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Moisturizers - are they harmful to the skin's natural hydration

Is a Solution for:
Dry Skin, Oily Skin
August 11, 2010 Reviewed by admin 8 Comments
The epidermis is a complicated organ. For years we've been told to moisturize our skin to keep it hydrated, but now some are calling to question whether this is actually harmful to the skin's natural process. To moisturize or not, that is the question.

It's probably key to understand how the skin functions. Normal skin has oil producing sebaceous glands that naturally lubricate the skin and keep it properly hydrated by preventing excessive water loss or absorption. Natural moisturizing factors (NMF) are free amino acids and other chemicals present in the stratum corneum that are responsible for keeping the skin moist and pliable by attracting and holding water, a property called hygroscopic.

The major factor responsible for dry, scaly skin can therefore be related to the loss of water from the stratum corneum, which fluctuates with environmental humidity levels, damage to the barrier by denaturing keratin protein, removing NMF and interrupting lipid bilayers. Dry skin arises from distress or damage to the skin's lipid barrier -  structural deterioriation exposes skin cells to external threats and contributes to trans-epidermal water loss (TEWL) as cells become dehydrated. This could also occur from using solvents, detergents, excessive use of water and soap and other irritating chemicals.

Moisturizers work to prevent water loss by coating the skin with a substance to trap moisture - replicating what the healthy sebum balance does normally. Studies show that for dry skin syndromes like xerosis, moisturizers are effective. But some believe that topical hydrators should support the natural hydration process rather than simply supplementing moisture. The moisturizer may offer temporary relief, but the cell disruption must be isolated and corrected for dry skin to actually be alleviated.

Regardless, how, then, would moisturizers themselves be harmful to the natural hydration process? Dermatologist Dr. Zein Obagi says that when cells recognize that an outside source has already hydrated the skin, there's no need for natural hydration to take place. This means that the cells become inactive and stop the moisture production process, which leads to dry skin. The doctor likens it to a moisturizer addiction.

Dr. Hauschka has a similar theory. He advises against using a night cream because regular application interferes with the tasks your skin undergoes at night like regenerating, balancing oil production and expelling impurities. Based on this theory, regular application over time means that the skin becomes less able to care for itself.

Studies do show that over time, moisturizer use has an impact on the skin. A study from the University of Copenhagen confirmed that skin barrier function could be adversely affected by use of moisturizers. In the study, transepidermal water loss was significantly higher on the arm treated with moisturizer than on the control arm, which suggests that long-term treatment with moisturizers on normal skin may increase susceptibility to irritants. But, it isn't quite clear if the natural hydration process is quelled because of the moisturizers' regular hydration or if the other ingredients in them are simply damaging the cells and causing irritation.

A study in the American Journal of Clinical Dermatology suggests that certain types of emulsifiers may weaken the skin barrier. Other studies pose questions as to whether moisturizers' inherent capacitance is a source of false positive results.

Too much moisturizing comes with other problems as well. Oil based moisturizers can run the risk of clogged pores and water-friendly ingredients like glycerin, which is supposed to attract and retain moisture, can only do so at a level of humidity above 70%.

The key may be to not overuse moisturizer if it isn't needed. For those of us with normal skin, developing a dependence on moisturizer is just not necessary, especially when our complicated epidermis has the functions in place to keep us hydrated and well. And for those prone to dry skin, it may be necessary to find a deeper solution than just slopping on a standard moisturizer.
  • April 26, 2016

    by Renee


    I have recently started researching the no moisturizer method so I am currently giving it a try. I am 34 years old and have moisturized for at least 12-14 years, day and night. I never went without moisturizing my face ever! If I did I just knew it would feel as if my face was splitting, similar to extremely chapped lips. I decided to stop using moisturizer, because I was just absolutely fed up with products not working. My skin is acne prone and probably damaged from tanning as a young adult. Years ago I switched to a more natural skincare method and have probably tried every possible method with the exception of stopping the use of moisturizer. It has been about 4 days. My skin is tight, itchy, flaking and a bit red, but I am going to fight through this experiment. I eat well, take a good quality vitamin, exercise regularly and drink plenty of water so eventually my body will heal itself, right?! We will see. I know this post is forever old, but I think us ladies are forever on the search for a remedy!!!

  • December 5, 2014

    by Laura

    I am 32 yo and recently decided to start a skin care routine to prevent signs of ageing. I tend to forget using the products, as I am not used to the routine, but I applied face moisturizer almost every day the past 10-12 days. Today I am not using anything and my face has dry patches and is all wrinkly and dried up. This didn't happened before. There is no other explanation than the use of the skin care products.

  • March 21, 2014

    by lisa

    This is interesting article. I appreciate it. I'm 33 and have never properly moisturized. I've never really trusted absorbing all that long list of chemicals into my body on a regular basis. I put on some oil once a week sometimes. Like organic coconut oil if i have it, or if not olive oil, fresh out of the bottle.

    I'm routinely told I look young, often people are in shock when they find out my age. I even sometimes get asked for ID when buy alcohol (result ;) ) Recently my mum bought me some moisturizer from Lush. I've started using it. But i'm really frightened to be quite honest. I have a good diet and i think that contributes to my youthfulness (vegan for 15+ years, lots and lots of green vegetables).
    I'm worried that now I'm starting to moisturize it may actually start ageing me :/ Think i'll use it once a week at the most, and if my skin feels too dry i'll on the ol' olive oil. It's worked so far.

  • February 15, 2012

    by Keren

    I have used copious amounts of sensible (i.e., dermatologist recommended) moisturizers for yeas. My skin dries out within a few hours of use. My husband never uses moisturizer and does not seem to need it. Wondering if I have made my skin inept at producing its own moisture, I stopped using anything (except for occasional applications of straight Vitamin E oil when I absolutely can't stand it!) 3 weeks ago. My skin is crazy dry, with redness, whiteness and scaling. I'm not sure how long to continue this experiment or whom to consult. Ideas are welcome.

  • August 23, 2010

    by Tina

    It's not stated which moisturizers were used in the experiment. A friend told me once that those with alcohol based fragrances would dry your skin rather than replenish. Kinda reminds me of the "chap stick dependency" thing from a few years ago. Couldn't hurt to skip the lotion for a few days, tho.

  • August 14, 2010

    by Susan Dent

    This is definitely 'a tad scary' as moisturising is just what we all DO, right? And have done practically forever.

    It's also something that almost cannot be gotten away from as every product you can think of, from serums (hyaluronic acid in practically every one) to hand and body washes. I don't use a night cream, but I do use day cream and a body cream - and I wouldn't particularly want to give them up :)

    Interesting that the over-use of a few things in skin care have garnered some concern lately: over-exfoliation causing Hayflick limit concerns, excess peptide use causing possible over-proteinization and an odd effect on skin (I think I read that here recently), too many antioxidant supplements in the diet possibly having a PRO-oxidant effect, and now this.
    :sigh: I wish skin care were easier than this :)

  • August 12, 2010

    by Junko

    This is a great and informative article that gives reason to pause and think. Not too many readers have commented I believe as this goes against what we've been told to do for so many for years...cleanse & MOISTURIZE. The notion of not moisturizing would leave me at a loss as to what to do then. I'd have to do some research into what i'd use then if I were to follow a skin care program that omitted the moisturizing. Wonderful Food for Thought Summar!

  • August 11, 2010

    by Jaysie

    Summar - Your article reminds me of Dr. Erno Lazlo's original skin care regimen of re-applying plain water and sealing it in. He did not have a moisturizer in his product line up.

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