Since there are hundreds of different types of humectants, the name is more of a blanket term for active ingredients that attract water molecules and help them bind and absorb into the skin. Many humectants naturally occur in the body (we’ll break that down later on in this post), but synthetic humectants are also common to many beauty products. Synthetic humectants do, however, have some downsides, which we will discuss in this post as well.
As a skin care supplier, you have a lot of freedom to choose which types of humectants you want to use in your product. In this post we’ll explore what, exactly, a humectant is and which of the most commonly used types of humectants are found in skin care and beauty products, as well as how to choose the best one for your product. Below we will also list a handful of humectants that you can find on Chemberry from suppliers around the world.
How humectants work
While moisturizing ingredients contain amino acids and proteins that help the skin appear more plump and nourished, humectifying ingredients work to help draw moisture out from the depths of the body and into the epidermis. They can also help draw moisture from the air and help the skin absorb it, but this greatly depends on how humid the air is to begin with. How a humectant does this depends greatly on the formulation of the ingredient. Since there are hundreds of types of humectant ingredients, the chemical makeup of a humectant greatly determines how it will respond to different skin types and in different products.
Scientifically, a humectant is any substance that is considered a hydrophil (meaning it has the ability to be mixed with or become wet on contact with water). Humectants are also polar, which means they bond to water, where non-polar substances are more likely to bond with oils. They help water bind and absorb into the skin because they have the ability to bond hydrogen molecules. This means that they promote the molecular structure of water (H2O, if you remember from high school chemistry) by creating the bond between hydrogen and oxygen that forms water.
Natural hydrating factors
Many types of humectants are naturally occurring in the body already, and those are classified as what is called “Natural Hydrating Factors” (NHF, for short). These include things like amino acids, lactic acids, glucosamin, peptides, urea, sugars, anorganic iones, and kreatin—to name a few. Because there are over 800 types of humectants—from natural to synthetic—it would be hard to name them all. Listed above, however, are the ones that are naturally found in the skin.
Since humectants work by drawing moisture out from deeper layers of the skin and body they can be dehydrating in some cases. They may not do enough damage to do actual harm, but consumers should be aware that certain humectants—particularly synthetic humectants, can leave the skin dehydrated on a long-term basis. This is because when certain humectants, like propylene glycol, draw moisture out from the inner layers of the dermis, they don’t actively work to replenish that moisture and can leave your skin dehydrated if that water is not replaced. In anti-aging and wrinkle-removing products, this means that the product may eventually worsen the appearance of wrinkles and aging because once the humectant is gone from the skin, the moisture is gone as well.
This is less of a worry with natural humectants and humectants that are found in the body because those substances have the ability to help restore moisture. Natural humectants also contain a lot of nourishment so they can help nourish the skin on its outer layers while helping it retain moisture in the long term.
Popular synthetic and natural humectants
There are, as you know by now, some drawbacks to using synthetic humectants in skin care products over natural ones. The benefit to synthetic humectants, however, is that they’re often more affordable and help the outer layers of the skin to draw out moisture from deep within. When used properly, synthetic humectants are a useful part of a formation toolbox.
Some synthetic humectants that are common to skin care and beauty products are propylene glycol–derived from petroleum, polyethylene glycol (PEG’s)–also derived from petroleum, silicones–which can make the skin feel soft but also pose a risk of causing more acne, oil production, or eventual dryness, and Urea–a common preservative that also works as a humectant.
The most commonly used natural humectants include aloe–which is both deeply penetrating and nourishing, honey–which also contains AHA’s that can naturally exfoliate and promote cell turnover, glycerin–which promotes the water equilibrium in the skin, and hyaluronic acid–a natural substance that helps the body cushion joints and promote eye health.
This natural aloe extract works to hydrate and nourish the skin without depriving it of moisture. This will help skin stay hydrated and moisturized for longer, diminishing signs of aging over time and delivering key nutrients to the deeper layers of the skin. Aloe also works to naturally restore the skin’s hydration levels after sun exposure because of its anti-inflammatory nature. This makes it a great ingredient for hydration and after-sun care.
Melhydran LS 9876 from BASF is a natural extract of French honey that is made for use in hair products—particularly shampoos. Humectants are great for shampoos because they prevent extensive drying and damage to the hair follicle, helping the product clean effectively without stripping it of too much of its natural oils. When used in shampoos, Melhydran LS 9876 can show results in as little as 24 hours after initial use.
Also ideal for hair products, the Hair Volumising Complex from Greentech can help strengthen and nourish the hair in addition to acting as a humectant when added to hair products. The ingredient is naturally derived and plant-based, meaning that it’s ideal for products that are vegan or made with sustainable materials. With added strength, hair will also appear more voluminous.
The Natura-Tec Glycerin from Abitec is a naturally derived humectant that promotes the skin’s natural hydration barrier. This is important for helping skin prevent overproduction of oil, as well as helping prevent it from drying out. In a skin care product, this ingredient will hydrate the skin and diminish the causes of acne and irritation associated with an imbalance in the natural hydration barrier.
As one of the most common and most popular natural humectants in the skin care market today, hyaluronic helps the skin attract and absorb moisture, also helping its natural hydration barrier. This ingredient makes a great addition to serums and moisturizers because it is non-sticky and deeply nourishing.
As a synthetic humectant, propylene glycol from Nikko offers a product with a low viscosity and a light texture to be used as an additive in cosmetics and personal care products. The benefit of synthetic humectants is that they are often more affordable and can offer a longer shelf life than their natural alternatives.
Another synthetic humectant, Pecogel creates a hydrating film that dries clear and with a non-tacky texture. This ingredient is a popular addition to shampoos and hair products, in addition to making a great, affordable humectant to add into skin care and cosmetic products.
Chemberry offers an extensive catalog of humectants. We recommend researching which specific humectant would be best for your product, whether it be hyaluronic acid or a silicone ingredient. This will help narrow down your search and get you exactly what you are looking for.
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