What are the Differences between Occlusive, Humectant, and Reparative Moisturizers?

About the author:  FutureDerm.com is proud to introduce Dr. Hanan Taha, M.D., on our staff as a Contributing Writer. Dr. Taha received her MD from Kuwait University in 2002, and a master’s degree in Dermatology from the University of Alexandria in 2010.  She also runs a blog in Arabic dedicated to spreading the knowledge about dermatology and cosmetic dermatology in a simple, concise manner (elbashra.com).  For her full bio, please visit our About page.

For centuries, we relied on natural sources as moisturizers such as vegetable oils, butter, or wax. The art of moisturizer manufacturing started only about a century ago, and is still progressing to this day.(1)

Today, we can classify moisturizers into three classes or “generations”: occlusive, humectant, and reparative.

First generation or occlusive moisturizers: these coat the skin and prevent trans-epidermal water loss. Examples include petrolatum, mineral oil, triglycerides, sunflower oil, soybean oil, jojoba oil, evening primrose oil and olive oil. The bad thing about them is that they are messy and not very cosmetically appealing. So you can’t rely on them if you’re going to work or a party. However they are very helpful in severe dryness. Since they are heavy, I like using them in the winter and at bedtime.

Second generation or humectant moisturizers: these absorb water from the atmosphere and also from the lower layers of the skin, making the upper skin that is touchable, more moisturized. Examples include glycerin, glycerol, sorbitol, urea, and lactic acid. The bad thing about them is that sometimes they can actually be drying rather than moisturizing, plus in higher concentrations they tend to be irritating to the skin.(2) Since they are lighter and cosmetically more appealing, I like using them in the summer and in day time.

For optimal results, most available moisturizers in the market contain a mixture of both occlusive and humectant ingredients.

Third (or New) generation moisturizers have both occlusive and humectant properties, but they also work by repairing the damaged skin barrier and replenishing the lost barrier components. So they don’t just treat the symptom (dryness) but also treat the cause (damaged barrier).

Third generation moisturizers are useful if you are a long term sufferer of dry skin, due to excessive hand washing, exposure to dry, cold weather, or environmental or chemical irritants. It is also helpful if you have atopy, eczema or psoriasis.

One example is Bioderma’s Atoderm PP cream, containing vitamin B3 (or vitamin PP), which studies have shown can repair the skin barrier, improve skin moisture, reduce inflammation, blotchiness, hyperpigmentation, wrinkling, and even inhibit skin cancer formation. (3,4)

Another 2 options are IMPRUV cream, and Eucerin Professional Repair Extremely Dry Skin Lotion, containing ceramides, which also play an important role in skin barrier function. (5)

Cetaphil RestoraDerm Skin Restoring Moisturizer contains both B3 and ceramides.

Hyaluronic acid has long been used as an injectable filler. Now it is being introduced as a component in creams as well (e.g. Atopiclair) to restore hydration to the skin, since it can retain up to 1000 times its weight in water.(6)

The entire Eucerin Redness Relief Line contains a licorice extract from the hard but fun to read plant, Glycyrrhiza inflata (try saying it ten times real fast!). This works to both repair the skin barrier and reduce skin redness,(7,8) so if you have rosacea and dry skin, this might be the line for you. Licorice root extracts have countless other benefits, but that’s for another day!

Finally, Palmitamide monoethanolamine (present in Mimyx cream) is also speculated to improve barrier function and decrease inflammation, which makes it helpful in dermatitis. (9)


Bottom line:

Advances are constantly being made. The dream is to treat stubborn dryness such as seen in eczema, but more research is needed. If you try OTC products and your skin is still dry and itchy, maybe it is time to see your dermatologist.

Good luck always! Don’t forget, if you know someone who’d like to read about skin in Arabic, tell them to stop by my blog at elbashra.com!

Looking for the best skin care? FutureDerm is committed to having its customers find — and create — the best skin care for their individual skin type, concern, and based on your ingredient preferences. Learn more by visiting the FutureDerm shop!


1-     TE. Weber et al. Hand and Foot Moisturizers. In: Cosmetic Dermatology: Products and Procedures 2010; Chapter 17: 130-7.

2-     http://www.skintherapyletter.com/2001/6.13/2.html

3-     W Gehring. Nicotinic Acid/ Niacinamide and the Skin. Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology 2004; 3(2): 88-93.

4-     DL. Bissett et al. Topical Niacinamide Reduces Yellowing, Wrinkling, Red Blotchiness, and Hyperpigmentation Spots in Aging Facial Skin. International Journal of Cosmetic Science 2004; 26(5): 231-8.

5-     JM. Jungersed et al. Ceramides and Barrier Function in Healthy Skin. Acta Dermato- Venereologica 2010; 90: 350-3.

6-     HE John et al. Perspectives in the Selection of HA for Facial Wrinkles and Ageing Skin. Patient Preference and Adherence 2009; 3: 225-30.

7-     J. Emer. Botanicals and Anti-inflammatories: Natural Ingredients for Rosacea. Seminars in Cutaneous Medicine and Surgery 2011; 30 (3): 148-55.

8-     L. Kolbe et al. Anti-inflammatory Efficacy of Licochalcone A: Correlation of Clinical Potency and In-Vitro Effects. Archives of Dermatological Research 2006; 298 (1): 23-30.

9-     ZD Draelos. New Treatments for Repairing Impaired Epidermal Barrier: Skin Barrier Repair Creams. Clinics in Dermatology 2012; 30 (3): 345-8.