Understanding Moisturisers

There are hundreds of moisturisers and emollient creams on the market that promise to refresh and revitalise the skin. But not all creams are made equal. Understanding the different types of moisturisers can help you make the best decisions for you and your skin without being misled by advertising claims, marketing jargon and hype. Unfortunately far from helping, some creams can harm your skin. 

Firstly lets understand some of the ingredients that go into a moisturiser.


An emollient fills the cracks in the outer layer of your epidermis with lipids (fats) sealing cracks and preventing excessive evaporation of moisture through that outer layer (the stratum corneum). Emollients are the key to moisturising because it's excessive moisture loss that causes the skin to dry out and repairing the outer layer seals moisture in. Emollient ingredients are oils. They may be natural oils (usually derived from plants, but they could be from animals) or mineral oils (derived from petrochemicals)

Petrochemical emollients - mineral oils

The emollients within most hight street moisturisers is typically derived from petrochemicals, often known as mineral oils. There are also some products that are 100% petrochemical emollients such as baby oil and petroleum jelly.

Mineral oil sits on top of the skin as an ‘occlusive’ layer. They effectively seal in moisture, but in doing so, they prevent your skin from functioning correctly (regulating moisture and temperature). Petrochemcial emollients can cause clogged pores and cause skin irritation. They are frequently responsible for contact allergies, folliculitis (inflammation of the hair follicles), rashes and spots. 

If your skin’s pores and hair follicles get blocked, dirt and bacteria can build up inside causing blackheads and acne. Perioral dermatitis which is characterised by lumpy spots around the mouth, is known to be associated with synthetic emollients. Unlike plant oils, synthetic emollients contain no beneficial or active compounds.

It is suspected that petrochemical emollients can contain contaminants and traces of other petrochemicals or metal catalyst residues that can be harmful to the skin.

The beauty business love emulsions and they love mineral oils. Emulsions are very stable, their consistency doesn't change with temperature. Mineral oils are effectively dead. They have no nutrient value because the plants they came from died millions of years ago. This means they cannot go rancid, they will stay stable indefinitely. And of course the beauty industry loves water because it delivers instantaneous impressive results and comes virtually free of charge.

Plant oils - unrefined

Unrefined (or cold-pressed) natural plant oils are the finest emollients for your skin. They contain the very same fatty acids your skin uses to build its protective outer layer.

Your skin will accept them, using them to rebuild the stratum corneum naturally. While you’re using them, your skin can still function correctly and irritation is much less likely. Of course, some individuals can be allergic to specific natural substances, but this seems much less common than reactions to artificial chemicals. 

Natural oils are rich in antioxidants, vitamins and minerals and other beneficial compounds (active ingredients). By choosing oils with appropriate beneficial compounds and fatty acid content, potent formulations can be created to address specific issues, including dermatitis.

Plant oils - refined

Some emollients are natural plant oils but have been refined. Solvents may be used to extract every last drop from the crop. Sometimes refining means deodorising or bleaching. The heat and chemicals used during these processes often destroy natural nutrients and beneficial compounds. More worryingly, they can leave toxic residues in the products. Even an organic oil (grown without the use of artificial chemicals) can be refined. 

Plant oils can be used as the emollient ingredients in place of mineral oils in better quality moisturisers. Some times a small amount of a plant oils is used along side cheaper mineral oils, often a big thing of the plant oil is made in the advertising of such products. There is no way of telling what percentage the plant oil makes up apart from it's place in the list of ingredients (most prominent ingredient first).


Humectants attract moisture to the skin from the air around it. 


Putting water on the skin quickly plumps a dry epidermis and will have impressive results. But if there is insufficient emollient ingredients in the moisturiser to repair any cracks in the stratum corneum, that moisture will soon evaporate, and you'll be reaching for the pot agin. Because your skin draws water from the dermis below, and from the air around it (which can also be aided by humectants) many experts now see no benefit for adding water to a moisturiser other than to make it cheaper to produce.


Any product with an aqueous ingredient must have an antimicrobial preservative to prevent dangerous bacteria growing in the water element, for example: parabens, formaldehyde, methylisothiazolinone (MI), phenoxyethanol, potassium sorbate.

Many of these ingredients have been proven to be harmful to the skin, and scientists are investigating new alternatives. Some are considered to be less harmful, but they are all designed to kill cells (bacteria) and are, by their very nature, harsh. There is little doubt these ingredients are responsible for most adverse skin reactions to beauty and skincare products.


Emulsions of water and oil also need and emulsifier. If emulsifiers build up in the epidermis they can wreak havoc with the function of your skin barrier because they are designed to make lipids dissolve in water. Skins natural oils - Look out!

Types of moisturisers

Most moisturisers are emulsions of oil and water (sometimes over 80% water). These products will hydrate the skin temporarily but often won’t improve your skin barrier. As a result, the moisture that has been applied as water will soon evaporate, leaving you with no long-term benefit to your skin. 

These products can be easily recognised by looking at the ingredients list. The first ingredient will be Aqua (water), and they will likely be in a big pot as you need to apply liberally and regularly. Some emulsions will have another aqueous ingredients such as aloe vera juice or a hydrosol (flower water) as the first ingredient.

Balms, salves and ointments are usually water free. but check the ingredients to be sure. The name is no guarantee they don't contain water (plus preservatives and emulsifiers) and they may contain petrochemical derived oils.

Lyonsleaf approach

At Lyonsleaf our approach is simple. Our products contain: naturally nourishing plant oils, organic beeswax, mineral powders, home-grown herbal extracts and nothing else.

These products effectively repair and maintain your skin’s protective barrier because they are made from almost 100% emollients, They seal in precious moisture and keeping pathogens out. Shea butter and organic beeswax are excellent humectants. We also advise drinking plenty of water and moisturising after cleansing or bathing to seal moisture in.

Natural plant oils contain the very same fatty acids your skin uses to create the stratum corneum. It means that our products will be accepted by your skin. Your body will use them to maintain your skin’s protective barrier without compromising its function. Our water-free products are made from 100% undiluted active ingredients. They are packed with beneficial ingredients that will soothe and nourish your skin.

Because they have no aqueous element they do not need harsh preservatives to remain stable. We have spent years developing products with the perfect balance of fatty acids and active ingredients that hydrate, protect, and soothe all skin types including very sensitive and inflamed skin.

The downside is, products made with oils, waxes and butters will soften in the heat. If you leave them in your car on a sunny day they may melt. We can easily prevent oils going rancid by adding natural vitamin E oil. So these products if stored correctly and un opened have an almost indefinite shelf life. Once opened they should be used within a year. Not much of a downside then really.