If you’re like us, you have a drawer filled with lotions and creams that are doing nothing for your dry hands and feet. It’s one of life’s mysteries.
But as much as we want some relief, we’re not interested in spending a ton on products that may or may not be worth the money.
We spoke to dermatologists to better understand what heals dry, cracked skin and identify the best cheap moisturizers. (Spoiler: You can find many of them in drugstores.)
Moisturizer, Lotion, Cream: Know the Difference
These actually aren’t interchangeable terms, regardless of how people use them. A moisturizer is a mixture of water and oil-soluble components that tackle the outermost layer of your skin. Typically, petroleum jelly, mineral oil and waxes are used in moisturizers. Lotions are more watery and have many ingredients. The higher the water content, the easier it is for bacteria to get in, thus the greater the need for preservatives such as parabens, salicylic acid and benzyl alcohol. For that reason, lotion should be used on parts of the body that aren’t very sensitive. (Never use it on your face.) Cream is simply a thick moisturizer designed for very flaky areas, such as elbows and heels.
Tips and Habits to Live By
Follow these good practices for keeping your skin moisturized.
Apply at the Correct Time
The lotion, cream or moisturizer you choose isn’t going to do any good if it’s applied onto dry feet, says James Beckman, a board-certified plastic surgeon and founder of Therapon Skin Health. Beckman suggests applying after showering but before drying to allow an even spread while your skin is still damp.
Also make sure to apply moisturizer at least 20 minutes before going outside to allow maximum penetration, he says.
Avoid Vegetable Oils
Steer clear of moisturizers that contain mineral or vegetable oils, Beckman says.
“These only coat the skin surface, and easily disappear as soon as the skin is washed,” he says.
Expensive Doesn’t Mean Better
“I always say to my patients that the difference between an inexpensive and expensive moisturizer/ lotion/cream is not necessarily the ingredients included, but the branding and the marketing behind the product,” says Vikram Rajkomar, a dermatologist with Pall Mall Medical.
The key is to buy a formulation which agrees with your skin, as everyone reacts differently to each cream.
Look for These Ingredients
Susan Bard, a New York-based board-certified dermatologist, suggests looking for humectant-based moisturizers containing ingredients that pull water into the skin, such as hyaluronic acid or glycerin, without leaving behind a greasy residue.
“Thick, emollient moisturizers tend to contain occlusive ingredients such as dimethicone, beeswax, lanolin, ect. That helps prevent moisture loss from the skin,” Bard says. “They can feel sticky and also clog pores leading to folliculitis and miliaria on certain parts of the body.”
But humectants aren’t all you need, says Fayne Frey, a dermatologist and founder of FryFace. Moisturizers that are formulated with humectants and occlusives are preferable, Frey says. Effective occlusives include petrolatum, mineral oil and silicone-based derivatives like simethicone. Effective humectants include glycerin, hyaluronic acid and propylene glycol, she says.
Best Cheap Moisturizers: Our Experts’ Favorites
You can find many of these at drugstores.
Beckman’s must-have moisturizers for winter use are Theraderm Extreme Dry Skin Therapy ($16.95 at Theraderm.net) and Theraderm Body Restoration Creme ($16.95 at Theraderm.net). “They’re designed to restore function as well as feel, replenishing deficient skin oils with natural lanolin, a true skin oil, from Sheep’s wool,” Beckman says.
Bard has similar favorites. For dry hands, she likes Neutrogena Norwegian formula hand cream ($3.99 at Target), O’Keeffe’s Working Hands ($6.99 at Bed Bath & Beyond) and Aveeno Eczema Therapy Itch Relief Balm ($16.56 at VitaCost).
Petroleum jelly — aka Vaseline — is the gold standard occlusive, preventing 98 percent of water loss from the skin into the environment, Frey says. Many users find it to be too greasy. “But it works,” she says.
Relieve Dry Skin with These Habits
According to a report from Harvard Medical School that was updated in 2019, there are some free ways to deal with dry, winter skin. First, turn down your thermostat, as hot air tends to be drier than cool. Then, pop on your humidifier.
And while you may think that you’re helping your skin by taking the hottest shower possible, you should actually be taking a warm shower. Hot water removes the fatty substances in your skin that retain water. When you’re in the shower or bath, close the door, as this will get the humidity factor really going, but limit the time in the shower to 5 or 10 minutes. Blot your skin with a towel instead of rubbing it dry, and apply moisturizer immediately following the shower.
Wear loose clothing — binding clothing may rub and dry out your skin — and bundle up to protect from the cold, windy air outside. While we hate this advice, according to the American Academy of Dermatology, you really should stay away from the fireplace, as this can dry your skin.