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Hyaluronic Acid vs. Glycerin, Urea, and Panthenol for Skin Hydration

What are humectants?

Humectants are substances that attract and retain moisture from the environment into the skin, making them vital ingredients in skincare products. They work by drawing water from the deeper layers of the skin (dermis) and the environment into the outer layer of the skin (epidermis), helping to keep it hydrated and supple. By maintaining proper hydration levels, humectants support the skin's natural barrier function, protecting it from environmental stressors and irritants. Consistent use of humectant-rich products can lead to smoother and softer skin by preventing dryness and flakiness.

It goes without saying then, that humectants play a vital role in skincare formulations and you’re probably familiar with some popular names like hyaluronic acid, glycerin, urea, and panthenol. This article explores these humectants, their benefits, and how they compare in keeping your skin hydrated and healthy.

Understanding Hyaluronic Acid

What is Hyaluronic Acid?

What is Hyaluronic Acid?

Hyaluronic acid is a naturally occurring molecule in the human body, predominantly found in connective tissues, eyes, and skin. It is most famous for being able to hold up to a 1000 times its weight in water and is also the main ingredient used in dermal fillers. Like other humectants, hyaluronic acid also works by drawing in moisture from the environment into the skin. It’s high water holding capacity means that it can also have a temporary skin plumping effect leading to a temporary reduction in the appearance of fine lines and skin texture. 

That said though, hyaluronic acid is also one of the most over-hyped ingredients in skincare. Its effects are temporary and because of its large molecular size, it cannot be absorbed through the skin and sits on the surface while hydrolysed versions often lead to adverse skin irritation reactions in people over time. In addition, using hyaluronic acid in very dry environments may actually be counterproductive as the humectant may pull out moisture from the skin instead of the air if there isn’t enough humidity. 

We personally prefer humectants like glycerin and urea that are significantly more cost effective and also have small molecules that are easily absorbed through the skin to allow for significantly longer lasting skin hydration.

Glycerin for Skin

Glycerin, also known as glycerol, is a well-known, lipid-derived humectant used extensively in skincare products.

Is Glycerin Good for Skin?

Yes, glycerin is highly beneficial for the skin. It attracts moisture from the air into the skin's outer layer and forms a protective barrier to prevent moisture loss. Key benefits of glycerin for the skin include:

  1. Hydration: Glycerin is a powerful humectant, meaning it attracts and retains moisture from the environment and the deeper layers of the skin, keeping the skin hydrated and preventing dryness.

  2. Skin Barrier Protection: By maintaining optimal moisture levels, glycerin helps to strengthen the skin's natural barrier, protecting it from environmental aggressors and irritants.

  3. Improved Skin Texture: Regular use of glycerin can lead to smoother, softer skin by reducing roughness and flakiness.

  4. Healing Properties: Glycerin can aid in the healing of minor skin irritations and promote the repair of damaged skin.

  5. Non-Irritating: Glycerin is generally considered safe and gentle for all skin types, including sensitive skin, making it a versatile ingredient in many skincare formulations.

  6. Anti-Aging Benefits: By keeping the skin well-hydrated, glycerin can help reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, contributing to a more youthful complexion.

Does Glycerin Darken Skin?

No, glycerin does not darken the skin. On the contrary, it can help even out skin tone by maintaining hydration and health.

Urea Cream for Skin

Urea is a compound naturally present in the skin and is also a crucial component of the skin’s natural moisturizing factor (NMF). Urea cream is used to treat various dry, rough skin conditions such as eczema, psoriasis, and ichthyosis. Topical urea is also extremely beneficial for mature skin. As we age, the levels of different humectants, including urea, in our skin, decline, leading to dryness and research shows us that topical application of urea can help the skin rebuild its own urea stores thus helping to alleviate dry skin conditions. In high concentrations, urea also helps to exfoliate and soften skin.

What is Urea Cream?

A urea cream, such as our AccuHydra Hydrating Gel Cream or our Carbamide Intensive Hydration Cream, is a topical product that contains urea, and works to hydrate and soften the skin.

Benefits of Urea Cream

Panthenol for Skin

Panthenol, also known as pro-vitamin B5, is another effective humectant used in skincare. It is derived from pantothenic acid and is known for its hydrating and healing properties. It is a key component of our Niacinamide Serum and our Créme B3-B5-E which also contains 4% niacinamide.

Benefits of Panthenol

Moisturization: Acts as a powerful moisturizer, keeping the skin hydrated.

Soothing: Helps to calm and soothe irritated or inflamed skin.

Healing: Promotes skin healing and repair.

Improved Skin Barrier: Strengthens the skin’s natural barrier, protecting it from environmental damage.

Other Humectants in Skincare


Sorbitol is a sugar alcohol that occurs naturally in fruits and plants. It functions similarly to glycerin, attracting moisture to the skin and enhancing hydration. Sorbitol is often found in cleansers and moisturizers.

Sodium PCA

Sodium PCA (pyrrolidone carboxylic acid) is a naturally occurring humectant derived from amino acids. It is highly effective in attracting and retaining moisture, making it a popular ingredient in many hydrating skincare products.

Comparing Hyaluronic Acid, Glycerin, Urea and Panthenol

Hyaluronic acid has garnered significant attention in the skincare industry, often praised for its supposed ability to deeply hydrate and plump the skin. However, the reality of its effectiveness might not live up to the hype. One of the main issues with hyaluronic acid is its large molecular size, which limits its ability to penetrate the skin deeply. While it does attract moisture, this action mostly occurs on the skin's surface, providing a temporary and superficial hydration effect. In contrast, more cost-effective humectants like glycerin are equally, if not more, effective at drawing moisture into the skin. Glycerin has a smaller molecular structure, allowing it to penetrate the skin more effectively and deliver lasting hydration.

Furthermore, glycerin has been a staple in skincare for decades, offering a reliable and economical alternative to pricier options like hyaluronic acid. It not only hydrates the skin but also strengthens the skin's natural barrier, making it resilient against environmental stressors. Other humectants such as urea and panthenol (provitamin B5) also outperform hyaluronic acid in various ways. Urea not only attracts moisture but also has keratolytic properties that help exfoliate dead skin cells, enhancing skin smoothness and hydration. Panthenol soothes and heals the skin while providing deep hydration, making it ideal for sensitive or compromised skin. These ingredients are often more effective and affordable, making them better choices for those seeking genuine and long-lasting skin hydration without the premium price tag.

Here’s a quick summary of the best use cases for each one of the 4 humectants discussed above:

  • Hyaluronic Acid: Best for temporarily plumping the skin.

  • Glycerin: Excellent for basic hydration and barrier protection, gentle for all skin types.

  • Urea: Ideal for dry, rough skin and conditions like eczema; also mildly exfoliates.

  • Panthenol: Great for soothing, healing, and hydrating sensitive or irritated skin.


When it comes to skin hydration, humectants play crucial roles in maintaining moisture levels and improving skin health. By exploring and experimenting with these humectants, you can find the perfect combination that works best for your skin, ensuring a hydrated, glowing complexion all year round.


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