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The Best Humectants to Use in Natural Skincare

Whether you’re crafting lotions or moisturizers, natural humectants should be prominently placed in your bag of tricks.  They are natural moisturizers that basically allow you to become one with the natural world.  And that’s no exaggeration.

A humectant is a type of moisturizer, and it works by — brace for amazement — drawing moisture in the air to you.  What a beautiful thought, something in your body reaching out into the summer sky and pulling in moisture, making your skin supple and pliable.  

For one example, aloe plants, because they’re rich with natural humectants, pull in moisture from the air all day long.  That’s why they are much softer than they appear, even before you slice into rich, milky texture within the plant.

To get a bit more into the science, humectants are proteins.  Because of their chemical makeup, high in alcohols which are part of the hydroxyl groups, humectants bond water molecules to themselves, and in turn to the skin.  This is called a hydroscopic effect.

To some extent, we have some humectants inside of us naturally (like hyaluronic acid), deep in the layers of the skin.  But sometimes additional humectants are needed to keep your skin and hair moist and appearing healthy.

Humectants can come from natural sources, like glycerin, honey, aloe vera gel or liquid, sorbitol (derived from sugar cane), lactic acid, and hydrolyzed wheat, baobab, and rice proteins. Others are either nature-identical or synthetic like lithium chloride, urea, glyceryl triacetate, propylene glycol, hexylene glycol, and butylene glycol.

 

As we’ll see in the other posts in this series, humectants, emollients, and occlusive are the three main types of moisturizing agents and each work in various ways.  

Lotions and other great things you may craft will often have all three of these working together to provide great moisturizing.  But to illustrate the importance of the workings of humectants, dermatologist Kenneth Howe MD says it isn’t just a lack of moisture that’s the problem for someone with dry skin, explaining,

“The reason dry skin is dry is that it lacks humectants, the proteins in the skin that bind water.”

Humectants draw water from the air to the skin

What are the best natural humectants?

Honey

For those getting started with DIY skincare formulation and open to working with animal-produced ingredients, honey is a perfect way to get acquainted with the power of humectants.

Honey is a supersaturated solution composed mainly of fructose and glucose, with additional proteins, amino acids, vitamins, enzymes, and minerals. It is a great source of alpha hydroxy acids, which help remove the top layers of dead skin to encourage additional moisturization.

Although honey on its own is self-preserving, when you introduce other ingredients into the mix, the high sugar content makes it a hotbed for microbial growth.

Because of the this, honey is best used in single-use or refrigerated products like DIY facial masks or used at very low levels (around .1%) combined with sodium PCA or hydrolyzed proteins with a carefully considered preservative.

Glycerin

Our clear, odor-free friend comes in a lot of commercially-available healthcare products and is probably the most popular humectant for DIY plant-based skincare products. Glycerin is, of course, a humectant, but it also has emollient properties, and that’s one of the things that makes it so beneficial, though I want to focus on emollients here.

To illustrate how beneficial it is to skin, University of Georgia researchers found that glycerin helps skin cells mature and function properly. Without getting too technical, glycerin works in this way by pairing with enzymes that are found throughout our bodies, phospholipase D.

These two substances together create a signal that helps direct the cells through their life cycles. In short, glycerin and phospholipase D cause young skin cells to swim to the surface where, instead of just replicating, they hang around and mature, ultimately secreting lipids to protect the skin’s surface.

Even though there are synthetic glycerin sources, many natural ones are available, such as vegetable glycerin. Glycerin is widely available and relatively inexpensive and 500ml or 16 oz will cost around $8.

One downside, when glycerin is used at too high a level, it will result in a sticky skin feel. Because of this, it’s recommended to use at no more than 5% of your product’s total weight.

Sodium PCA

One of the best humectants available is Sodium PCA. The white-lab-coat name for Sodium PCA is Pyroglutamic Acid, and it’s an amino acid found naturally on human skin and in grasses and some fruits. All humectants help with water absorption and retention, but Sodium PCA is particularly powerful and can bind water 1.5 times better than glycerin.

Another major benefit of sodium PCA is that its very water soluble and doesn’t change the viscosity of the product you’re whipping up. It’s also very mild, with no sensitivity.

On the negative side, it is relatively expensive at $17 for 500ml or 16 ounces. Also, unlike glycerin, it does wash off.

Aloe Vera Liquid

Either in the pure juice or the concentrate form, Aloe vera is a great humectant to use. It goes deep into the skin on the quick and moisturizes deeply.
The low pH of Aloe vera juice can compromise the emulsion of your product, so adding products that will boost the pH just a bit.

Depending on whether it’s certified organic or not, aloe vera liquid will cost anywhere from $7 to $20 for 500ml or 17 ounces.

Hydrolyzed Wheat/Baobab/Rice Proteins

The awesome thing about wheat proteins is that they supply an amino acid called glutamine. This important ingredient specializes in the regeneration of cells. If formulating for skin with signs of aging, wheat proteins will really fight on your behalf.
These proteins are used in the water phase when mixing up lotions and creams. Studies have shown that hydrolyzed oats retain significantly more moisture no matter what the humidity.  There is a faint odor, however.

Although these are some of my favorite humectants to use, they’re not the only ones. Hyaluronic acid, calendula extracts are also good for all sorts of creams and lotions.

Again, moisturizer in your skin is three-pronged, coming from humectants, emollients, and occlusive. All of them are important, but if you don’t pull in moisture in the first place, it’s hard to preserve it, and that’s why humectants lead the charge in nourishing your skin!

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