Finding a decent moisturiser should be a simple task.
But step into the skin care section of any chemist, supermarket or department store and you can see that skin care is a complicated and lucrative business.
There are creams, lotions and serums that come in all shapes and sizes, and prices.
And their claims include everything from 'anti-wrinkle', 'regenerating' and 'micro-sculpting' to 'intensive care', 'ultra-hydrating' and 'nutrient repairing'.
It's confusing, expensive, and makes you wonder: do any of these products really help?
Sun exposure, hot showers, dry soaps and chronic skin conditions can all dry out your skin.
While sun protection remains the most important way to look after your skin, there's a few things to know about how to retain its moisture — and keep it healthy.
For our skin to feel smooth and supple, the top layer needs to be at least 10 per cent water. This moisture helps to repair and maintain the barrier function of the skin, and to keep it healthy.
"The top of layer of the skin is very important in terms of protection and the immune system," says dermatologist Dr John Frew, a fellow of the Australasian College of Dermatologists, and an expert on Catalyst Skin Special.
"It works as a barrier that prevents bad things from getting into the body, but also keeps moisture trapped inside."
While dry skin for most people is nothing more than a minor irritation or discomfort, it can in some cases be a significant medical issue, which can be very painful and make people more vulnerable to serious, systemic infection.
"A child with severe eczema can get very unwell from an uncontrolled infection if the eczema isn't treated properly, and dry skin is a major component of eczema," Dr Frew says.
For those with chronic skin conditions, regular moisturising is an important part of treatment.
Do we all need to moisturise?
Daily moisturising isn't "absolutely necessary", but it's often a good idea, says Dr Frew.
"It's very dependent on your type of skin. So, for people with eczema, psoriasis and other skin conditions, it's vital. But for people with very oily skin, not necessarily," Dr Frew says.
As we age, so too does our skin. It becomes drier and loses its ability to function as an effective barrier, so older people often find they need to moisturise more often.
"We also know things like chronic sun exposure can be damaging for the barrier function of the skin, so people with a lot of sun damage need to moisturise more too," Dr Frew says.
When should you moisturise?
The best time to moisturise is straight after you jump out of the shower, when your skin is still a little bit damp.
"If you don't put moisturiser on after a hot shower or bath, you get a degree of trans-epidermal water loss, where the water has just evaporated off the skin," Dr Frew says.
"If you're able to moisturise directly after showering, that's often the best time to trap water in the skin."
For that reason, it's best to avoid scorching hot showers.
And when it comes to how often you should moisturise, go for daily application, says Dr Frew. It certainly won't hurt.
Which moisturiser is best?
For a moisturiser to be effective, it needs to be relatively thick, to ensure it traps water in the skin.
When looking for something to suit your skin type, Dr Frew says there are a few things to keep in mind:
- Look for products with a base of glycerine, glycerol, or paraffin (these tend to work best)
- Avoid non-essential ingredients such as fragrances, dyes, and plant products — these can cause allergies
- Find something that you like the feel of, because you're going to be applying it regularly
- The fewer ingredients you don't understand, the better
Dr Frew says it's a good idea to look for moisturisers that contain ceramides, naturally occurring lipids that help to support moisture retention in the outer layer of the skin.
"From a medical perspective, most dermatologists recommend liquid paraffin, which is roughly $10 for a litre tub, and that's the best moisturiser you can get, particularly for conditions like eczema," Dr Frew says.
And if you're wondering whether expensive moisturisers are worth the price tag, the answer, unsurprisingly, is no.
"You're not really missing out by not spending hundreds and hundreds of dollars," Dr Frew says.
Sun protection still key
While moisturiser is the key to treating dry skin, there's nothing more important than good sun protection.
"Hands down. No contest. Sun protection every day, rain, hail or shine, is the best way to protect the skin.
"Not only from signs of ageing, but skin cancers and long-term damage from the sun," Dr Frew says.