How to Moisturize Your Face for Cheap

Is it possible to use an effective moisturizer without spending too much money?
Is it possible to use an effective moisturizer without spending too much money?
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A small, silver spatula rests on a velvet tray next to a diminutive pot of thick, silky face cream. At $475 an ounce, the cream, which promises to replenish moisture and rebuild elasticity, is applied sparingly using the spatula. For some women hoping to achieve supple skin and defy age, they willingly pay hundreds of dollars per ounce for serums and creams, each of which has exotic and basic ingredients that promise youthful-looking skin.

Among the most expensive moisturizers available at the cosmetic counters in high-end stores is a serum containing a growth factor that claims to plump trouble areas like frown lines and crow's feet for $600 an ounce. A lower priced option, at $100 an ounce, is made with the powder of crushed South Sea pearls, and 53 other ingredients from around the world. [source: Gisquet].

When it comes to buying moisturizers at warehouse stores known for big sizes and low costs, shoppers will find a range of prices from $18.49 for a 20-ounce tub to $279.99 for a 1.7-ounce pot.

Moisturizers are a necessity for anyone with dry skin, as they hold moisture in the outermost layer of skin and prevent it from drying out. An effective product increases water content, reduces water loss and restores the skin's ability to retain moisture. While some moisturizers protect sensitive skin and improve tone and texture, moisturizing does not eliminate wrinkles.

Moisturizers are considered a cosmetic, and although they're regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), testing is not as rigorous as with prescription medication. Hence, many manufacturers' claims of effectiveness tend to be unsubstantiated.

What's the price of beauty? Is the answer dependent upon where you buy or what you buy? Moisturizing products are as varied as the people who use them. But does more expensive mean more effective?

What's in a moisturizer?

It's a good idea to be familiar with what's in your moisturizer.
It's a good idea to be familiar with what's in your moisturizer.
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With so many products on the market, it's hard to know what to choose in order to get the best results for the best price. What you should know is that most moisturizers contain a number of basic ingredients to do the job. Check the label for the following:

  • Water is often the main ingredient in moisturizers, which the skin absorbs and other ingredients retain.
  • Occlusives block the evaporation of water from the moisturizer itself or washing.
  • Humectants absorb water from the air and hold the moisture in the skin. Some humectants are urea, glycerin and alpha hydroxy acids.
  • Emollients fill in the spaces between the cells and the skin. They smooth and lubricate rough skin. Lanolin, mineral oil and petrolatum are typical emollients. Water-based creams such as Vanicream and Cetaphil are primarily water and have a light, non-greasy feel. They're easy to apply, but don't last long. Oil-based creams such as Eucerin leave a slight residue on the skin and have more staying power.
  • Soothing agents are added to moisturizers to prevent skin from becoming irritated by other ingredients. Aloe, bisabolol and licorice root help prevent irritation.
  • Fragrances give moisturizers a pleasant smell and cover up the odors of the other ingredients. They may, however cause skin to become irritated.
  • Preservatives are a key ingredient in products containing oil and water, because they prevent bacterial contamination after opening. Many moisturizers contain multiple preservatives, and they too may cause irritation or allergic reactions.

To enhance the qualities of a moisturizer or face cream, manufacturers often add other ingredients, including vitamins and antioxidants that claim to solve other skin issues such as stretch marks, wrinkles and dead skin. However, the quantity of these ingredients is usually too small to be effective [source: Lynde].

If exotic ingredients are not essential for effective face moisturizing, should you choose a product just based on price, or are there other factors to consider?

What's right for your skin?

Before purchasing a moisturizer, think about your skin type.
Before purchasing a moisturizer, think about your skin type.
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No matter how much you spend on moisturizers, it's a waste of money to buy the wrong product for your skin type. Skin changes with age, so purchasing the proper moisturizer for your skin type is the first step to getting a good deal. This list can help you find the product that's right for you:

  • Normal skin that's neither too dry nor oily needs a light, non-greasy water-based moisturizer. Look for products that contain cetyl alcohol or ingredients that are derived from silicone.
  • Dry skin should be treated with oil-based moisturizers that tend to be thicker, thus keeping the skin moist. Look for products containing urea or propylene glycol.
  • Oily skin also needs moisturizing. However, because it's prone to break out with acne, it's important to choose a light, water-based product to protect the skin. To ensure that pores don't become clogged, make sure to buy products labeled "noncomedogenic."
  • Sensitive skin, which is prone to irritations and rashes, requires a moisturizer that is free of allergens like fragrances, dyes and certain preservatives.
  • Mature skin is a fact of life. As oil-producing glands become less active with age, the skin becomes drier. Oil-based moisturizers with a petrolatum base and a lactic or alpha hydroxyl acid help maintain moisture and keep skin soft [source: Mayo Clinic].

After finding the moisturizer that suits your skin type, proper use will make it more effective and thus a better buy. Follow these tips to get the most out of your moisturizing routine:

  • After bathing, pat your skin with a towel until it's barely dry and immediately apply moisturizer. This helps keep the water in the surface cells.
  • Apply moisturizer to hands and body throughout the day, especially before exercising outdoors and after washing hands.
  • Use heavy oil-based creams on legs, hands and feet and lighter products on your face.

We know that high-priced products are not necessarily more effective, and simple ingredients may not always be practical. Vaseline, for example, is 100 percent petrolatum, making it an effective moisturizer, but a poor choice for facial use. Let's take a look at some inexpensive options for moisturizing your face.

Cheap Alternatives to Expensive Creams

Although you shouldn't use it as a moisturizer, olive oil is found in many moisturizers.
Although you shouldn't use it as a moisturizer, olive oil is found in many moisturizers.
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A healthy diet can help moisturize skin from the inside out. The key ingredient in most moisturizers is water, so it makes sense that drinking plenty of water will help maintain the body's moisture levels. On the other hand, caffeinated drinks and alcohol should be avoided, as they act as a diuretic and cause the body and skin cells to lose fluids and essential minerals.

A diet rich in vitamins and minerals from vegetables, fruits, grains, seeds and nuts helps to nourish the skin as well as the body. Using cold-pressed oils and avoiding fried foods is recommended.

Including olive oil as part of a healthy diet has merit, but it may be more popular as an ingredient in moisturizers. The ancient Romans were known to bathe in olive oil and used a scraper, called a strigil, to remove the excess [source: VRoma Project]. While bathing in olive oil is not recommended, it can be helpful in small amounts as an occlusive ingredient, or one that slows the evaporation of moisture from the skin, and it's found in many moisturizers and soaps.

Speaking of food, many home moisturizing remedies contain one or more edible ingredients, including eggs, honey, milk, avocado and bananas. However, homemade is not necessarily cost-effective, as these concoctions don't contain preservatives and tend to spoil quickly.

Don't get any ideas if you notice urea, or the organic compound in many mammals' urine, is an ingredient in many moisturizers. It's a common humectant, which pulls moisture from humid air. True, urea is found in every healthy cell of the body, and it's the protein metabolized in urine, but a synthetic version, also known as carbamide, is what's used in a wide variety of products, from fertilizer and animal feed to medicine. [source: Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia]. On the skin, urea cream acts in the same way natural urea does by maintaining its moisture balance and suppleness.

For lots more information on moisturizers and skin care, see the links on the next page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles


  • The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia. "Urea." Columbia University Press. 2007. (Dec. 17, 2009)
  • Gisquet, Vanessa. "Most Expensive Cosmetics." (Dec. 15, 2009)
  • Lynde, Charles. "The Best Moisturizers: Myth or Medicine?" (Dec. 15, 2009)
  • Mayo Clinic Staff. "Moisturizers: Options for softer skin." Dec. 16, 2008. (Dec. 15, 2008)
  • McManus, Barbara. “Roman Baths and Bathing.” VRoma Project. July 2003. (Jan. 11, 2010)
  • President and Fellows of Harvard College. "Moisturizers: Do they work?" Harvard Health Letter. Feb. 1, 2008.