Skincare expert Pedro Catala opens up the debate on creams and oils and examines how we can hydrate our skin in the best possible way

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So much has been said on what to use to moisturise the skin, that even the scientific community seems to be divided between those who swear by using paraffin or barrier products only, and those who have more moderate views claiming that a combination of water and oil is essential to act on every layer of the skin. So which is better - creams or oils?

First, let’s look at the four ways in which we can moisturise the skin:

Make a film

Decreasing the amount of water that evaporates from our skin (this is what is called T.E.W.L. - Trans Epidermal Water Loss). If we add substances that create a “film” on the skin, it reduces the amount of water our skin loses mainly due to atmospheric conditions. We can use paraffin, which is a very common ingredient, or take a more natural approach with jojoba oil or squalane (naturally derived from olive oil).

Touch the surface

By moisturising only the surface using traditional ingredients like urea, allantoin, floral and plant extracts like mallow, aloe and calendula. Other solutions include seaweed, amino acids and even big molecules like hyaluronic acid and collagen.

Fill the gaps

By repairing the oils that fill the spaces between our skin cells. Natural ingredients that help achieve this include shea butter, cupuaçú butter, avocado oil, sweet almond oil, wheat germ oil and sunflower oil.

Add a health boost

Deep hydration by helping the skin to repair sun damage and ageing skin, stimulating the production of collagen and elastin (the so-called proteins of youth). We can achieve this by adding vitamins and oils rich in unsaturated fatty acids - commonly called omega -3, -6 and -9 - such as corn oil, soy bean oil and sesame oil, to our skincare regime.

The difference between creams and oils

Creams are a mixture of oils and water, while oils, as the word suggests, are oils on their own or a mixture of oils without any water.

It is clear that oils play an important role in preserving the structure of the skin. However, new data reveals that oils alone will not restore the elasticity and flexibility of our epidermis. Furthermore it has been demonstrated that occlusive oils, like petroleum jelly, increase rapid hydration but it is only a ‘quick fix’ as within three hours the skin’s composition appears unbalanced.

Therefore, considering our skin barrier composition, we need both oils and water in order to hydrate the skin efficiently. Bear in mind, too, that most of the moisturising agents can only be added to the aqueous phase of the cream.

Water and pH

Water is an indispensable element for the skin. The skin has to be thoroughly hydrated in order to function properly and to look healthier and more glowing; this is why staying safe in the sun is so vital, as sun damage can modify the skin’s fragile structure, leading to bigger water losses from its layers.

The skin’s water reservoir is beneath the superficial layers, and although the journey from the deep layers to the skin’s barrier is not clear, scientific studies show the pH of the skin is about 5.5; slightly acidic. Despite the skin’s ability to regulate its pH very efficiently, it is always recommended to use products that contain a similar pH.


While oils are essential in providing instant comfort and nutrients, they can also be used as an alternative to serums for more mature skin (though used in isolation, they are not enough). For younger skin you can switch your night cream to an oil but when the morning comes, don’t forget to reach for your day cream and moisturise, moisturise, moisturise.

Your skincare regime

When it comes to skincare I prefer to keep it simple by finding products that suit our skin according to the season or our needs. Here is a small guide and my top picks to boost hydration to the right level.

Avoid foamy cleansers no matter what your skin type. They can be too harsh on the skin and strip off our protective layer. Instead, swap to creamy formulas. Try Purifying Cleansing Beauty Cream by TWELVE beauty , £18. It contains a high dose of squalene (a key ingredient of the skin’s protective barrier). It helps to renew and repair the skin and removes impurities simultaneously. Alternatively, use oils and natural butters. My favourite plants are jojoba and coconut. Both versions of their oils and butters work wonders for removing makeup and dirt.

After cleansing, use a toner without alcohol, no matter what its origin as even a low percentage dries the skin. A good alternative to toners are floral waters, which are slightly acidic and help to regulate the pH of the skin which tends to increase after we use cleansing products. My top product: MV Organic Skincare, Rose Hydrating Mist , £28.

If you are still thinking a moisturising cream is just enough, think again. A serum added to your beauty regime will make a difference. Packed with antioxidants, serums boost the efficacy of our morning and evening treatment. Seek out active ingredients like hyaluronic acid, mallow and althea flower. A favourite with natural and organic makeup artists is the Ideal Moisture Level Serum by TWELVE beauty  , £45, or Hyaluron Serum by Susanne Kaufmann , £105. As I mentioned previously, more mature skin can benefit at this stage from an oil as an alternative to serum. A very complete product is Lina Hanson Global face serum , £75.

Your moisturiser must have the right balance of oils and water soluble ingredients. Ideally you want it to act at every layer of the skin, so look for formulas that contain a good mixture of oils and natural butters as well as floral and leaf extracts. My recommendations are:  Absolution, La Creme Riche,  £59, Orange Blossom Honey Moisturiser by Therapi,   £30, and Amala Rejuvenating Advanced Firming Complex , £228.