A good moisturizer should feel like it's not even there
You only have one face to last your entire lifetime, so you should start taking care of it early and keep it up as you age. That doesn't have to mean a complicated beauty routine: For many people, using a good facial cleanser, followed by an exfoliator and then a quality face moisturizer at least once a day, makes a huge difference. If you can cleanse and moisturize a second time at night, that's even better.
If, or when, you're ready to take your skincare to the next level, add a good eye cream, since that skin tends to be drier than that on your face, and some moisturizers are not recommended for use around the eye area. If you're noticing the onset of fine lines, a good wrinkle cream can help reduce them. And finally, having the right body lotion can do wonders for the rest of your skin. Just don't use it on your face, which is more delicate than the skin on your other body parts.
How do facial moisturizers work?
In spite of their name, facial moisturizers don't actually add moisture to your face. Instead, they form a barrier to protect your skin from the elements and environmental damage, enhancing your skin's natural moisturizing capabilities. The best products also keep working throughout the day or night, rather than just one burst at application.
Many moisturizers intended for daytime use contain sunscreen to further protect your skin from damage. Most beauty experts say that sunscreen is a must, but not all users agree. Some say the sunscreen component irritates their face, adds an odor they don't like, or they just don't trust the extra ingredients and prefer to keep the two products separate so they can make their own choices about which sunscreen to use and when. That said, there's no arguing the fact that sun exposure will damage your skin. So if you don't use sunscreen you should take other protective measures, like wearing a hat or staying in the shade.
The best facial moisturizers should target your specific skin type
Every person's skin is different, so there's a certain amount of trial and error involved in finding the right face moisturizer for anybody. You can save yourself a lot of time, money and frustration if you know your skin type. We'll cover how to check your skin type in the Buying Guide.
Most facial moisturizers are intended for normal skin types. "Normal" skin is right in the middle: not particularly oily, not particularly dry and not prone to itching, redness or other signs of sensitivity. Lotions work particularly well for this type of skin because they go on smoothly and absorb well. As a bonus, lotions tend to cost less than gels or serums.
Combination skin -- that is, when you have a slightly oilier T-zone (nose and forehead) with normal to somewhat dry cheeks and chin -- is usually considered normal as well, unless the T-zone is very oily. If you fall into that latter case, you'll want a moisturizer intended for oily skin.
Moisturizers designed for dry or sensitive skin have very specific, mild ingredients that have generated few reports of irritation or other adverse reactions. Most of these formulations do not contain sunscreen, as that's a common trigger for sensitive skin. Many don't contain fragrance for the same reason; those that do tend to incur the experts' wrath.
People with dry skin should choose creams that are highly emollient to help minimize redness and flaking. Dry skin and sensitive skin often go together; if you have sensitive skin, be especially diligent about buying products in sample sizes if you can. That can really cut down on the cost of the inevitable trial and error runs almost everybody with this issue goes through.
Although it may seem counterintuitive, oily or acne-prone skin still needs a moisturizer and the right products won't make your skin problems worse -- in fact, they'll help. Experts often recommend that people with oily skin select lotions or gels instead of creams, which tend to be heavier. The top facial moisturizers for this skin type are also noncomedogenic, which means they won't clog your pores. Other beneficial ingredients for people prone to blemishes include alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta hydroxy acids (BHAs), which are especially useful for exfoliating your skin and clearing your pores.
How we found the best facial moisturizers
We evaluated dozens of expert reviews and thousands of comments from users to find the best face moisturizers that are light, go on smoothly and absorb well. Top expert sources include PaulasChoice.com, website of skincare expert and author Paula Begoun, plus expert reviews and beauty awards, including Reader's Choice awards, posted at InStyle.com, Allure.com and TotalBeauty.com. We also evaluated thousands of user reviews from cosmetics and skincare-friendly retail sites like Amazon.com, Ulta.com and Sephora.com.
If you've ever wondered about some of the ingredients in your skincare products, the Ingredient Dictionary at PaulasChoice.com is very useful, and also clues you into the relative healthiness -- or potential hazard -- of each ingredient.
The best facial moisturizers
If you have normal or combination skin, the best facial moisturizers for you contain hydrating ingredients and lightweight emollients that feel like they're barely there. These products wear well under makeup, without changing the color or texture of that makeup or feeling like an extra layer on your skin.
Experts usually recommend that moisturizers meant for daytime use should contain sunscreen. However, many users don't like having that extra ingredient; they prefer being able to choose their sunscreen, if any, independently. Keep in mind that if you don't use sunscreen while you're outside, you should take other measures -- for example, a broad-brimmed hat -- to help protect your face from sun damage and reduce your risk of skin cancer.
Our Best Reviewed daytime moisturizer, Olay Complete All Day Moisturizer (Est. $18 for 12 oz.) with broad-spectrum SPF 15, draws kudos from both experts and users alike. The "broad-spectrum" designation means the SPF component protects against both UVA and UVB rays, which skin care and medical experts say is important for maximum protection. This product receives a lot of positive feedback from the expert reviewers at PaulasChoice.com, although they wish it had SPF 30 instead of SPF 15. It's also a perennial presence in TotalBeauty.com's annual awards for best day cream, and has attracted a loyal following of long-term users who say it adds just the right amount of moisture to your skin without feeling greasy.
Ingredients like niacinamide, skin-conditioning panthenol and vitamin E help nourish your skin, and this moisturizing lotion works well under makeup, too. If you have combination skin with a few oily patches, it won't leave them looking too shiny.
Users also say that this day cream spreads easily and won't leave your skin feeling slick once it sets in. Like most of the moisturizers we evaluated, Olay Complete All Day Moisturizer has an added fragrance, perhaps to help conceal the scent of the sunscreen ingredients. Users say the smell lingers, but it's mild and most people aren't bothered by it. You can also buy this product in an oil-free formula (Est. $18 for 12 oz.) for oily/combination skin, and a fragrance-free version (Est. $7 for 4 oz.) for sensitive skin. All three versions are noncomedogenic (won't block your pores), and represent some of the best dollar-per-ounce values on the market.
Another great moisturizer -- so great, in fact, that it's attracted a loyal user following for decades -- is Clinique Dramatically Different Moisturizing Lotion+ (Est. $26/4.2oz). The "+" signifies a new formula that was introduced in 2013, with the addition of glycerin, hyaluronic acid and urea to leave your skin feeling even smoother than the previous formulation. A few long-time users object to the revamping of this product, but most say they've used this moisturizer for many years and still love it.
Users love Clinique's Dramatically Different Moisturizing Lotion+ because they say it provides real, recognizable, lasting results. In fact, some grew up watching their mothers use this lotion and liked what they saw so much, they continued on with the same product themselves. Another great indicator: They say the benefits continue showing in your skin, even after you stop using the lotion for a while. The formula spreads evenly across your face and can take a little while to sink in, but, once it does, it leaves your skin feeling smooth and silky, never greasy or sticky. It also does a great job of evening out patchy dry spots without overloading oily patches in combination skin.
A little bit goes a long way with Clinique's Dramatically Different, and the fragrance-free formula is especially well-suited to those with sensitive or dry skin, as is the lack of sunscreen ingredients. Clinique Dramatically Different Moisturizing Lotion+ is also available in an oil-free gel (Est. $30 for 4.2 oz.) for people with oily skin, and as a cream for dry skin (Est. $21 for 1 oz.), although the latter is packaged in a jar, which exposes delicate ingredients to air every time you open it, prompting them to break down more quickly.
Either one of this moisturizers is a great choice; however, the Olay Complete All Day Moisturizer comes out on top because it has more beneficial ingredients and draws better expert feedback, overall.
Night creams can repair and protect skin while you sleep
The biggest difference between a day moisturizer and a night moisturizer is that the latter doesn't contain sunscreen. Because of that, night creams may be a good choice for day use if you have sensitive skin that doesn't take well to sunscreen ingredients. However, be aware that night creams are sometimes also formulated more thickly to provide a moisture treatment that lasts all night long -- so if you're thinking of using them during the day, purchase a trial size first to make sure you're happy with the feel and look.
Our top pick for night creams is Olay Age Defying Classic Night Cream (Est. $22 for 4 oz.). Users say it does a superb job of balancing their skin moisture and even helps reduce the appearance of fine lines. A number of users struggling with mild acne say this cream has helped their skin stay clear. That's probably due to the salicylic acid content, which the experts at PaulasChoice.com pick out as one of the best aspects of this product; it helps exfoliate and cleanse pores to reduce blackheads.
Overall, users say this cream sinks in well and, as long as you don't overdo it, you'll never wake up feeling greasy. Some say it tingles, but most describe the sensation as cooling. Like the Olay Complete All Day Moisturizer we chose as the best day moisturizer, it also represents an excellent value. Although users with all sorts of skin types say they get great results from Olay Age Defying Classic Night Cream, PaulasChoice.com recommends it as best for normal to slightly dry or slightly oily skin.
The jar packaging, which leaves the antioxidant vitamin E content vulnerable to the deteriorating effect of oxygen every time you open it, is a downside; but most users like the light, subtle fragrance, which one person compares to the odor of creamsicles.
Another excellent night cream is CeraVe PM Moisturizing Facial Lotion (Est. $10 for 3 oz.), the nighttime version of our Best Reviewed moisturizer for sensitive skin. This formula gets the same high ratings as moisturizers and night creams that cost far more. It's a lotion, but its texture is almost gel-like -- think light and springy -- and users say it provides even coverage without any greasy or sticky after-feel.
CeraVe PM Moisturizing Facial Lotion is also fragrance-free; users with dry or sensitive skin say it does a great job of moisturizing without irritating their delicate skin. Although it's technically labeled as a night cream, we read plenty of reviews from sunscreen-adverse folks who use this as their daily (daytime) moisturizer.
Facial moisturizers for men
There is a growing market of facial moisturizers and other skin care products that are marketed specifically to men. Skincare expert Paula Begoun provides a good article on skincare for men, but ultimately recommends the same basic routine as for women: Cleansing, followed by a good exfoliator, then a moisturizer.
With that in mind, men could (and do) certainly use any of the other moisturizers we've already evaluated. But it works the other way, too: Our top pick for a moisturizer that's marketed directly to men, Jack Black Double Duty Face Moisturizer (Est. $28/3.3oz), is so good that quite a few women end up using it, too.
As the name suggests, this product does double duty as an SPF 20 sunscreen; it also contains lots of antioxidants and sea parsley to soothe your skin. What users really love, though, is the way its lightweight cream absorbs very quickly and doesn't leave your skin feeling greasy at all. Men say it's the perfect pre-shave moisturizer, and ladies say makeup glides right on afterward.
Jack Black Double Duty Face Moisturizer is SLS- and paraben-free, and has a light, masculine scent that most users like -- but it's not so strong that it'll overpower cologne or aftershave. The only real criticism we see is that it's not sweat-proof, so it might run into your eyes if you apply it before going to the gym.
Elsewhere in this report:
Facial moisturizers for dry/sensitive skin | Facial moisturizers for oily skin | Buying Guide | Our Sources