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Cleanse, tone, moisturize: the three steps that form the basis of a good skin care routine. Let’s be honest, though — if you’re late for work or crashing after a night out, chances are you’ll ditch the last stage (or two). But applying moisturizer is one of the best ways to show your skin some TLC and keep it in tip-top condition.
This guide is designed to help you sort through all the hype and find your new facial BFF. We’ll cover:
- how to determine your skin type
- a glossary of terms to help you decode ingredients
- a price guide to let you know what your wallet can expect
- 24 best moisturizers for every skin need
“Moisturizers can be used to reduce dryness and flaking, [as well as] the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, and generally help contribute to a clearer, healthy complexion,” says Dr. Ophelia Veraitch, consultant dermatologist at the Cranley Clinic in London.
It almost sounds too good to be true — so how exactly does this magical-sounding lotion work? The answer is simple.
“Moisturizers help add moisture to the skin,” says Veraitch. “They do this by holding water in the outermost layer of the skin to prevent transepidermal water loss [evaporation of water through the skin barrier].”
While it’s important to moisturize at night to help your skin rejuvenate during sleep, it’s also key to do so in the morning, since “they create a protective layer between your skin and the elements, helping keep pollution and irritants out,” says Veraitch.
As with many other skin care products, one size doesn’t fit all, and it’s important to use a moisturizer that meets your specific needs. Fortunately, brands have long been developing formulas to target specific concerns like flaking, excess oil, acne, or sensitivity.
But you can also do a bit of detective work, and Veraitch notes a few ingredients to look out for.
“Humectants increase the water-holding capacity of the skin and include glycerin, urea, and alpha hydroxy acids,” she says. Two of the most buzzed about are hyaluronic acid, which hydrates without being greasy, and jojoba oil which doesn’t clog pores. Meanwhile, “occlusives are oils of non-human origin that leave a layer of oil on the surface of the skin to reduce water loss.” Lanolin, beeswax, squalene, and argan oilare a few examples.
“It’s also good to look for active ingredients that target problem areas,” Veraitch says. Salicylic acid, for example, is a pore unclogger often used in moisturizers for acne-prone skin. Ceramides are an ideal addition to moisturizers for dry skin.
“For oily, acne-prone skin, choose a thinner moisturizer that won’t clog your pores,” she continues. “For those prone to eczema and rosacea, choose a thicker moisturizer. People with sensitive skin should use a hypoallergenic, fragrance-free moisturizer.”
Determining your skin type
To figure out your skin type, take a closer look at your face when it’s bare and product-free. Veraitch reveals the key indicators for each skin type:
Dry: Your skin is flaky or peeling or even just feels tight.
Normal/combination: There’s a noticeable shine on your nose and/or forehead.
Oily: There’s a shine on your cheeks, nose, and/or forehead.
Sensitive: Your skin is visibly red and dry.
Figured out your skin type and ready to go? Hold off a teensy bit longer — there are still a few things you can do to get the most from your hard-earned dollars.
First up, understand phrases on packaging that could make or break your skin:
- Noncomedogenic: The product doesn’t have any ingredients that’ll clog pores.
- Hypoallergenic: The chance of the product causing an allergic reaction is low.
- Fragrance-free: The product has no fragrance, artificial or otherwise. (This is not to be confused with “unscented,” which can include extras to actually remove scent.)
- Oil-free: The product doesn’t contain any oil-based ingredients. (This is particularly beneficial for acne-prone folks.)
- Organic: The product is made from organically grown ingredients that haven’t been subjected to skin-irritating chemicals.
- Natural: The product was created using naturally derived ingredients like plant extracts or honey.
- Active ingredients: These elements are scientifically developed and approved to target a skin concern.
- Inactive ingredients: These don’t have FDA regulatory status and play more of a supporting role.
Next, don’t be fooled by pretty packaging. As the old saying goes, it’s what’s inside that counts — and some of the best moisturizers come in containers that wouldn’t look out of place in a 1980s doctor’s office. Stash it in a cabinet and nobody will ever know.
Finally, you don’t have to send your bank account into panic mode. There are plenty of highly effective, budget-friendly options. For ones that lean toward extravagance, consider how long they’ll likely last: If a bottle will see you through several months, it might not be such an outlandish purchase.
We’ve compiled some of the best face moisturizers to give you a head start with decision making, taking into consideration their ingredients, benefits, user and professional reviews, and price. We also factored in their cons — because nothing in life is perfect.
- $ = under $10
- $$ = $10–$20
- $$$ = over $20
Best in class: CeraVe Moisturizing Cream
Wherever you look, this cream garners rave reviews. Created alongside dermatologists, it contains hyaluronic acid and ceramides to moisturize and protect. Users love that it doesn’t feel thick or leave a greasy residue.
Neutrogena Hydro Boost Water Gel
Recommended by derms and mere mortals alike, this product has a key ingredient — hyaluronic acid — that helps lock in moisture. The gel formula is light on the skin and absorbs easily, so it’s ideal for applying under makeup.
Nivea Soft Moisturizing Creme
Users adore that this product leaves skin feeling baby-soft. It contains vitamin E — known for its cell-rejuvenating, antioxidant properties — and jojoba oil, which is lauded for its skin benefits (including relieving inflammatory conditions like eczema).
Best in class: Cetaphil Pro Oil Absorbing Face Moisturizer
Designed specifically for oily skin, this product absorbs excess sebum and reduces dreaded shininess. Lightweight and nongreasy, it has the bonus of SPF 30, cutting out the need for an additional layer of sunscreen.
The Body Shop Tea Tree Mattifying Lotion
This lightweight formula is ideal for easily clogged pores, and its mattifying element will help you wave buh-bye to shine. It also contains a hearty dose of tea tree oil, which may help reduce skin oiliness and related blemishes.
Clinique Dramatically Different Moisturizing Gel
Users love that this lightweight gel absorbs quickly and a little goes a long way. Developed with derms and designed to balance oily skin, it packs an array of powerhouse ingredients to moisturize and strengthen — namely hyaluronic acid, sunflower seed (packed with vitamin E), and cucumber extract (cukes are 96 percent water).
Best in class: Vanicream Moisturizing Cream for Sensitive Skin
This derm-tested formula has more than 5,000 5-star reviews on Amazon, and you get a lot for your money. Users are overjoyed that it doesn’t irritate the most sensitive skin, largely thanks to its minimal, fragrance-free ingredients.
Aveeno Ultra-Calming Moisturizer
Containing feverfew and oats to soothe and nourish, this product is ideal for skin that flares up at the slightest touch. It also includes SPF 15 — but that’s not an excuse to skip sunscreen, since dermatologists recommend applying at least SPF 30.
Neutrogena Oil-Free Moisturizer for Sensitive Skin
This fragrance- and oil-free, noncomedogenic formula is great for sensitive skin. It’s designed to hydrate and control greasy shine, and users with acne have noted that it helps tame breakouts.
Best in class: e.l.f. Holy Hydration! Face Cream
This powerhouse product has hyaluronic acid to lock in moisture, vitamin B5 to fight inflammation, peptides to promote collagen production, and squalane to protect against free radicals. Phew. It’s also vegan and cruelty-free.
Cetaphil Moisturizing Lotion
This lotion hydrates for up to 24 hours — so if your skin dries out faster than a puddle in the Sahara, you’re covered. It gets to work quickly and is noncomedogenic, so it won’t clog pores, but it is a slightly heavier formula than some others.
Clinique Moisture Surge 72-Hour Auto-Replenishing Hydrator
There’s no denying that this one’s pricey for its small size. But users note that a little goes a long way, and they love how soft and hydrated their skin feels after applying it. It’s also fast-absorbing, so it’s a great makeup primer.
Best in class: FaceTheory Supergel Oil-Free Moisturizer
Packing in multiple skin heroes, Supergel is definitely worthy of its name. Herbal extracts soothe angry redness, salicylic acid tackles clogged pores, and vitamin C fights inflammation. Plus, you only need a small amount for your whole face.
La Roche-Posay Effaclar Mat Daily Moisturizer for Oily Skin
This product is designed to help shrink large pores, which — you guessed it — encourage excess oil and spots. Its oil-free formulation is also good for sensitive skin. The main downside? It’s fairly expensive for its smaller size.
Best in class: Brickell Men’s Daily Essential Face Moisturizer
This product will convert even the most skeptical skin care newbs. Reviews have praised its light consistency, fast absorption rate, and shine-busting and hydrating abilities. It’s made from 100 percent natural ingredients and is suitable for all skin types.
Marlowe Men’s Facial Moisturizer No. 123
Another all-natural formulation, this product features antioxidant-packed green tea, healing passionflower, and anti-inflammatory willow bark to soothe, repair, and moisturize. Its water base makes it light and fast-absorbing, and the subtle citrus scent is pleasantly refreshing.
Best in class: Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Night Face Moisturizer
Considering that your face spends years braving the elements, it’s no surprise that fine lines begin to form. This no-nonsense lotion effectively tackles those lines — users report being amazed at how quickly they’ve seen results. But it’s designed for only nighttime use, so you’ll need a different lotion for your a.m. routine.
Olay Regenerist Micro-Sculpting Cream
Not just for smoothing wrinkles, this cream is formulated to boost skin’s plumpness and firmness in just a few weeks. It’s fragrance-free, so it’s great for sensitive skin. But its thick consistency is less ideal if you’re looking for a lighter option.
Best in class: Olay Complete All Day Moisturizer SPF 30
Offering both UVA and UVB protection, this moisturizer contains vitamin E and zinc oxide (key allies in the fight against sun damage) along with soothing aloe vera. Users love its lightweight, nonoily feel; plus, it’s fragrance-free, so it’s a good choice for sensitive skin.
Origins A Perfect World SPF 40 Age-Defense Oil-Free Moisturizer
This punches above the recommended daily SPF and is infused with antioxidant-rich white tea to further protect against sun damage. It doesn’t leave a chalky residue, but some users note that it can feel a bit greasy.
Best in class: BareMinerals Complexion Rescue Tinted Moisturizer
If, like us, you love a zealous little multitasker, then look no further. Available in 20 shades, this product hydrates, provides broad-spectrum SPF 30, and acts as a light foundation. Users adore its natural look. It’s also vegan, which can be trickier to find.
Laura Mercier Natural Tinted Moisturizer
A close second, this product also comes in 20 shades and offers broad-spectrum SPF 30 coverage. Tamarind seed extract provides antioxidant protection. While it’s at the higher end of the price scale, users rave about the dewy look that price buys you.
Best in class: Weleda Skin Food
It’s hard to find people who don’t fawn over this stuff. The rich, delicious-smelling, all-natural formula has extracts of pansy, chamomile, and primrose to soothe and revitalize. It has a thicker consistency, so it can take a bit longer to sink in — but fans say it’s worth the wait.
Burt’s Bees Daily Moisturizing Cream
Perfect for sensitive skin, this product has cotton extract to protect the skin barrier and aloe extract to soothe. It’s super lightweight and thin and leaves skin beautifully soft. The only downside is that the bottle is fairly small.
Now that you know how the humble moisturizer can help you bring your facial A-game — from keeping skin looking smooth and fresh to staving off wrinkles — chances are you’ll be less tempted to skip it.
Take a bit of extra time to find one designed for your individual needs, and it’ll likely prove itself to be one of the best skin care allies you could ask for.