7 Humectants for Soft, Glowing Skin

Happy woman using moisturiser on face, with a red towel wrapped around her head

Humectants are a group of substances that have the unique ability to draw in, and hold on to, moisture from the air. This means that, when applied to the skin, humectants can make a huge difference in keeping the skin moisturized, leaving it instantly softer and more supple. 

While there are several different humectants to choose from out there, some are definitely better than others…

Need some help making your decision?

Here are seven of the best humectants to use on your skin: 

Hyaluronic Acid

One of the most well-known of skin humectants, hyaluronic acid is actually produced naturally by the body. However, the amount of hyaluronic acid that the body produces declines with age, leaving your body and skin lacking in this important substance the older you get.

Infographic on cell structure

Hyaluronic acid is an ingredient that you have likely seen incorporated into a wide range of different skin care products. 

Why is it so popular? 

Because it is capable of holding up to 1000 times its weight in water. 

This makes it extremely effective when it comes adding moisture to the skin. In turn, skin that is more hydrated appears smoother, meaning that any fine lines and wrinkles immediately become less noticeable. In fact, hyaluronic acid is so good at this that it is often used in filler injections as a way to keep the skin looking firmer and tighter. 

If that wasn’t enough to convince you that hyaluronic acid belongs in your skin care arsenal, this ingredient also helps to regulate inflammation in the skin and speed up wound healing. This can be especially beneficial for those suffering from an inflammatory skin condition, such as acne or psoriasis.

One thing to be aware of when looking to incorporate hyaluronic acid into your skin is…

There are several different forms of this ingredient available. 

While hyaluronic acid is the purest form, sodium hyaluronate can actually be even more effective. 


Because this version features a smaller molecular size, meaning that it can penetrate better into your skin. Hyaluronic acid itself has quite a large molecular size, so it tends to work on the surface layer of skin rather than entering deeper into your skin. There is nothing wrong with this, since many of the benefits of hyaluronic acid target the surface skin cells anyway, but if you would like deeper changes, sodium hyaluronate is the version to go for. 


Many would call glycerin the original humectant, because this ingredient has been used in skin care for decades now. 

Do you know what glycerin actually is?

It is a colorless and odorless substance that is derived from a variety of different plant sources. 

Being a powerful humectant, glycerin draws water into the skin and helps to keep the skin hydrated. 

However, it also has a few other important qualities, such as: 

  • Heals the skin – glycerin can help to treat and prevent fungal infections, making it key when it comes to treating conditions such as eczema and psoriasis 
  • Protects the skin – glycerin strengthens the skin’s natural protective barrier, enabling it to better keep irritants out 
  • Speeds up cell turnover – when applied topically, glycerin sends signals to the superficial skin cells on the outer layer of your skin, encouraging them to mature faster. This means that they will be replaced by newer and fresher skin cells quicker, giving you a clearer and brighter complexion


Often listed on ingredient labels as hydroxyethyl urea, urea is a humectant that is naturally found in the outer layer of the skin. Healthy skin usually contains about 28 micro grams of urea in each centimeter squared. On the other hand, dry or dehydrated skin will usually have just 14 micro grams, whereas those with eczema have even less. 

What does urea do? 

Well, just like the other humectants on this list, urea absorbs and holds on to water, enabling the skin to stay better hydrated.

Those who are lacking in urea will find it difficult to keep their skin moisturized, and it is not long before roughness, irritations, flaking and tightness are felt. 

Of course, just like every other humectant out there, urea has a few unique properties that you should know about…

The first is the way in which it can create a local anesthetic effect when applied topically to the skin. This can be extremely useful when it comes to sensitive skin, as well as when dealing with inflammatory skin conditions and flare-ups. 

Urea has also been shown to increase the rate at which other skin care ingredients are absorbed by the skin. This discovery has led to urea being incorporated into a wider range of skin care products, as this means that the other ingredients used will have a much greater effect.


Honey is an ingredient that just about everybody is already familiar with, and most of you will likely have a jar of honey sitting on your kitchen shelf. 

What many people don’t realize is that honey is actually a very effective humectant. It is able to retain a high amount of moisture, keeping the skin soft and smooth. 

This is the reason as to why honey is also used when it comes to treating open wounds. The way in which it keeps the skin moist encourages the growth of new tissue, while also preventing scars from forming. 

Clear honey in a small jar, surrounded by fresh white flowers

Of course, honey has other benefits too…

So many studies have been carried out on the antibacterial properties that honey has. 

It has been discovered that, when applied to the skin, honey slowly releases hydrogen peroxide. This is the compound that is antibacterial, antiseptic and antimicrobial. Research has also shown that the majority of bacteria strains out there are not able to survive in the hydrogen peroxide that honey produces.

These antibacterial properties make honey effective when it comes to treating acne. Not only is honey able to destroy any acne-causing bacteria, but it also moisturizes the skin at the same time. 

If all of that wasn’t enough…

Honey is also packed with antioxidants, which are key when it comes to youthful, glowing skin. 

Why are antioxidants so important? 

Because each and every day, free radicals are formed in your body. These are damaged molecules that are missing a vital electron, and, in order to heal themselves, they go around attacking nearby cells, trying to steal an electron. This then turns those cells into free radicals, causing them to attack other healthy cells. 

The only way to stop this cycle is with antioxidants, as they contain several extra electrons. They donate their spares to free radicals that they encounter, therefore healing the free radicals and preventing any more damage from taking place. 

In addition to antioxidants, honey contains other important components, including: 

  • Proteins 
  • Amino acids 
  • Enzymes
  • Vitamins and minerals 

It is also a source of alpha hydroxy acids, meaning that it gently exfoliates away the top layer of your skin. This is how honey makes a huge difference when it comes to brightening up the complexion. 


Panthenol is a natural compound that is closely related to vitamin B5, which is why it is often referred to as pro-vitamin B5. 

When initially absorbed by the skin’s surface layer, panthenol makes its way into the skin’s deeper layers. Here, it is absorbed into skin cells where it is converted into vitamin B5, otherwise known as panthothenic acid. 

As you may have guessed, panthenol is an effective humectant. However, not only does it have an immediate effect when applied topically, but it also brings about long term changes in skin hydration and protection when used daily for at least a few weeks.

This is all down to the way in which panthenol is absorbed so deeply into the skin, setting it apart from many other humectants. 

In fact, panthenol is so effective at this that it has been used for medical purposes too. 


For healing skin damage. Panthenol has proven itself to be extremely effective at speeding up skin healing. Plus, skin that heals with the help of panthenol usually has more elasticity and softness. 

How does panthenol do this? 

By stimulating the rapid growth of specific skin cells that enable damaged skin to regain its original appearance. 

Sodium PCA

Also known as sodium pyroglutamic acid, sodium PCA is a natural ingredient that is derived from a variety of different fruits and plants, as well as coconut oil. 

In fact, the origin of sodium PCA has an impact on what it is good for…

While sodium PCA from every source is a fantastic humectant, and is actually more powerful than glycerin, here are the main differences between each type: 

  • Fruits, vegetables and grasses – this sodium PCA has great emollient properties, making it a popular skin care ingredient, especially in moisturizers 
  • Coconut oil – mainly used for its emulsifying effects 
  • Algae – has powerful water-binding abilities 

Algae washing up ashore

In addition sodium PCA being found in those above sources, there is one other important source of sodium PCA that you should know about…

Your skin naturally produces sodium PCA, with this compound being an important part of your skin’s natural protective barrier. However, just like many of the other substances produced by the skin, the amount of sodium PCA that is produced declines with age. 

Since your skin is already familiar with this ingredient, it recognizes it quickly when it has been applied topically. This enables the sodium PCA to penetrate deep into the skin, providing it with a more intense dose of moisture. 

Glycolic Acid

Glycolic acid is an interesting ingredient…

While it does have humectant properties itself, it also has the effect of increasing the amount of hyaluronic acid your skin naturally produces. As mentioned earlier, hyaluronic acid is a humectant itself, meaning that glycolic acid can really make a huge difference to your skin’s moisture content.

Glycolic acid is popular in skin care for another reason too…

It is the smallest of the alpha hydroxy acids, meaning that it can have quite a significant exfoliating effect. 

This then increases your skin cell turnover rate, encouraging your skin to produce new skin cells faster. 

The results of all of this are: 

  • Increased collagen production
  • Smoother skin and fewer fine lines 
  • Increased skin elasticity  
  • Brighter skin 
  • Can treat acne 

Now, glycolic acid is quite a potent ingredient, and you will find it available in different concentrations. 

Which one should you go for?

If you have never used glycolic acid before, go for a lower concentration. You need to give your skin some time to build up a tolerance to the ingredient. 

Once you have done this, you can then move on to a concentration of between 8% and 10%, which is when the glycolic acid will really have a noticeable effect. 

Need an even stronger concentration? 

This is where a glycolic acid peel would come in. These are available at anything from 20% o 70%, but need to be carried out by a professional dermatologist. Even so, a series of peels would be needed in order for your dermatologist to slowly build up the concentration being used. 

One word of warning when it comes to using glycolic acid…

This ingredient does make your skin more sensitive to the sun. Try to avoid using it in the mornings, and make sure that you are extra vigilant about sun protection when using glycolic acid as a part of your skin care routine. 

As you can see, each of these seven humectants are quite different, and are unique in their own way. The humectants that you end up using should be ones that are able to benefit your skin’s specific needs, which could be anything from oily skin and acne to fine lines and wrinkles. Don’t be afraid to incorporate multiple humectants into your skin care routine either, because not only is this absolutely safe, but it could benefit your skin even more. 

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