What Are the Ingredients to a Facial Cream?

The Mayo Clinic and other dermatologists suggest that consumers buy facial creams based on ingredients, not on package claims. The Food and Drug Administration doesn’t require proof of performance before cosmetic products hit the shelves, but consumers can learn which ingredients to look out for.

A moisturizing lotion or cream must restore or improve your facial skin’s natural moisture balance without irritating sensitive skin, clogging pores or feeling uncomfortable to wear. Learning the science and terminology behind product ingredients will help you choose skin care items wisely.


Purified water, sometimes called aqua, is the usually the first ingredient listed in a facial cream or skin care lotion. That’s because a moisturizer is meant to replace water lost to evaporation or skin inflammation. The Skin Sciences Institute reports that these formulas draw water to the skin surface with humectant ingredients and seal it in with emollients, which are often derived from oils.


Skin care emollients are the ingredients that soften fine lines and wrinkles and reduce dryness and flaking. According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), moisturizing facial cream is proven to protect skin with emollient ingredients such as lanolin, petrolatum, allantoin, propylene glycol, urea (carbamide), dimethicone (PDMS) and cetyl alcohol. Almond, jojoba, sunflower and mineral oils also represent emollients.


Skin care humectants are substances with water-attracting properties that are safe to use on human skin. Lanolin and propylene glycol do double-duty as emollients and humectants. Other effective humectants listed by the Skin Sciences Institute include glycerin, sorbitol, lactic acid, urea, PEG-20, glycolic acid and citric acid.

Active Ingredients

Active ingredients in cosmetic products perform specific functions alongside the formulas’ moisturizing or other properties. Aloe, chamomile and colloidal oatmeal calm inflammation to reduce dryness. The AAD reports that vitamins A (retinol) and E (tocopherol) bolster skin health with essential nutrients.

Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) is necessary to collagen synthesis and, like vitamin E, fights off environmental threats that cause cellular harm to skin. This antioxidant action protects you from developing skin cancer over the long term.

Other Ingredients

Facial creams and other cosmetic products add fragrance and color to make them appealing to consumers. Preservatives are needed to keep ingredients from spoiling. These additives don’t perform any skin-softening functions and, according to the AAD, are the ingredients most likely to cause skin irritation or allergy.

Buying cosmetic products without perfumes and coloring is a good policy for people with sensitive skin. The remainder of the long list of scientific-sounding ingredients is comprised of emulsifiers, occlusives and stabilizers, which create formulas of even consistency and appearance.