4 Signs Moisturizer Isn’t Working, From a Dermatologist


During the winter months, it can be just as challenging to avoid dry skin as it is to stay warm. The harsh winds and cold air compromise your skin barrier, making it less adept at holding in moisture and leaving your complexion extra thirsty. If you aren’t giving your skin the nourishment it needs, you can potentially create more damage to its barrier function, making it more susceptible to environmental factors and other irritants. This is precisely the reason why skin pros are constantly urging you to double down on moisturizers from now until spring. The occlusive ingredients in your standard face cream help to lock in moisture and “decrease transepidermal water loss, increase skin water-binding properties and increase skin surface lipids,” says David Orentreich, MD, a board-certified dermatologist who has served as the guiding dermatologist for Clinique Laboratories since 1987. In other words, by applying moisturizer correctly, you’re improving the skin’s hydration, decreasing the skin’s susceptibility to irritation, and restoring the skin’s barrier. In order to reap these benefits, though, you’ll need to be sure that you’ve got the right moisturizer—and (most importantly) that whatever you’re using is working properly for your skin. Below, Dr. Orentreich shares the rundown of what you should be looking for in a winter-skin-friendly product, plus the red flags that signal you may need to start experimenting with something new.

Star Ingredients

When purchasing a moisturizer, derms recommend looking for the following trifecta of hydrating ingredients to ensure your skin is well-nourished during the cold winter months.

1. Humectants

Humectants are dermatologists’ secret weapons for drawing moisture to the top layer of your skin. Glycerin and hyaluronic acid are lauded as two of the best ingredients in this category, as both can hold onto multiple times their weight in water.

2. Emollients

Emollients are the most effective for filling tiny cracks in the skin’s barrier. So when your skin is already feeling dry, they’re great for helping repair your skin and seal in all of the moisture it’s getting from the product. Look for shea butter and cocoa butter on an ingredient list to ensure you’re getting a formula that fits the bill.

3. Occlusives

Occlusives, like petroleum, lock all of that hydrating goodness into your complexion. They form a protective barrier on the top layer of the skin, ensuring that your skin has the time it needs to soak up all that hydration.

Moisturizer red flags

Even if you’ve got a great formula in hand, you’ll still want to ensure that it’s working properly for your individual complexion, so Dr. Orentreich recommends looking out for these four signs that it may not be the right fit.

1. Stinging or burning

While tingling can sometimes indicate that a skin-care product is working, that isn’t the case for moisturizers. If you feel any stinging or burning, “this could mean that the moisturizer isn’t compatible with your skin or you have a sensitivity to one or more of the ingredients,” says Dr. Orentreich, which means it’s time to test out something new. Opt for a sensitive-skin-friendly formula, as these tend to be devoid of irritants and safe for all skin types.

2. Breakouts

If your skin is breaking out or feeling bumpy after applying moisturizer, this may mean that the moisturizer is comedogenic. This means it could be “clogging your pores causing inflammatory pimples as well as open and closed comedones,” says Dr. Orentreich, “so you should switch to a non-comedogenic moisturizer.” Look for products that say “oil-free” on their labels, and are infused with hydrators like glycerin, honey, aloe vera, allantoin, urea, and lactic acid.

3. Makeup piling

Moisturizer should help you create a smooth base for makeup, so if you notice that your foundation is pilling, it may be because your moisturizer is too thick. When that’s the case, Dr. Orentreich recommends switching to a gel-textured product for a thinner, but equally hydrating, alternative.

4. Dry skin

This may seem obvious, but if you’ve been testing a moisturizer for two to three weeks and aren’t seeing any positive changes in your skin’s texture, it’s time to swap. Look for more hydrating ingredients, like the ones listed above, to give your skin the nourishment it needs to stay healthy through March. For more intel on the hydrating ingredients your winter skin needs, check out the video below. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d3GI5tHeDYM

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