Understanding Your Skin’s Natural Moisturizing Factor

We all have that annoying friend…the one who always seems to have *perfect* skin without ever using fancy skincare products? For people on a quest to tame problem skin (like us!), it’s hard to not be envious of another’s effortless complexion.

The truth is, in ideal conditions, our skin does a great job of keeping itself hydrated naturally. The skin has a built-in moisturization system also known as the “Natural Moisturizing Factor”, or NMF for short. This is the reason — along with great genes (I know, cue eye roll)— that your friend can have perfect skin with no effort.

Reduced levels of NMF have been found in people with skin disorders caused by lack of proper skin hydration like atopic dermatitis, psoriasis, and seasonal or chronic dry skin.

By understanding more about the natural moisturizing factor, you will be able to harness the power of your body’s natural internal processes to get the radiant skin you want and deserve! .

What is the natural moisturizing factor?

So, let’s begin with what exactly the NMF is. The natural moisturizing factor (NMF, for short) is a collection of naturally-occurring humectants within the top layer of skin that protect the skin and keep it moisturized, healthy, and smooth.

NMF is made up of primarily of amino acids. Other ingredients in the natural moisturizing mixture are lactate, pyrrolidone carboxylic acid, urea, sugar, and peptides.  

The precise makeup of the NMF isn’t as important as what it does. This naturally occurring system helps to attract water to the skin, then decides what other elements are allowed to penetrate the skin. For example, you may have read a skincare myth that says 60% of what you put on the skin enters the bloodstream. That’s actually not true, and you can thank the NMF for playing a part in keeping the “bad stuff” out of our bodies!

Natural-Moisturizing-Factor Diagram

As with many things, nature designed a pretty perfect system. According to Dermatologist Dr. Leslie Baumann, author of The Skin Type Solution, your body has a remarkable ability to regulate the production of your NMF based on your environment.

“If you’re in a low humidity environment, you’ll make more NMF and therefore your skin will be more hydrated. If you’re in a high humidity environment, you don’t need as much NMF, so your skin makes less.”

In fact, the NMF works so perfectly, most skincare products are designed to mimic the NMF using a combination of humectants, emollients, and occlusives.


What affects the Natural Moisturizing Factor?

In a normal, balanced state the skin is great at doing its job of protecting the inside of the body without much issue. No acne, no atopic dermatitis, no dry patches. But when a number of things are off balance, it can affect the health of the skin.

As we discussed in an article on skin pH and sensitive and inflamed skin, the causes of skin issues are often a combination of environmental and internal stressors. In fact, some of these stressors are often a result of trying to improve the skin in the first place.

What affects NMF levels on the skin?
  • Hormones
  • Pollution
  • Weather, specifically not enough humidity
  • Diet 
  • Stress
  • Cleansing with harsh cleansers
  • Overbathing
  • Too much sun exposure
  • Skin becoming too hydrated
  • Natural effects of aging, which reduce the amino acid content in the skin.
Keep the skin elastic and supple Helps the skin look smooth Creates a protective barrier to keep the good stuff in and the bad stuff out

How the Natural Moisturizing Factor Helps Your Skin

The magical combination of amino acids, proteins, and acids both nourishes and protects our skin by letting moisture in and keeping free radicals out.

Here are the three main benefits of the NMF:
  • Keeps the skin elastic and supple
    Who doesn’t want supple skin? The amino acids in the NMF help loosen skin’s keratin fibers, proteins in the skin that regulate cell activity to make the skin more supple and less likely to flake or crack.
  • Helps skin look smooth
    Another benefit of the NMF is that it activates hydrolytic enzymes. This is a fancy way of saying NMF helps your skin easily shed old, flaky skin cells, ultimately leading to a smoother feel.
  • Creates a protective barrier
    The very top layer of skin, or, “stratum corneum”, is made of cells called corneocytes.  When hydrated by the NMF, corneocytes achieve the correct balance. This allows them to regulate water coming into or out of the skin, in effect creating a barrier. This helps the good stay in the body while keeping the bad out.

How can I help balance my Natural Moisturizing Factor?

There is currently no way to directly force your body to create more NMF. But luckily, there are many ways to help balance your body, and consequently, your skin with some lifestyle and skincare changes.

Keep your skincare routine simple

For some, the cause of NMF disruption is directly related to overusing skincare products or over-exfoliation.

Use high-quality Ingredients free from additives

Because your skin may be sensitive to any number of ingredients, it’s best to make sure you are buying the best possible ingredients to prevent them from being adulterated.  “High-quality” doesn’t always mean expensive. One exception is essential oils. Usually, the best quality oils are expensive (but worth it!).

Moisturize with Products containing Humectants like Honey, Glycerin, Hyaluronic Acid, and Sodium PCA 

Even with the best lifestyle choices, sometimes the skin needs a little extra help. Using additional moisturizers like honey, glycerin, and sodium PCA will help draw additional moisture from the air to the skin.

Use Products with Naturally-Occurring amino acids like Rice, Oats, Wheat, and Quinoa Proteins 

Botanical extracts from rice, oats, and wheat contain valuable amino acids like arginine, histidine, lysine that help increase the amino acids on the skin’s surface.

  • Identification of a Natural Moisturizing Agent in Skin – Journal of the Society of Cosmetic Chemists
  • Stratum corneum moisturization at the molecular level – National Center for Biotechnology Information
  • Natural Moisturizing Factor (NMF): What is it? – Ms. Beautyphile
  • Understanding the Role of Natural Moisturizing Factor in Skin Hydration  – Practical Dermatology
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About the author

I’m Drew, creator of Botaneri and an artisanal skincare formulator and certified aromatherapist who is here to help take the mystery out of DIY natural beauty. I started creating my own plant-based skin and body care products at home to deal with my own skin issues.

What I love most is helping people create luxurious and effective self-care products right in their own kitchens. It’s a lot easier than you think. Trust me, if I can do it, so can you.

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