Exactly what ingredients to look for—and which to avoid—when you're looking for the best moisturizers for dry skin—plus, the ~hella~ hydrating products for treating that tight, itchy feeling.

By Melanie Rud
May 26, 2020
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Katsumi Murouchi/Getty/Walgreens/Target

A moisturizer is a staple in most peoples' skin-care routines, but for those dealing with dry skin, any ol' salve may not cut it. But what causes excessive dryness in the first place? For starters, genetics can play a role; if your parent or grandparent suffers from dry skin, it's likely that you'll have some flakiness, as well. (Related: The Best Moisturizers for Every Skin Type)

On top of genetics, weather can also be to blame: "Dry skin is often caused by low moisture in the air, as well as extreme hot or cold weather," explains Devika Icecreamwala, M.D., a dermatologist in Berkley, California. Similarly, constant exposure to air conditioning or heat can also contribute to the conundrum; it's why so many people have much drier skin during the winter, as do those who live in arid, hot climates.

And while you can't control genetics or the weather, you can control certain behaviors that contribute to skin dryness. Namely, how you shower. Taking ultra-hot, long showers and/or using harsh soaps and detergents strip the skin of its natural oils and dry it out, says Dr. Icecreamwala. FYI—that applies to the skin on both your face and your body. (Related: The Best Skin Care Routine for Dry Skin)

How to Choose a Moisturizer for Dry Skin

When it comes to choosing one of the best moisturizers for dry skin, first consider the texture of a product—the thicker and richer, the better. Dr. Icecreamwala advises opting for formulas labeled as creams rather than lotions, as creams contain higher amounts of hydrating ingredients than lightweight lotions, which are usually water-based. Balms or ointments are also good picks. (Psst...you might throw one of these best lip balms in your cart too.)

As far as ingredients go, look for hyaluronic acid or glycerin. These are humectants, meaning they draw water to the skin, explains board-certified dermatologist Morgan Rabach, M.D., co-founder of LM Medical in New York City and assistant professor of Dermatology at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Both derms also recommend choosing a formula that contains ceramides, which are lipid (aka fat) molecules that play an important role in repairing the skin barrier and helping skin retain moisture, explains Dr. Icecreamwala. (Quick reminder: The skin barrier is the outermost layer of your skin, responsible for keeping moisture in and irritants out. If you're dealing with dryness, that barrier is likely compromised, which is why ceramides are a BFD.) The docs also agree that it's important to make sure whichever moisturizer you choose does *not* contain fragrance, which can be very irritating. You'll want to steer clear of any exfoliating acids (i.e. salicylic acid) too, as these can also be too drying, adds Dr. Icecreamwala.

The Best Moisturizers for Dry Skin

The bottom line: Simple, fragrance-free, thick creams with humectants and ceramides are dry skin's BFF. Ahead, the best moisturizers for dry skin with formulas that fit the bill and are totally derm-approved.

Best All-Over Option: Cetaphil Moisturizing Cream

Cetaphil

Despite the fact that this is labeled as a body product, this best moisturizer for dry skin is lightweight enough that you can use it on your face too. (And is non-comedogenic so you don't have to worry about it clogging pores and potentially causing acne.) "[The formula is] gentle and doesn't contain any irritants, fragrance, or many additives," says Dr. Icecreamwala. Consider it your one-stop-shop for knocking out dry skin, one that also happens to ring in at a very affordable price. (Sound up your alley? Check out these budget-friendly beauty products from TJ's.)

Best Face Moisturizer for Dry, Sensitive Skin: CeraVe Face and Body Moisturizing Cream

Walgreens

Both dermatologists are fans of this formula, which has hyaluronic acid to attract moisture to the skin. It also boasts three (I repeat: three) different types of those oh-so-important ceramides. Still, despite how hydrating it is, it doesn't feel too greasy, says Dr. Icecreamwala. Another reason this bad boy is considered one of the best moisturizers for dry skin? It's fragrance-free and super gentle—so much so that it has the National Eczema Association's Seal of Acceptance (meaning: it's "suitable for the care of eczema or sensitive skin," according to the association) and Dr. Rabach says she even uses it on her baby.

Best for Body: La Roche-Posay Lipikar Balm AP Intense Repair Body Cream

Target

"This moisturizer has a high oil content that provides immediate hydration, but it still rubs into skin easily without feeling too thick," says Dr. Icecreamwala. Along with shea butter and glycerin that deliver long-lasting moisture, this best moisturizer for dry skin also boasts niacinamide, a skin-soothing ingredient that helps repair the skin barrier, she says. (Related: Everything You Need to Know About Niacinamide and What It Can Do For Your Skin)

Best Drugstore Moisturizer for Dry Skin: Neutrogena Hydro Boost Hydrating Water Gel Face Moisturizer

Walgreens

While gel formulas may not provide enough hydration for super dry skin, this superstar salve is an exception thanks to its high concentration of hyaluronic acid. "I like this moisturizer for dry skin on the face because the hyaluronic acid not only hydrates, it also plumps the skin to reduce the appearance of fine lines," explains Dr. Icecreamwala. Because it's a gel, it also feels more lightweight than others, making it a nice choice for hot days. (Because let's face it, dry skin can—and does—happen during the summer, not to mention year-round. )

Best Ointment: CeraVe Healing Ointment

Target

Dr. Rabach recommends this ointment (keyword = ointment) for "super dry skin." Even thicker than a cream, ointments create a seal on top of the skin to lock in moisture; this particular one earns points for containing those skin barrier-strengthening ceramides as well. Pro tip: Apply it immediately post-shower, when the skin is still damp, to seal in all that good stuff.

Most Splurge-Worthy: SkinMedica HA5 Rejuvenating Hydrator

DermStore

Yes, this option is pricey, but it's well worth it, according to Dr. Rabach. It contains not one, not two, but five (!!) different types of hyaluronic acid to pull water into the face, hydrating and plumping skin at the same time, she says. With all that hydration, it's easy to assume that this best moisturizer for dry skin would be an ultra-thick option for, say, those super frigid winter days. But you know what they say about assuming—and that's true here. Rather, this hydrating powerhouse is light and pillowy, and layers beautifully under makeup. Or, to make one bottle last longer, you could layer just a few pumps of this under a more affordable cream; you'll still reap similar benefits. (See also: Kristen Bell Loves This $20 Hyaluronic Acid Moisturizer)

Best for Dry, Bumpy Skin: Eucerin Roughness Relief Body Lotion 

Target

When you're dealing with dryness you may also notice a change in the texture of your skin (think: scaliness, flakes, and bumps). If that's the case, do yourself a favor and reach for this formula—another one of Dr. Icecreamwala's picks. Along with hydrating shea butter, glycerin, and ceramides, it also contains urea, an ingredient that gently exfoliates to help with bumpy skin on spots like your elbows and knees, she says.

Best Budget Pick: Aquaphor Healing Ointment

Another Dr. Rabach-recommended ointment, this skin saver is not only super affordable but can also be used in a multitude of different ways. Slather it onto chapped cheeks or lips, use it to soften cracked heels, even it dab it on burns or scars to get rid of them for good. It works effectively to seal moisture in and create a protective barrier.

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