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The 411 on Occlusive Skincare: Everything You Need to Know

Photo by svetikd/Getty Images

When it comes to popular skincare ingredients, there are some that live in the spotlight (like bakuchiol, squalane, vitamin C, and snail mucin), and there are others that do a lot of the heavy lifting without getting much attention. Enter: Occlusives. They’re the dry-skin defenders in your skincare army and they pretty much exist in any skincare products that are formulated to keep your skin hydrated, plump, and moisturized. While occlusive ingredients come in many forms and exist in moisturizers, ointments, lotions, and more, their main job is to promote skin hydration by sealing moisture into your skin—which is why they play nice with other hydrating skincare ingredients. If the viral “slugging”trend comes to mind (slathering your face in petroleum jelly to “lock in” your skincare), you’re on the right track. 

Occlusive agents are everything when it comes to addressing dry skin concerns, helping improve the look of fine lines, calming sensitive skin, easing eczema, and promoting healthy skin overall. Bottom line? We love occlusives in our skincare routine. We chatted with board-certified dermatologist Hadley King, MD, FAAD about why occlusive ingredients deserve a spot in your lineup. 

About the Expert:
Hadley King, MD, FAAD, is a board-certified dermatologist in NYC who specializes in medical and cosmetic dermatology. She is also a clinical instructor of dermatology at the Weill Medical College of Cornell University.

What Are Occlusives? 

“Occlusives are oils and waxes that form an inert layer on your skin and physically block transepidermal water loss. Some examples of occlusives include petrolatum, beeswax, mineral oil, silicones, lanolin, and zinc oxide,” says Dr. King. Transepidermal water loss (a.k.a. tewl) is the amount of water that you lose across your stratum corneum (your skin’s surface), and is a normal part of your skin’s function. However, the amount lost can vary due to factors like time of day, the season, your location, or your age. Helping lessen tewl can help give life back to dehydrated skin. Getting back to occlusive ingredients—they’re basically a group of moisturizing ingredients that create a physical barrier and a protective barrier between your skin’s surface and the environment to prevent dryness caused by this loss of water.

Occlusive vs. Humectants Vs. Emollients 

What’s the difference between occlusives, humectants, and emollients?

They all kind of sound like they do the same thing, don’t they? But the truth is, they’ve got very different jobs and just work well together. Take a good hydrating moisturizer, for example. “Moisturizers ideally contain three components: humectants, emollients, and occlusives. It's important to look for products that contain all three. Humectants hydrate the skin, emollients support the skin barrier, and occlusives seal in the moisture,” Dr. King tells us. Let’s break it down.

Occlusives Lock in Moisture

We know that occlusives lock in moisture and work together with other ingredients to prevent water loss. They can also help with skin conditions like eczema, psoriasis, and sensitive skin. In turn, it's important to note that some occlusives can trigger breakouts in acne-prone skin, can clog pores if you have oily skin, and can also trigger unwanted reactions if they’re applied over irritants or allergens by sealing them into your skin. Some common occlusives include Shea butter, argan oil, castor oil, jojoba oil, dimethicone, petrolatum, beeswax, lanolin, carnauba wax, paraffin, squalene, mineral oil, and capric triglyceride (which is a combo of coconut oil and glycerin).

Humectants Attract and Hold Hydration

“Humectants, like hyaluronic acid and glycerin, are mostly low molecular weight substances that bind water into the stratum corneum.  They need to be used along with the other components in order to retain water content,” says Dr. King. Having a low molecular weight allows humectants to penetrate into your skin more easily while attracting and holding water in the skin to keep it hydrated. Some other common humectants include aloe, urea, peptides, lactic acid, honey, AHAs, and panthenol.

Emollients Improve Look and Texture

“Emollients help in skin barrier function, membrane fluidity and cell signaling, leading to overall improvement in skin texture and appearance. They’re often used in combination with emulsifiers. Some common emollient ingredients are cholesterol, squalene, fatty acids, fatty alcohols, and ceramides,” says Dr. King. They help soothe and hydrate skin, making them great for sensitive skin types and they help improve how dry, rough skin feels.

What Are the Skin Benefits of Occlusives? 

Dry skin: Whether you’ve got dehydrated skin year-round or just in the winter, occlusives help repair your lipid barrier, to strengthen and repair skin that’s prone to dryness, redness, and flaking. If you live in a cold, windy city they can be extra beneficial. “Occlusives are essential for moisturizing your skin, particularly in environments with low humidity because transepidermal water loss will increase in low humidity environments, so you need occlusives to seal in moisture and prevent transepidermal water loss,” Dr. King adds.

Psoriasis: Some occlusives have been shown to be helpful with skin conditions like psoriasis by protecting and strengthening the skin’s barrier and helping increase the absorption of topical treatments.

Signs of aging: We know that the key to keeping skin healthy and youthful is hydration, which is why you’re sure to find occlusives somewhere down the ingredient list of your go-to anti-aging skincare products. Hydrated skin means less obvious fine lines and wrinkles, and plumper looking skin Plus, certain types of occlusives have properties that can help boost collagen production and improve skin texture too.

Hyperpigmentation: By preventing water loss and locking in moisture, occlusives in turn can encourage wound healing to help pigmentation like acne scarring to lighten up over time.

How Should You Use Occlusives in Your Skin Skincare?

If you have acne-prone skin, take note. “Look for non-comedogenic moisturizers that contain a combination of humectants, emollients and occlusives,' Dr. King recommends. But note that this can still trigger breakouts in acne-prone skin. “If a comedogenic occlusive is used, this can increase risk of acne. Even if a non-comedogenic occlusive is used, it can seal in sebum and increase risk of acne, particularly in those with oily and acne-prone skin,” Dr. King adds. If you have dry skin, think thicker formulas. “Drier skin types may need heavier emollients and occlusives, particularly in dry environments.  For extra occlusive properties, try slugging at night with Aquaphor, Vanicream ointment, or Vaseline petroleum jelly,” Dr. King adds. And if you have sensitive skin? Always do a patch test and avoid layering occlusives over possibly irritating ingredients. AIso, if you’re applying occlusives to your body, do it right after you shop out of the shower to help lock in moisture for longer.

Best Occlusive Skincare

1. Best Occlusive Night Serum

SACHEU BEAUTY We Occlusive Overnight Moisturizer

SACHEU BEAUTY We Occlusive Overnight Moisturizer is loaded up with lipids, squalene, and ceramides to give dry skin a healthy dose of hydration while you sleep. “I layer this thick, rich cream over my toner, serum, and regular moisturizer at night, as my final step in my nighttime routine. I wake up to the softest, most hydrated and glowing skin ever!!” one Ipster raves.

2. Most Hydrating Occlusive Eye Cream

SKINFIX Barrier + Triple-Lipid Boost 360 Eye Cream

SKINFIX Barrier + Triple-Lipid Boost 360 Eye Cream made the dry, delicate skin under our eyesfeel bouncy and smooth and melted into our skin perfectly under our makeup.

3. Best Summer-Time Occlusive Moisturizer

IT COSMETICS Confidence in a Gel Lotion

IT COSMETICS Confidence in a Gel Lotion promises to keep skin hella hydrated for up to 72 hours thanks to occlusive and humectant hall of fame-rs like glycerin, ceramides, and dimethicone.

4. Best Fine Line-Fighting Occlusive Treatment

LANCER Instant Contour Firming Treatment

LANCER Instant Contour Firming Treatment uses squalane, hyaluronic acid, and a Cone Snail Venom Bio-Peptide complex to help relax and soften fine lines, help boost collagen, smooth skin texture, and tighten and plump up skin. “I’m in my early 40’s and my skin is as smooth as what it was in my mid thirties, around my eyes and cheeks in particular,” says one Ipster.

5. Most Calming Occlusive Moisturizer

HEY HONEY Boost It Up Honey Rich Moisturizer

HEY HONEY Boost It Up Honey Rich Moisturizer felt so velvety smooth to swipe on, absorbed quickly into our skin, and helped calm the redness in our sensitive skin. It's all thanks to a hydrating cast of characters that include jojoba seed oil, beeswax, squalane, and peptides.

Want more tips on how to get healthy, glowy skin? Take our Beauty Quiz now to get started with your own IPSY beauty subscription. Already an IPSY member? Refer your friends to earn points, which you can use toward products. Either way, don’t forget to check us out on Instagram and TikTok @IPSY.

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About the author
Runa Rhattacharya
Runa Bhattacharya
Runa is an NYC-based writer and Registered Nurse with over 8 years of experience covering beauty and wellness. She’s worked for publications like SELF, Cosmopolitan, and more. She’s passionate about beauty, science, and two careers that she loves!
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Article Last Updated June 17, 2024 12:00 AM