The Best Face Moisturizer
All the Protection You Need, None of the Pore Clogging You Don’t
The key to finding the best face moisturizer, according to Derek Zoolander, the male model played by Ben Stiller in the 2001 comedy classic Zoolander, is wetness: “Moisture is the essence of wetness. And wetness is the essence of beauty.”
Dermalogica UltraCalming Super Sensitive Shield SPF 30($35.00)
Best Day Moisturizer
Murad Hydro-Dynamic Ultimate Moisture($50.00)
Best Night Moisturizer
Zoolander’s right: Moisture, which is nothing more than water, keeps skin comfortably hydrated, healthy, and beautiful. Face moisturizers work not by adding moisture on top of our skin, but by keeping the moisture that’s already there safely inside and up near the surface. The two that do it best are Dermalogica UltraCalming Super Sensitive Shield SPF 30 (for day) and Murad Hydro-Dynamic Ultimate Moisture (for night).
How do I know? The Reviews.com team and I scoured the ingredients lists of 219 facial moisturizers recommended this year by top beauty publications and a range of retailers; consulted with dermatologists, skincare product developers, and cosmetic chemists on what skin truly needs to be moisturized; and guinea pigged the eight finalists ourselves to determine the best.
bareMinerals Complexion Rescue Tinted Hydrating Gel Cream SPF 30($23.00)
La Roche-Posay Anthelios SPF 50 Mineral Sunscreen($34.00)
Juice Beauty SPF 30 Sport Sunscreen($16.00)
Sunday Riley Bionic Anti-Aging Cream($125.00)
Juice Beauty Green Apple Age Defy Moisturizer($45.00)
Fresh Black Tea Age-Delay Cream($15.00)
The final eight moisturizers before we tested them on our faces.
How We Found the Best Face Moisturizer
I change up my skincare a lot, cheerfully persuaded by beauty “Best Of” lists, free samples, and sweet-talking salespeople. I’m not unique in my scattershot approach to skincare. Many women feel this way, which is why we trust the gospel that is Allure’s Best of Beauty Awards and the advice of Sephora cast members. The problem is that salespeople are often balancing personal recommendations against their commissions, and beauty editors are as influenced by a brand’s marketing team as the rest of us. Even dermatologists can be set in their ways, endorsing the exact same product for decades.
None of these recommendations are wrong. They just aren’t necessarily right, either.
So, to start our search for the best facial moisturizers, I turned to those same sources to see what was being touted as the crème de la creams. The grand total: 219 products recommended by 15 publications, retailers, blogs, and beauty experts ranging from Vogue to Beauty.com.
To narrow that giant list down to eight finalists, we surveyed 196 dermatologists, cosmetic chemists, and aestheticians, and went more in-depth with five skincare experts. We also looked up a lot of ingredients, parsed through FDA documentation, dug into the big skincare debates — and yes, perused more than a few beauty mags.
Early on in our 75 man-hours of research, we learned that if you’re going to be awake during daylight hours, sun protection is an absolute necessity. We also learned that there’s a lot facial moisturizer can do in the hours you’re asleep, when sun protection is unnecessary. Michele Lottermoser, VP of product development at Julep Beauty, put it this way, “While the moisturizers themselves aren’t fundamentally different, daytime products often work to protect skin from sun, pollution, free radicals, etc. Night creams are designed to repair the skin.”
With that in mind, we approached our list of 219 products with unique day and night criteria. On some issues, the requirements were the same — nothing we put on our face should have questionable ingredients, for example. For others, like sunscreen and super-intense repairing ingredients, we wanted very different things from our day moisturizer and our nighttime choice.
Here’s how we narrowed down the list:
Round 1: Humectants
We cut any moisturizers (day or night) without humectants. The quick-and-dirty definition of moisturizing ingredients is: Humectants help draw moisture into your skin and emollients help block moisture from leaving your skin. Pretty much all lotions and creams are emollients (Wikipedia even lists them as synonyms). Humectants are important ingredients that make those lotions and creams more effective by actually helping to hold water in your skin — and we want effective.
Day: 2 contenders cut
Night: 6 contenders cut
Round 2: Fragrance
We removed any moisturizer with fragrance. When fragrance is added to moisturizer to act as a perfume (as opposed to a therapeutic reason like soothing headaches), it’s in a regulatory gray area: The law does not require its FDA approval, but the law does require it to be safe for consumers to use as instructed. According to the FDA, the natural and synthetic chemical ingredients that make up a fragrance do not need to be listed individually due to the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act, which makes it unlawful to force companies to share trade secrets on their labels.
While all ingredients hidden inside trade-secret fragrances are “safe” to use and exist solely to mask the less-pleasant smell of raw ingredients (turns out rosehip seed oil smells nothing like roses), any number can cause allergic reactions or sensitivities in some people. And so moisturizers with fragrances didn’t make our cut.
Day: 26 contenders cut
Night: 55 contenders cut
Round 3: Mineral Oil
We removed any moisturizer with mineral oil. Introducing the third type of moisturizer: occlusives. Similar to emollients, these ingredients keep moisture from escaping, but sit on top of the skin (whereas emollients soak in). Petroleum jelly is the most recognizable occlusive on the market. Mineral oil is a close second, but it has a bad rap for being a cheap filler, clogging pores, and not rinsing clean — so we simply cut anything with mineral oil.
Day: 9 contenders cut
Night: 5 contenders cut
I think people get a little too hyped up about what should not be in a moisturizer instead of what should be in a moisturizer. Since I make green, sustainable products, the only thing I am going to say should not be in your moisturizer is mineral oil. It coats the skin to prevent water loss, but does not offer any nutrients and is not a renewable resource.
Round 4: Sunscreen
Day: We removed any daytime moisturizer without a broad spectrum mineral sunscreen with at least 30 SPF. During the day, it’s important to wear a good sunscreen. Experts prefer moisturizers with an SPF rating between 30 and 50, and broad spectrum protection (those that block both UVA and UVB). Both chemical and mineral sunscreens work, but we chose to cut chemical sunscreens because the risk for causing an allergic reaction or irritating sensitive skin is heightened.
182 contenders cut.
Night: We removed night moisturizers with an SPF. Wearing a moisturizer with SPF to bed is a little like wearing a strapless bra with a turtleneck: It’s not necessarily wrong, but why would you?
If you want to wear a daytime moisturizer at night, go for it — it’s one less bottle you have to make room for on the bathroom counter. But you’ll be missing out on some pretty cool ingredients that are typically reserved for night creams.
65 contenders cut.
Round 5: Retinoids
We removed any daytime moisturizer with retinoids. Retinoids, which include retinol, retinyl acetate, and retinyl palmitate, are forms of vitamin A, a “magic ingredient” proven to fight visible signs of aging like wrinkles and fine lines. They’re hugely popular in skincare right now, and are pretty controversial due to a study of retinoids that found it increased the occurrences of skin tumors in mice exposed to UV rays. Some industry insiders say retinoids make the skin more vulnerable to sun damage, while others actually recommend them to fight photoaging.
It’s a complicated debate, but we ultimately chose to play it safe and cut the one moisturizer that included retinyl palmitate from our list of daytime moisturizers.
1 contender cut.
We removed night moisturizers without retinoids. Without any risk of sun damage, we want them. We want them bad. The wrinkle-busting, pigmentation-evening, skin-smoothing benefits are just too good to pass up.
9 contenders cut.
Round 6: Peptides
Day: We didn’t cut any day moisturizers in this round. Other than SPF, the main difference between a moisturizer you’d wear during the day and one you’d wear at night is what you can expect it to do. While you sleep, your body — and your skin — is busy renewing, repairing, and rejuvenating, which means “beauty sleep” is as necessary as your grandma always said it was.
Peptides are short strings of amino acids (aka proteins) that help trigger the production of collagen and hyaluronic acid, both of which the body produces naturally and both of which deplete with age. By boosting that production, peptides help keep skin plump and firm — meaning fewer wrinkles, lines, and sags. That’s awesome, but it’s more than we need from a daytime moisturizer, so we didn’t require our daytime pick to have peptides.
0 contenders cut.
Night: We cut any night moisturizer without peptides. We do want that level of renewing rejuvenation from our night moisturizer (when skin is more permeable to take up active ingredients), so we cut any products without peptides, leaving only the Major Leagues as contenders for our top night moisturizer.
70 contenders cut.
Face Moisturizer Reviews and Testing
Armed with eight face moisturizer contenders, we were ready to start slathering. And what good timing: True Winter has hit Seattle. My heater is clanging. The air, both inside and out, is so dry it crackles (or is that just the static in my hair?). My skin, already predisposed to dryness, has reached such dehumidified levels I’m afraid to yawn: Is it possible for my face to just crack in half?
We divvied up the moisturizers and — because why should you trust just me? — doled them out to six women between the ages of 20 and 50 with all sorts of skin types including combination, sensitive, oily-in-the-evening, and acne. We wanted to keep their feedback as unbiased as possible, so each product tester was given eight tubs of unlabeled creams and instructions to track their experiences morning and night on each moisturizer’s results, scent, feel, et cetera. I did the same, and we regrouped after 10 days to discuss our findings.
Best Face Moisturizer – Daytime
Daytime face moisturizer has its work cut out. It needs to be rich enough to be hydrating, but also absorb quickly. It has to effectively block the sun, but it can’t interfere with your makeup. And at its most basic, it needs to feel good on your skin.
If you’re looking for the best face moisturizer with SPF, Dermalogica’s UltraCalming Super Sensitive Shield SPF 30 checks all the boxes and adds a gentle, all-natural lavender scent for extra credit. (That’s the problem with going fragrance-free: Many moisturizers smell terrible.) It uses both zinc oxide and titanium oxide as mineral sunscreens, and packs in the humectants: Sodium hyaluronate, butylene glycol, and glycerin all make an appearance. The formula is light and slippery, making a nickel-size squirt easy to spread for full coverage — and easy to spill if you knock your bottle over. Consider yourself warned.
It goes on sheer, a little shiny even, which surprised me. Any negative online reviews described a ghost face of purple-white residue that refused to rub in. But I couldn’t recreate it no matter how much I piled on. If anything, I achieved a sort of sticky sheen like the skin that forms on pudding — also not ideal, but nothing like what was described.
That sheen is make or break for Super Sensitive Shield depending on who you ask. It remains tacky for a split second longer than I like before soaking all the way in, and one of our product testers said it was a full hour before she felt like the moisturizer had fully absorbed. On the other hand, the only tester who got the ghost-face effect said it lasted just a few minutes until it set and soaked in. For all others, there was no problem: Morning routines and makeup regimens remained unaltered.
We liked that Dermalogica’s UltraCalming line of products include a proprietary blend of oats and botanical extracts (like watermelon, apple, and ginger) that claim to reduce inflammation, making this moisturizer particularly appealing for anyone with sensitive skin. While there is no rush of intense hydration like you get with a thick night cream, none of our product testers felt the need to apply more throughout the day.
Runners-Up for Best Daytime Moisturizer
A close second place, bareMinerals Complexion Rescue is a 2015 Allure Best of Beauty Award winner that doubles as buildable, sheer-to-medium coverage foundation. The pigmentation-evening payoff is great if you get your hands on the right shade for your skin tone, but it frustratingly called attention to small imperfections like dry skin patches and clogged pores.
The highest SPF of our finalists, this liquid moisturizer goes on oily, but dries to a matte, powdery finish that some of our testers (like me!) loved, and some wanted to wash off immediately.
This thick formula means business. I imagine it being a go-to for beach days in humid summer months (and at $16, it’s the most comfortable price point of all our finalists), but wearing it under makeup feels unrealistic, and it ultimately didn’t feel very quenching. Plus, its scent is very polarizing.
SkinCeuticals has all the hallmarks of a top moisturizer, but is only shoppable through authorized retailers like dermatologists, medical spas, and a handful of online retailers. We’re comfortable recommending it based on its ingredients, but because it’s not widely available, it isn’t one of our top finalists.
Best Face Moisturizer – Nighttime
The inside flap of my Murad Hydro-Dynamic Ultimate Moisture carton says, “Splurge often.” It’s quoting Dr. Howard Murad, the dermatologist behind the entire Murad skincare line, and I assume it’s there giving us permission to drop $72 for 1.7 fluid ounces (though we’ve found it for just under $50 online).
I don’t need convincing.
Hydro-Dynamic Ultimate Moisture is what a nighttime face moisturizer should feel like: rich, decadent, and quenching. I want to wake up feeling like my moisturizer was at work for all eight hours of my REM cycle, and with Murad it does. My fellow testers agreed. They woke with super soft skin, and more than one of them said they felt like they’d had a mini chemical peel in their sleep.
That smoothness is the magical retinyl palmitate doing its thing (with the help of shea butter) restoring texture and tone and improving natural softness. One of the Major Leagues peptides, palmitoyl oligopeptide, is also doing some heavy lifting, stimulating collagen and hyaluronic acid production for plumper, more youthful skin.
Hydro-Dynamic Ultimate Moisture also claims to “lock in optimal moisture levels for eight hours” with emollients including avocado, sunflower, and olive fruit oils, and a whole host of humectants. Negative online reviews talk about it actually being too moisturizing especially as a day cream, leaving skin slick and makeup impossible. But most (and there are plenty: 43 pages of reviews on Sephora.com alone) adore it, regardless of skin type, giving it a rating of 4.5 out of 5 stars and 3,888 “loves.”
Runners-Up for Best Nighttime Moisturizer
An easy second place! I like this cream a lot, and I’m not alone: Fresh has a huge cult following. Its Black Tea Age-Delay cream has a vinegary smell that is off-putting, but the slippery formula applies easily and it feels hydrating on the skin — just not quite as intense as Murad.
The most expensive product we tested, this moisturizer rings up at $125 for a 1.7 oz bottle, and is infused with a powerful combo of antioxidants, peptides, and botanical extracts. It’s also the only moisturizer with retinol (as opposed to the gentler retinyl palmitate) in our list of finalists, and comes in packaging that rivals an iPhone. In a blind test, though, none of our product testers guessed it had the highest price point, mostly due to its too-sweet scent and sticky feeling on the skin.
Juice’s Age Defy Moisturizer slicks on and smoothes skin, but long-lasting stickiness and a strong smell don’t make wearing it feel like a treat. Some of our product testers also say they woke up to slightly oilier skin.
Kerry Benjamin – Aesthetician and Founder of Stacked Skincare
We had an industry insider weigh in on what to look for depending on your skin type.
I talked with Kerry Benjamin, aesthetician and Founder of Stacked Skincare, to get the breakdown of what to look for depending on your skin type.
Best Moisturizer for Oily Skin
Oily skin needs moisture to control oil production. If oily skin is dried out, the skin will actually go into an overproduction of oil, compounding the problem.
- Look for: Water base, bisabolol (an anti-inflammatory), niacinamide (an antioxidant) and Retinyl palmitate (promotes a clear complexion without irritation)
- Avoid: Heavy occlusives like petrolatum, which can clog pores and lead to acne-causing bacteria
Reviews.com Recommends:Dermalogica UltraCalming Super Sensitive Shield SPF 30 Murad Hydro-Dynamic Ultimate Moisture
Best Moisturizer for Dry Skin
Dry skin is due to a naturally low production of oil. It lacks moisture and requires ingredients that help reduce TEWL. Heavier occlusive and emollient ingredients are necessary to literally trap water in the skin’s upper layers.
- Look for: Dimethicone (won’t clog pores), L-ascorbic acid (an antioxidant), peptides (to stimulate collagen), hyaluronic acid (a humectant), plant stem cells (promote skin regeneration), lactic acid (gently exfoliates while hydrating)
- Avoid: Fragrance, which can be irritating
Reviews.com Recommends:Sunday Riley Bionic Anti-Aging Cream
Best Moisturizer for Sensitive Skin
Sensitive skin is a catch-all name for a whole host of skin concerns: excessive dryness, inflammation, water loss, eczema, rosacea, psoriasis — the list goes on.
- Look for: Resveratrol and rosemary leaf extract (anti-inflammatories), aloe vera and oat kernel extract (another duo of anti-inflammatories), evening primrose seed oil (reduces redness), lactic acid (gently exfoliates while hydrating), and hydrocortisone, (temporarily reduces inflammation)
- Avoid: Fragrance, which can be irritating
Reviews.com Recommends:Dermalogica UltraCalmingTM Super Sensitive Shield SPF 30 Fresh Black Tea Age-Delay Cream Juice Beauty Green Apple Age Defy Moisturizer
Best Moisturizer for Normal or Combination Skin
Normal skin gets a free pass: Most face moisturizers will work just fine. If you’ve got combination skin, use a heavier moisturizer in the winter months and go light on the T zone. Or pick a lighter moisturizer designed for oily skin and apply it all over, even in the T zone — you need to make sure to moisturize those areas.
What You Need to Know About Face Moisturizer
First, a lesson in how skin works.
There are three layers: the epidermis on the outside, the dermis in the middle, and the hypodermis underneath. Blood vessels deliver moisture to the dermis, which then travels up through the epidermis and evaporates. This is called transepidermal water loss (TEWL) and if there is too much TEWL going on, your skin will dry out.
Moisturizing is a misnomer. Water is the only thing that can hydrate skin. The job of moisturizers is to trap that water in, deliver water to the epidermis, or do a little of both.
Like I mentioned, occlusives are the OG moisturizers: ingredients that are so thick and impenetrable water cannot pass through them. Petroleum jelly is incredibly successful at this, cutting TEWL upwards of 98%. The downside with wearing petroleum jelly on your face is that if feels like petroleum jelly on your face.
That’s where emollients comes in. They have a similar chemical structure as occlusives (long chains of carbon atoms) and work to block water from evaporating, but their technique is a little different.
The epidermis is constructed like a brick wall, with dead skin cells playing the bricks and fatty lipids and proteins playing the mortar. When temperatures drop, those proteins break down. Emollients penetrate the epidermis and fill in the holes those proteins leave, keeping TEWL under control. Bonus: Filling in those holes also makes your skin feel soft and smooth.
Humectants are the exact opposite. Hydroxyl groups in their chemical structure attract water, so as it soaks into the epidermis, the young, moist cells hanging out in the dermis travel towards the surface of the skin. (Humectants also stimulate the production of ceramides, waxy molecules in our skin that also reduce TEWL.)
During the day, it’s important to wear a good sunscreen.
Experts prefer moisturizers with an SPF rating between 30 and 50, and broad spectrum protection. The sun protection factor (SPF) in moisturizers is what protects you from UVB rays. The number denotes how much longer it takes skin to sunburn than when unprotected: 30 times longer for SPF 30, 50 times longer for SPF 50, and so on. Don’t be fooled by the numbers, though. At their strongest, the difference in how much UVB radiation they block is around 1 percentage point, with SPF 30 blocking about 97 percent of UVB rays and SPF 50 blocking 98 percent. In fact, the FDA has proposed capping SPF at 50, arguing that any number higher is misleading to consumers who might believe there is such a thing as sunscreen that can block 100 percent of UVB rays. (There’s not.)
Broad spectrum sunscreen blocks both UVB rays — the kind that cause sunburns — and UVA rays, which penetrate the skin deeper and are closely linked to skin cancer. The real key to sunscreen, however, is coverage. Dr. Joshua Zeichner, an assistant professor in the dermatology department at Mt. Sinai Medical Center recommends a nickel-size dollop for a full face treatment along with regular reapplication.
Mineral sunscreens are the safest bet.
Sunscreens are divided into two categories: chemical and mineral. Mineral sunscreens are physical UV blockers — meaning they reflect UV rays so they can’t penetrate the skin — made from zinc oxide and/or titanium oxide. Chemical sunscreens absorb UV rays and then release that energy in a harmless way. There are a lot of chemical sunscreens, but six are used the most: oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate, and octinoxate.
Both chemical and mineral versions work well, but we chose to cut chemical sunscreens because the risk for causing an allergic reaction or aggravating sensitive skin is heightened. Popular consumer watchdog group EWG says it’s riskier than that: It stresses that some chemical sunscreens can penetrate the skin and reach living tissue, causing hormone disruption.
Both mineral and chemical sunscreen are effective UV blockers. If you have sensitive skin, stick to physical-blocker sunscreens, as some chemical blockers can cause skin irritation.
Evaluate your skin type. Figuring out your skin type can be tricky. Often, what we are positive to be true — that we’re oily, dry, or somewhere in between — is actually a result of the products we use. Flaky skin can appear with too much exfoliation; greasy skin may actually be residue from a too-rich moisturizer. That being said, there are some earmarks of different skin types.
If you are oily, you will have large pores all over and your face will get shiny throughout the day. Pore size is important here: If you’re greasy but your pores are small, you may just be using the wrong moisturizer.
Combination skin has large pores across the forehead, chin, and nose, and that T-zone gets oily throughout the day. If your T-zone is only a little oily, you probably have normal skin.
When your skin never breaks out and is tight, rough, and flaky, it’s dry. Dry skin is different than dehydrated skin though. Like aesthetician Kerry Benjamin explains, dry skin is a result of low levels of oil, which is what skin needs to trap moisture. It needs an emollient. Dehydrated skin still produces oil (in my case, a lot of it), but it’s lacking moisture. What’s the answer? You got this: humectants.
Don’t be fooled by the packaging. There’s nothing wrong with appreciating good design and a beautiful box. Just don’t overlook some of the littler guys with less showmanship — or even big names that de-prioritize their packaging. All brands operate on some sort of budget, and skimping on custom components is a good way to funnel more investment into creating a better moisturizer. Fresh Black Tea Age-Delay Cream, our runner up for best nighttime moisturizer, is a perfect example: a delicious product (with a price tag to match) in packaging that looks basic even by drugstore standards.
I appreciate skincare and cosmetics brands that use stock components. It shows me they’re putting their money into quality, efficacious ingredients, and I’m not paying for a name and some packaging. The same goes for smaller quantities of product: the better and more refined the ingredients, the less you need to get the results you want. I don’t like filler ingredients for the sake of fill weight.
Try some samples. Scared of spending money on something you’re not sure will work for your skin? Head to your nearest beauty counter and ask for samples of the moisturizers you’re most interested in. It’s the best way to experiment — and they are the perfect addition to your carry-on bag.