Occlusives in natural skincare products: how to seal moisture into the skin
Occlusives are one of the three pillars of moisturizers. They work alongside humectants and emollients to keep skin feeling soft, hydrated, and glowing. Occlusive substances work by helping to form a physical barrier or seal on the outer layer of the skin, to prevent trans-epidermal water loss or (TEWL), keep moisture locked in.
Occlusives are best used to treat dry, tight feeling skin — particularly on your body where there are fewer oil glands — consider including occlusive agents. Although they don’t increase the moisture levels of the skin, they can help prevent water reserves from being drained by external sources like wind, a dry environment, or injury.
Overview of occlusive agents
Occlusives can come from plant sources, like candelilla wax, carnauba wax, and palm kernel, heavy oils macadamia and castor oil, and cocoa butter. Others are like mineral oil, petrolatum, paraffin come from refining crude oil. Some are nature-identical like allantoin, a compound found in many natural sources, but is often produced in a lab to cost and sustainability reasons.
You are already familiar with products high in occlusive agents without even knowing it. o get an idea of what they feel like think of barrier creams, foot creams, and good old Vaseline, which is made from 100% petrolatum — an ingredient derived from crude oil.
Occlusive ingredients can feel heavy and greasy on the skin — therefore it’s best to include them along with lighter-feeling ingredients when creating moisturizing skin care products.
Beeswax is composed of monoesters, diesters, and triesters, as well as hydrocarbons, hydroxypolyesters, and free fatty acids. It’s because of this composition and the moisturizing that comes along with it, but also the soothing qualities of beeswax, that it is so often used in moisturizers.
If you’re looking for something to use specifically on psoriasis or eczema, studies have shown beeswax may help in the treatment of those conditions.
For those that don’t like using animal products, there are some great vegetable waxes that are a great substitute for beeswax. Carnauba wax, also called Brazil wax and palm wax, and Candelilla wax, and Palm kernel oil are great choices,
Plant oils and butters high in Oleic Acid
In general, most plant oils are considered emollients, but some oils, particularly those high in oleic acid, also work also have occlusive properties. These oils often have a thicker, greasier feel and include olive, avocado, rice bran, macadamia, castor, and soybean oil and shea and cocoa butter.
Additionally, cocoa butter is FDA approved as an active ingredient for skin protection when included at a rate of 50 to 100% of the total formula or a product.
Lecithin is a fat that is essential in the cells of the body. It can be found in many foods, including soybeans, chickpeas, and egg yolks. It is a multi-purpose ingredient that helps pump up the skin’s barrier function and also be used as an emulsifier for oil in water emulsions. It can also help with serious dryness and eczema.
It can be derived from many plant sources including sunflower and soy.
There’s no doubt that cocoa butter is just an amazing occlusive. It has properties of all the moisturizing components and is a go-to for the skin. It’s OK if you turn to it because it smells great and sounds like something that would be good to rub into your skin, but let’s explore the science behind it.
One of the benefits of cocoa butter is the high tocopherol content. This is a cluster of compounds that together contain a lot of Vitamin E, and is sometimes referred to as a form of that key vitamin. Tocopherol is a friend of the skin due to its antioxidant properties. These protect the skin from UV rays, and ultimately make it look firm and healthy. By boosting collagen, Vitamin E also keeps your face free of nagging little spots and lines and wrinkles that may come from age.4
When mixing up a moisturizing product, you might add some Vitamin E oil to your chosen carrier oil.
While allantoin occurs naturally in botanical extracts of the comfrey plant, it is generally chemically synthesized to be nature-identical for sustainability reasons. When formulating, allantoin will come in the form of a white powder that is dissolved in the water phase. Allantoin helps to create a barrier over the skin while healing and promoting cellular regeneration.
Allantoin is FDA approved as an active ingredient for skin protection when included at a rate of .5 to 2% of the total formula or a product.
Non-Natural/Synthetic/Petroleum-based Occlusive agents
There are many great plant-based or natural occlusives, but some of the occlusives ingredients most popular with dermatologists and professional formulators are derived from petroleum products or made with some synthetic ingredients. Regardless of whether you use choose to use all-natural ingredients or synthetics, it’s important to understand the what options are available.
Petrolatum, or petroleum jelly and mineral oil
These are the two most popular occlusive ingredients. There’s no disputing, petrolatum and mineral oil are popular because they are both inexpensive to produce and are effective occlusive ingredients. It’s generally believed, when properly refined, petrolatum has no known health concerns and is safe to use. Another concern is regarding the impact to the environment because both are derived from crude oil, a renewable resource.
Many products with a cult following like Vaseline, Le Mer’s Crème de la Mer, Glossier’s Balm Dotcom, CeraVe Healing Ointment, and Kiehl’s Lip Balm #1 are petrolatum-based.
Dimethicone is one of the best and most popular synthetic occlusive ingredients because it is inexpensive and easy to produce and it excels at forming a nice moisture barrier over the skin,
Another reason for dimethicone’s popularity is that is it is the only ingredient listed that has a greasy feeling when applied to the skin.
Natural, Plant-based Occlusives vs Non-Natural Occlusives
With humectants and emollients, it’s easy to find plant-based products that work as well or better than their less natural counterparts. With occlusives, it’s a little tricker.
For example, petrolatum, mineral oils, and silicones are highly regarded as being by doctors and scientists as the most effective way to prevent water loss from the skin.
In many commercial products, even those that tout natural healing benefits, like Aveeno or Le Mer, you’ll still see petrolatum, mineral oil, and silicones as one of the top ingredients.
There is a wide variety of ingredients—many of them all-natural—that can provide the occlusive component of your moisturizer. As mentioned above, some of them have emollient or humectant properties as well. This gives you a great chance to mix various emollient, humectant, and occlusive agents for a great moisturizer that works for your skin’s unique needs.
- Allantoin. Wikipedia.org. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allantoin
- Collision, Clarence. (2015, Mar. 31). A Closer Look: Beeswax. Bee Culture.http://www.beeculture.com/a-closer-look-beeswax-wax-glands/
- Hydrogenated Lecithin. Truth in Aging. https://www.truthinaging.com/ingredients/hydrogenated-lecithin
- 9 Antioxidants That Can Help Prevent Premature Skin Aging. Huffington Post. 2017, Dec. 06. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/dermapproved/personal-health_b_4212190.html