If you’re hitting the beach and frolicking in the waves this summer, that glowing tan and beach-tussled hair may not be the only thing you’re coming home with. That sea salt may be leaving your skin dry, cracked, and flaky.
Your skin is the largest organ in the body and the first line of defence against harmful microbes, pollution, and UV rays.
In scientific terms, your skin is technically “dry” when its moisture level is less than 10%. That’s when you’re most likely to smother yourself in body lotion.
But how do moisturisers work their skin-smoothing magic in the first place?
Cracked, flaky, and dry skin — which tends to occur when humidity drops in the chilly months — goes by a mouthful of a scientific name: transepidermal water loss, or TEWL.
At its simplest, TEWL is a measure of how much water seeps from the inside of the body through the different layers of the skin and out into the atmosphere.
Especially dry, irritated, or inflamed skin is also called xerosis, which is usually a minor and temporary problem that can be solved with good moisturising lotions.
Here’s how moisturizers work.
There are three different layers of the skin: the outer layer (epidermis), middle layer (dermis), and lower layer (hypodermis or fatty layer).
Moisture is delivered to the skin via blood vessels, but they only supply moisture to the middle layer of the skin — the dermis. From there, water travels upward and outward through the epidermis before evaporating into the atmosphere.
This evaporation causes skin to crack and flake. This process happens constantly, but skin isn’t always dry. That’s because the dryer the air the more moisture it will pull from your skin.
Moisturisers work in one of two main ways: they either trap moisture in your skin to keep it from escaping, or they restore moisture in the outer layer of skin that’s already been lost.
With the glut of lotions and creams on the market, it can be easy to get lost in the sea of brand-named jellies. At the most basic level, however, there are three types of moisturisers. Each works slightly differently, but most products combine all three.
These are called the “old school” or “first generation” moisturisers — think petroleum jelly or its brand name, Vaseline. This class of waxes, oils, and silicones work in a very simple way: They create a barrier over the skin, trapping water in the skin’s layers and stopping evaporation.
The molecules in these moisturisers contain long chains of carbon atoms that repel water. While occlusives are super effective at minimising dryness — they cut TEWL by a whopping 98% — they can be sticky, messy, and not very cosmetically appealing.
This class of moisturiser, which exists in the form of creams, ointments, lotions, and gels, are generally preferred over occlusives because they feel less sticky. Whereas occlusives coat the skin, emollients penetrate it, making the skin feel soft and flexible.
Emollient products are made with a variety of chemicals, but their basic building blocks are the same as occlusives — long chains of carbon atoms that repel water. Emollients work a little differently than occlusives, though.
Think of the outer layer of skin as a brick and mortar structure: the dead skin cells are the bricks and surrounding matrix of fats and proteins are the mortar. Special proteins link the dead cells together, forming a barrier between the inside of the body and the bacteria and chemicals outside, as demonstrated in this video by the American Chemical Society:
When the air gets dry, it dries out this matrix, and the links between the proteins and skin cells fall apart and fracture. Emollients are like cement in those gaps, restoring moisture and keeping skin smooth.
Humectants work by attracting moisture to the skin and keeping it there. This is basically the opposite of occlusives and emollients, which don’t like water. Humectants penetrate the outer layer of the skin, attract water to it, and lock that moisture in.
This happens because humectants have hydroxyl groups in their chemical structure (an oxygen and a hydrogen atom), which loves water. Humectants also prompt the production of ceramides, our body’s natural waxy molecules that play a major role in the structure of the skin.
But beware, in dry conditions, humectants can draw moisture from the younger, moist cells in the lower layers of the skin instead of pulling moisture from the air. Over time, this could eventually lead to even dryer skin. Minimise this by pairing a humectant with an occlusive, which seals in the moisture.
You should also check out the full video from the American Chemical Society’s Reactions channel on YouTube:
If you need help selecting a good lotion, there are a few guides like this one that stand up to consumer and scientific testing. And if lotions aren’t enough, try turning down your heat or investing in a humidifier.
Stay moisturised, people!
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