Self-Care Science: Why Moisturizing Feels Good

It’s never nice when your own skin feels like a wool sweater three sizes too small.

Lotion

We mostly all agree that hot tubs, massages and the like feel good, but ask anyone why and you’ll get a shrug (which is fair! That person was trying to relax, after all). Understanding what these self-care activities are doing to your body — and more importantly, why they feel so good — can actually help you reach peak relaxation, though. That’s why we’re looking at the science behind various feel-good pursuits. Today’s focus: Moisturizing.

In plain terms, moisturizing feels nice because it makes your skin feel less like an undersized wool sweater and more like an elastic silk covering. “Moisturizing your skin well helps protect and repair the skin barrier, and that translates to making your skin feel better,” explains dermatologist Rajani Katta, author of Glow: The Dermatologist’s Guide to a Whole Foods Younger Skin Diet. “Your skin certainly feels smoother when you moisturize, but repairing your skin barrier helps in several other ways — a stronger skin barrier helps protect against irritants and reduces moisture loss from the skin surface. This translates to less irritation and more comfort.”

When your skin lacks moisture, nerve cells send a bunch of itch signals to your brain, indicating that something has gone wrong. “The top layer of skin (the stratum corneum) is made up of dead skin cells. Just beneath this layer is where the skin stores water,” dermatologist Anthony Rossi explained to us in another recent article. “But when your skin isn’t holding onto enough water, it looks and feels drier, and it loses its elasticity.”

But slathering on some moisturizer, a humectant that helps your skin retain water, is a simple fix. “The moisturizer both locks water into the skin and absorbs water from the outside,” Rossi added. The end result is, your skin immediately looks smoother and feels healthier, but there’s more — regularly applying moisturizer prevents wrinkles and tired-looking skin down the line, too. For best results, moisturize right after washing, so the moisturizer can lock in any moisture lingering on your skin.

From a mental perspective, the act of doing something that improves your outward appearance — moisturizing, in this case — can have a lasting positive impact on how you feel about yourself in general, something psychotherapist Ari Hoffman explained to us in a previous article:

“When I get up and look in the mirror and I’m unhappy with what I see, it doesn’t feel great. And even if I know ‘it’s only skin-deep’ and ‘you can’t judge a book by it’s cover,’ it still doesn’t feel good. And even if I have great self-esteem, not liking what I see in the mirror makes a difference.

However, if, when I look in the mirror, I think to myself, Wow, you’re looking fine, that will increase my confidence and my willingness to put a little more out there and ask for that raise, ask that attractive coworker out, or just feel good knowing that I look good.”

On some level, depending on how adept you are at moisturizing, the act of rubbing your body could replicate the sensation a massage, and as we learned in our recent piece about why massages feel good, when you knead your skin in the right ways, your brain releases an assortment of feel-good chemicals that alleviate stress and anxiety (and sometimes even reduce pain). So that could be at play here, too.

Similarly, some moisturizers have a smell component, and certain scents — lavender and rosemary, for instance — can promote an overall chill vibe. As one study puts it, “Lavender and rosemary… decrease the stress hormone, cortisol, which protects the body from oxidative stress.” In other words, the simple act of smelling a scented moisturizer while you apply it could make you feel more relaxed, man.

So go ahead and squirt some cream onto your body. Not only will you be glad you did when you look like a young fox 10 years down the road, but being able to move around without your skin cracking like a saltine cracker feels pretty good, too.