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What Are Occlusives and Why Do We Need Them?

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Let’s talk about occlusives!

What exactly are occlusives and why is everyone talking about them?

Because they’re important. That’s why.

Now let’s answer the first part.

Occlusives are a type of moisturizing agent that form a coating on your skin to help prevent transepidermal water loss (or, TEWL).

And that means…

Transepidermal water loss is when water passes through the dermis (middle layer of our skin) and goes out through the epidermis (top layer) and evaporates. TEWL can be exasperated by things such as some topical treatments (common acne treatments, for example) or low humidity (airplanes, dry climates, etc.).

As a user of tretinoin (0.1%) TEWL is something I am hyper aware of!

Our biological occlusive is, of course, sebum, but it’s pretty easy for things to get out of control and for a spike in TEWL to happen. When too much TEWL is taking place our skin’s natural sebum isn’t enough to keep things in check.

Many of us have experienced higher levels of TEWL throughout our lives, and generally the results are less than ideal. Beyond the fact that dry skin is physically uncomfortable, it also has the tendency to emphasize fine lines and wrinkles, cause flaking, and make us feel self conscious. Too much TEWL can leave you with red, irritated, flakey skin that becomes dramatic and overreacts to any new products you try to give it (been there, done that).

So if you’re someone who is dealing with dry or dehydrated skin, or maybe you’re thinking about starting on some stronger topicals like tretinoin, then occlusive ingredients are going to be very important for you.

Occlusive ingredients tend to be a little thicker and stickier, which is why many choose to load up on them at night. They typically are things like oils and waxes, think mineral oils, petrolatum, lanolin, olive oil, beeswax, etc. Korean sleeping masks/packs are a good example of a product designed specifically for locking in moisture overnight with occlusive ingredients.

Many people who suffer from acne are constantly told to worry about “clogging their pores” and would likely be put off by the idea of occlusives, but hear me out. Occlusives are actually a really key part of any acne fighting regime, as increased TEWL can make acne worse.

For acne, the two best occlusive ingredients are:

  1. Petrolatum (think straight up Vaseline)

and

  1. Dimethicone (a silicone)

Check out this super helpful list by Harvard Health Publishing (Harvard Medical School) of common occlusives, it would be handy to have so you can quickly cross-reference it to ingredients lists on products!

It’s crucial that you combine occlusives with humectants, too. Humectants work by drawing moisture into the skin, and occlusives are going to help keep it there. They are an important duo!

An example of this would be using something containing hyaluronic acid and then following up with an occlusive like Aquaphor, Vaseline, or a sleep pack. This way your products are all locked in through the night!

You can totally still use occlusives during the day, just likely something a little lighter so you’re more comfortable. Use the list above and cross-reference it with your daily moisturizer to see if you’re getting some good, occlusive ingredients.

Occlusives aren’t complicated, but they are an integral part of anyone’s skincare routine! If you’re suffering from the effects of higher TEWL have a look at your routine and make sure occlusives are getting their moment in the spotlight.

Check out some great options for occlusive-packed products below. (Contains affiliate links, learn more)

A classic favourite, straight up Vaseline!

Vaseline is not only a good option for those on a budget, but you probably already have some somewhere in your home! Remember, this is one of the most effective occlusive ingredients out there, and safe for acne-prone skin. Apply a thin layer at night after you’ve finished your normal skincare routine. If you apply too much you might have to deal with your face sticking to your pillow, but you get used to it…

Aquaphor Healing Ointment

Another great occlusive for any budget (and you might already have at home) is Aquaphor Healing Ointment. Aquaphor has a blend of occlusives including mineral oil, lanolin alcohol and petrolatum that will keep your moisture locked in. Apply a thin layer at night after finishing your normal skincare routine.

Laneige Water Sleeping Mask

I consider the Laneige Water Sleeping Mask to be more of a ‘cosmetically elegant’ option for occlusives. It’s not nearly as thick as the above two options and I personally find it doesn’t leave my skin uncomfortably tacky like straight up Vaseline can. It does contain fragrance which would make it problematic for those who are sensitive to added fragrance in products. For me, it’s a lighter option that I can use on my whole face without issues.

COSRX Ultimate Nourishing Rice Overnight Spa Mask

Leave it to COSRX to always have the longest product names ever! This is another great overnight mask if cosmetic elegance is important to you. Again, this is a lighter option but is fragrance free and contains the ingredient powerhouse niacinamide! COSRX is known for creating more gentle formulations that work well with different skin types/concerns.

The Ordinary 100% plant-Derived Squalene

Another favourite occlusive of mine which I always keep on hand. Squalene feels a lot lighter on the skin than Vaseline or Aquaphor, but still delivers good occlusive power. I’ve actually put this on my skin and then layered Vaseline on top before (in seriously dehydrated times). I’m a big fan of The Ordinary products and think this is a great choice for someone who wants a lighter option.

Let me know what your favourite occlusive-containing product is in the comments! 

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