provide “a heavier barrier to keep your skin moisturized,” and are ideal for dry or sensitive skin. Gels, like petroleum jelly, or ointments, keep skin hydrated by sealing moisture in.
The best face moisturizers for dry skin in October 2023
The experts we spoke to agreed that most effective face moisturizers for dry skin will be heavier and contain a combination of emollients, which are sealing agents to keep moisture in; occlusives, which create physical barriers to prevent dehydration; and humectants, which draw water to the skin to help it retain moisture. They also noted that the products should be free of ethyl alcohol, exfoliators and other drying or irritating ingredients. With that in mind, these are the facial moisturizers the dermatologists and estheticians we spoke to said were their favorites for dry skin. One expert also recommended trying a moisturizing face mask, which contains similar moisturizing ingredients in a different form.
Chiu recommended Neutrogena Hydro Boost for people with dry skin, as did dermatologist Dr. Barry Goldman and licensed aesthetician Jean Dachnowicz, both of New York City's Goldman Dermatology. “[It] addresses the dryness and [helps] the face feel hydrated,” Goldman and Dachnowicz said. Notable ingredients include hyaluronic acid, dimethicone (a silicone-based ingredient that forms a barrier) and glycerin, a frequently-used ingredient in the cosmetic world that attracts moisture to the skin.
Goldman recommended Vanicream for dry skin. The brand’s facial moisturizer is made with hyaluronic acid, ceramides, glycerin and squalane, a popular emollient.
Aquaphor is an occlusive moisturizer that can be helpful for “skin that tends to be flaky, cracked or scaly,” according to Goldman and Dachnowicz. The fragrance-free ointment, which can be used as a lip moisturizer, hand cream and more in addition to a face moisturizer, is fragrance-free and includes several occlusive ingredients, like mineral oil and glycerin. Compared to lotions or creams, Aquaphor may work best to create a barrier that keeps moisture in, however, Goldman and Dachnowicz warn that Aquaphor may be too heavy for some skin types and clog pores.
Goldman and Dachnowicz called Cetaphil Moisturizing Cream the “best overall moisturizer for dry skin.” The brand recommends using the cream at night on one’s face, but it can be used on your whole body. It’s formulated with moisturizing ingredients like glycerin and petroleum jelly.
Petroleum jelly is the occlusive moisturizer behind the popular skin care trend “slugging” — people put the product on their face after their skin care routine to lock in moisture. The American Academy of Dermatology says that petroleum jelly products have several skin care benefits, including helping dry skin, but Goldman and Dachnowicz warn it may clog pores on some skin types.
This fragrance-free cream from First Aid Beauty is formulated with colloidal oatmeal, an emollient that “helps strengthen your skin barrier and adds moisture to it,” according to Goldman and Dachnowicz. Chiu said this is a great option for those suffering from dry skin in the wintertime, and the brand says it’s also helpful for those with redness and eczema.
According to Chiu, Tatcha’s The Dewy Skin Cream “couples antioxidant ingredients with deep moisture in an elegant, non-greasy formula.” According to the brand, the cream is formulated with a blend of Okinawa algae and hyaluronic acid, which work together to restore water levels to the skin and replenish ceramides. Other nourishing ingredients in the moisturizer include glycerin and dimethicone.
If you have a little bit more in your budget for skin care products, Chiu recommended Skinbetter’s Trio Rebalancing Moisture Treatment for dry skin repair. “[It] has urea and provides deep moisture without the heaviness,” she explained. According to the brand, it’s formulated with hyaluronic acid to hydrate the skin and ceramides and squalane to lock in moisture.
For people who want a “quick absorbing moisturizer,” Chiu recommended this “unique gel formulation” from Biossance. It uses ingredients like squalane oil and probiotics to help hydrate skin, reduce redness and decrease pore size, according to the company.
When your skin is “ultra dry,” Chiu told us using a moisture mask a few times a week “can help dry, flaky, sensitive or even more irritated skin calm down.” During sleep, our skin loses more moisture because our body temperature slowly increases throughout the night, Chiu said. This mask contains several moisturizing ingredients, including the humectant hyaluronic acid. It also has an “occlusive effect that still manages to feel light and soothing,” according to Chiu. Other ingredients included are black oat, lecithin and red seaweed.
How to shop for a moisturizer for dry skin
Most moisturizers formulated for dry skin have a similar thick texture to provide a heavy barrier on the skin. “Greasy creams and ointments work best for dry skin,” Goldman and Dachnowicz emphasized
You should also pay close attention to the ingredients in each product you’re considering. Typically, these ingredients (and the products themselves) can fall into one of three categories, experts told us:
- Humectants draw water to the skin’s surface and help the skin retain moisture.
- Emollients help soften the skin and lock in moisture.
- Occlusives create a physical barrier over the epidermis that prevents water loss.
Humectants, emollients and occlusives all work together to hydrate the skin and lock that moisture in.
Humectants draw water to the skin’s surface and “break down dead skin cells, further improving moisture penetration,” according to Chiu. Hyaluronic acid is arguably the most common — and important — humectant: It “works by absorbing moisture like a sponge from the air and draws it into the skin,” Goldman and Dachnowicz explained. Other common humectants found in moisturizers include urea, glycerol, sorbitol, glycerin, aloe vera gel and lactic acid.
Emollients, which can be found in creams, gels, ointments and lotions, “are beneficial to aging or dry skin when natural lipids have been depleted,” Chiu said. (Natural lipids are fatty acids that trap in moisture and soothe and moisturize the skin, experts previously told us in our guide to SPF lip balms.) Common emollients include shea butter, isopropyl palmitate and colloidal oatmeal.
Occlusives provide the skin with a physical barrier to help prevent water loss and shield the skin from potential irritants. (The popular “slugging” trend relies on occlusive products.) According to Chiu, they are a good option for those with dry skin “since they aid in moisture retention and skin barrier restoration.” However, if you have acne-prone skin, Goldman and Dachnowicz said occlusive ointments might clog your pores. Common occlusives include waxes like beeswax and silicone and oils like olive oil, lanolin, mineral oil and dimethicone.
What to avoid while shopping for moisturizers for dry skin
As you’re shopping for facial moisturizers to heal and revitalize your dry skin, you might notice that most of them are labeled as fragrance-free and alcohol-free. That’s because fragrances and denatured alcohols can dry out the skin, which is counterproductive when you’re trying to combat dryness.
According to our skin care experts, here are some of the ingredients you should avoid while shopping for a face moisturizer for dry skin.
Denatured alcohols: On skin care labels, denatured alcohol will appear as ethyl alcohol or SD alcohol. These alcohols “will dry out skin even more and draw moisture out of the skin, which can affect the skin barrier function and cause sensitivity and redness,” according to Chiu. Not all alcohols are denatured alcohols, so don’t worry if you see “alcohol” on the label of a moisturizer advertised for dry skin.
Fragrances: Chiu, Goldman and Dachnowicz all said they prefer unscented facial moisturizers, since fragrances can irritate the skin.
Exfoliants: The experts we spoke to noted that exfoliants can irritate dry skin and potentially even make it worse. Common exfoliating ingredients to avoid include salicylic acid and glycolic acid.
How to apply a moisturizer to dry skin
When you’re trying to fortify your dry skin, experts told us you should apply moisturizer at least twice a day: once in the morning and once at night. The moisturizer should ideally be applied after you take a shower or wash your face so that it can lock in the moisture and do its job.
Meet our experts
At Select, we work with experts who have specialized knowledge and authority based on relevant training and/or experience. We also take steps to ensure that all expert advice and recommendations are made independently and with no undisclosed financial conflicts of interest.
- Dr. Annie Chiu is a board-certified cosmetic and general dermatologist and founder of The Derm Institute in California.
- Dr. Barry Goldman is a dermatologist at New York City’s Goldman Dermatology and a clinical instructor at Cornell NY Presbyterian Hospital.
- Jean Dachnowicz is a licensed aesthetician at New York City's Goldman Dermatology.