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An introduction to Emollients, Occlusives and Humectants

The first step to making or selecting high-quality products is education. I grew up using traditional products like most people. I didn't understand why I used the products I used, what was in them or why. It's so important that we pause those daily habits we have had for so long, and really examine our lives. When I began making soap and discovered all the 'things' in a traditional soap bar, I was pretty grossed out. I had no idea that most of my life I had been using a detergent bar and absolutely no actual soap. I spent 30+ years slathering on chemicals blindly. From our skincare regimen to household cleaners to the clothing we wear, mass production has reduced quality and cheapened products. The most common way companies who mass produce body care do this is with synthetics.

Synthetics aren't always bad. I love science and recognize the amazing stris that science makes. However, I am a firm believer tat we should use synthetics only when they are the best option, not when they are the most cost effective. This is especially true with body care. Please remember in the United States a company does not have to prove their skincare is safe or effective before they market it. This is true of every cosmetic produced and sold in America.

Our natural world is full of the goodness that our skin needs. When an ingredient provides skin softening and soothing directly to the skin, it's called an emollient. Emollients fill the cracks and damage in your skin and reduce transdermal water loss. These are in ingredients like lanolin, safflower and castor oils and some waxes. Emollients provide the deepest level of nourishment for the skin. Oils like olive, grapeseed and avocado protect our skin but only offer minimal moisture on their own. They trap added and natural moisture in the skin and provide protection against dirt, wind and other damage. When an oil behaves this way it's called an occlusive. Most oils like olive, coconut and avocado oils are both occlusives and emollients. The dominant properties of these oils keep them categorized as occlusives even though they have moisturizing properties. Butters like shea, cocoa, kokum and mango act as emollients and occlusives also, but their emollient properties are dominant. This makes them ideal as premium ingredients and high quality moisturizers. The other category of ingredients that I use are humectants. Humectants are hydrophilic. This means they attract moisture from the air around them. Honey and aloe are great examples of humectants. Humectants offer lightweight and oil-free moisture but tend to be less moisturizing than emollients.

When you are making body care products it's important to understand these categories and where each of your ingredients fits. You wouldn't want an occlusive heavy moisturizer for the face and you'd need an emollient-rich formulation for feet. Below is a common list of ingredients and their categorization. Many ingredients can be classified as emollients and occlusives. For our purposes I have categorized them by dominant properties.


  • Lanolin

  • Safflower Oil

  • Coconut Oil - Coconut oil has been shown to be as moisturizing as mineral oil!

  • Castor Oil

  • Argan Oil

  • Carnauba Wax

  • Shea Butter

  • Cocoa Butter

  • Kokum Butter

  • Mango Buter

  • Coconut Milk

You may note that I didn't list palm oil, petrolatum or mineral oil as emollients. Palm oil is a great product for all kinds of skincare, but has huge problems being ethically sourced. Most palm oil has ties to modern era slave and child labor. If you can find an ethical and sustainable source, palm away! Petrolatum and mineral oil are the most common emollients found in skincare. Remember what I said about mass producing companies cheapening out. These are prime examples. Both of these products are made from refining crude oil or petroleum as we commonly refer to it. Not only is crude oil a natural resource and not sustainable but it fuels pollution and war at every turn. If you don't care about the pollution or horrific consequences of war, you should know that the EU has classified petrolatum as a possible carcinogen. That means it has the potential to be cancer causing. The European Union has much more strict guidelines for producing products and their safety. I refer to them constantly for product safety and guidance.


  • Olive Oil

  • Soybean Oil

  • Canola OIl

  • Grapeseed Oil

  • Canola Oil

  • Avocado Oil

  • Beeswax

There are lots of synthetic occlusives especially in acne fighting products. Occlusives and emollients are oil and wax based and form a barrier on the skin. It's why they are so wonderful for dry skin and less great for acne. Understanding the science of these ingredients will help you create and select formulations that are right for you. If you are acne-prone, avoid harsh cleansers and oil-based moisturizers. Glycerin is non-comedogenic and won't clog pores. Select a glycerin-based moisture with ingredients that soothe inflamation and reduce redness. These include ingredients like aloe and turmeric oil.


  • Honey

  • Glycern

  • Aloe Vera

  • Jojoba Oil - This is really wax esters but is commonly referred to as oil.

e·mol·lient /əˈmälyənt/

adjective - having the quality of softening or soothing the skin. "an emollient cream"


| \ ə-ˈklü-siv , -ziv \

adjective - serving to occlude


| \ hyü-ˈmek-tənt \ noun - a substance that promotes retention of moisture


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