“Don’t forget to put lotion on your face!” It’s something my mother used to say all the time, and now the habit is ingrained in my skin-care routine. But skin experts say far too many people skip this essential piece of the skin-care puzzle altogether. “Most people are not aware of the importance of skin hydration,” Joyce Imahiyerobo-Ip, M.D., director of cosmetic dermatology at South Shore Medical Center, tells SELF. Dehydrated skin can lead to issues like inflammation and breakouts.
Now, if you have oily skin, you might think: This story isn’t for me; I need to cut down on the moisture. That’s a total beauty myth. “Those with oily or acne-prone skin fear that moisturizing will only make it worse, so instead they use harsh products and cleansers to dry their skin out,” Dr. Imahiyerobo-Ip says. This, she explains, is counterintuitive, since overwashing your skin can actually cause it to produce even more oil. Probably not the goal you’re hoping to achieve.
The fact is, everyone, regardless of skin type, can benefit from moisturizing their skin every day. It’s just about choosing the right one and applying it the right way. Here are some of the biggest moisturizing mistakes dermatologists see with their patients.
1. You skip the patch test when trying a new moisturizer.
Just as you would test a lip shade or eye shadow on the back of your hand before buying, you should do the same for skin-care products if possible. Dendy Engelman, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist and cosmetic surgeon in NYC, recommends that all her patients try the product on a small area of their neck for a week before applying to the entire face. In addition to making sure you like the way the product feels, this helps ensure that it doesn’t lead to clogged pores, allergic reactions, or breakouts. And if you can’t test the product, make sure to check for potentially irritating ingredients, like AHAs, BHAs, retinol, formaldehyde, phthalates, or botanical extracts. This is particularly important for those with sensitive skin, who should avoid fragrance, parabens, and essential oils.
2. You’re not using the right moisturizer for your skin type.
The best moisturizer is the one that fits your own skin’s needs. “Just because your best friend likes the feel of a particular product does not mean it will work well for you,” says Joshua Zeichner, M.D., director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital. “With so many products on the market, you can select the ideal formulation for your preference—gel, creams, lotions, ointments, and foams can all be effective.” The key is to know which ingredients will best address your individual skin concerns.
If you have dry skin, for example, Dr. Engelman recommends looking for products that contain hyaluronic acid and ceramides. “These ingredients lock in moisture and improve texture,” she says. “Ceramides help to restore the skin’s barrier by holding the cells together, and hyaluronic acid can hold up to 1,000 times its weight in water, meaning it does wonders in hydrating the skin.” If you have oily skin, gel serums or oil-free products are good options. Those with acne-prone skin should be especially careful not to use ingredients that might cause breakouts, like alcohol, heavy oils, or petrolatum. Instead, they should reach for moisturizers with ingredients that are clinically proven to prevent breakouts such as adapalene, benzoyl peroxide, and salicylic acid.
3. You’re using an oil alone to moisturize.
While oils are great for hydrating and soothing dry and irritated skin, they’re not meant to be used in place of your standard moisturizer. “Moisturizers contain humectant ingredients that draw water molecules into the skin, while oil-based products contain emollient ingredients that merely treat the skin on a surface level,” explains Lily Talakoub, M.D., dermatologist at McLean Dermatology and Skincare Center. For this reason, she recommends applying an oil on top of your regular moisturizer both day and night. Talakoub likes Eve Lom Radiance Face Oil ($80) layered over the Eve Lom Radiance Lift Cream ($72) and the Rahua Amazon Oil ($57) for the body.
4. You’re applying moisturizer to dry skin.
Moisturizers are most effective when skin is still damp, as damp skin best absorbs the moisture and locks it in for a longer time. As the back of the bottle says, you should always apply moisturizer to clean skin—and for maximum results, shortly after cleansing, before your skin is totally dry. While waiting a few minutes or hours after washing your face before moisturizing isn’t the worst habit, it does your product and your skin a disservice.
5. You’re layering your products all wrong.
In order to get the maximum benefit from a product, including your moisturizer, your products have to be layered on correctly. “You want to start with the lightest products and work your way up to the thickest product,” says Dr. Imahiyerobo-Ip. “For example, if you have acne and are using any acne medicine, your general A.M. routine would be like this: wash, medicine, moisturizer with sunscreen.” If you use a treatment serum, she explains that your routine would usually involve a cleanser, serum, and moisturizer with sunscreen.
6. You’re not using a moisturizer with SPF in the morning.
We can’t stress enough the importance of wearing sunscreen, even on cloudy or rainy days when the sun is far from sight. “Even low levels of sun exposure add up over a lifetime and contribute both to the development of skin cancers and premature wrinkling,” says Dr. Zeichner. That’s why your best line of defense is to apply sunscreen every morning. A facial moisturizer with SPF, like Aveeno Positively Radiant Daily Moisturizer SPF 30 ($17), will do the trick for every day.
7. You’re exfoliating dry skin instead of moisturizing it.
When we see a dull, flaky complexion, the first instinct is to reach for a face scrub or peel to smooth out the texture. But your skin might be begging for moisture. “There is a difference between dull skin and a dry skin,” explains Dr. Zeichner. “If you have a lot of flaking, it means that your skin is lacking hydration.” Exfoliating at this time could cause disruption of the skin barrier and inflammation, making your skin worse. Listen to what your skin needs and apply a moisturizer to restore hydration levels. If you see a lot of skin flaking, he recommends using a moisturizer that’s rich in emollients, like Dove’s DermaSeries Replenishing Face Cream ($11), to smooth out those rough, dry skin cells.
8. You’re rubbing it in too hard.
Moisturizers should be gently massaged into the skin. “While physically massaging the skin can increase blood circulation which can help with the absorption of the product, working the skin too hard can cause overexfoliation,” warns Dr. Engelman. Too much rubbing can weaken the skin's barrier function and cause inflammation. That last part is the biggest risk, as inflammation and disruption in the skin barrier leaves you vulnerable to infection from microorganisms, such as bacteria and fungus, and leads to sensitivity and irritation. The opposite of what you are trying to accomplish!
9. You’re using your day cream at night.
There’s a reason skin-care brands sell both—and it’s not just to steal your hard-earned dollars. Your skin is in its peak state of repair and rebuilding at night, with the majority of cell turnover and regeneration occurring when your body is in REM sleep. For this reason, you should apply products that help with this recovery stage at night. “Night creams are packed with essential ingredients, such as retinols and peptides, that help soothe and repair the skin,” explains Dr. Talakoub. “They are generally thicker and more nourishing, which is why they’re meant for night use.” Dr. Zeichner adds, “We know that skin hydration levels decline at night, making your nighttime moisturizer an important step.”