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This Is Why Your Moisturizer Isn't Working

Layering on the lotion and still feel dry and flaky? Read this.

By |
February 24th, 2014

This Is Why Your Moisturizer Isn't Working

Winter is roaring on like a lion, and that likely means your skin is having a hydration freak-out. If you’ve been diligently reaching for your regular moisturizer but are still experiencing dryness and flakes, experts say there are reasons your favorite products may be failing. The good news is that they’re all easy to fix. Here are the mistakes you might be making and how to remedy them.

1. Your skin isn’t damp.
Moisturizer is best absorbed by skin with a small amount of water on it. If you want to help skin drink up as much as possible, “First use a soft washcloth dampened with warm water and compress the skin for a minute; then pat dry, leaving some moisture on the skin, and immediately apply moisturizer,” advises Minnesota dermatologist Brian Zelickson, M.D., creator of the new MD Complete skincare that is the first dermatological line to launch at Target this month. Or if you've just gotten out of the shower and washed your face, act quickly and apply moisturizer within a minute for optimal results.

2. You’re using the wrong type of product.
Even though there’s now a plethora of serums labeled as hydrators, they’re better used to layer more moisture on skin and shouldn’t be looked at as a primary source. “Most serums have a lot of silicone, and the function of silicone is not to moisturize, but to provide a silky feel,” explains Brooklyn dermatologist, Hilary E. Baldwin, M.D. If you’re on a lotion, it’s time to kick it up to a richer cream, while existing cream users can try intense balms until the barometer rises again. “A lot of women are using the same moisturizer from years ago, but as you age, you need to upgrade the thickness to meet the new moisturizing demands of your skin,” she adds.

3. The formula is missing essentials.
When it comes to hydration, not all ingredients are created equal. Everyone should look for powerful humectants that hold water in skin, like glycerin, hyaluronic acid, urea and alpha hydroxy acids, says Dr. Zelickson. Ceramides are natural fats that are depleted in the barrier of dry, itchy skin, so these lipid molecules are also moisturizing stars, says New York dermatologist, Joshua Zeichner, M.D., director of cosmetic and clinical dermatology research at Mount Sinai Medical Center. And if you’re not breakout prone, lanolin oil is an incredible skin barrier enhancer, adds Dr. Zelickson. Steer clear of highly perfumed products that can do more harm than good and dry skin with irritation.

4. You’re treating bare skin with actives.
Patients who use prescriptions like retinoids for acne and beauty junkies with aggressive anti-aging treatment regimens often cleanse, apply the treatment products, and then moisturize as a last step. Experts say the order is best changed up in cold weather. “Studies now show us that applying medicine over moisturizer still produces results, and allows for more hydration retention and less drying side effects,” says Dr. Baldwin. Bonus: Other contradictions, like redness and flaking, also improve with this method. If applying moisturizer and actives during the day, remember that sunscreen still remains your very last step.

5. The air is working against you.
Don’t be so quick to blame your skin; it needs more than about 30 percent humidity in the air to retain moisture and stay supple. Homes, offices and other indoor spaces with heated air can cause those levels to plummet and hover at less than 10 percent all season long. The result is that even healthy skin that is regularly moisturized has trouble holding on to hydration. “A relatively easy fix is to buy a humidifier,” says New York dermatologist, Neal Schultz, M.D., who suggests a cool water ultrasonic that he believes is the best and quietest on the market. The device increases atmospheric moisture by pushing microscopic droplets of mist into the air with vibration. Try sleeping with one on to help your moisturizer work better, and you’ll wake up with comfortably quenched skin.

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