Jamie Schneider

mbg Beauty & Wellness Editor

By Jamie Schneider

mbg Beauty & Wellness Editor

Jamie Schneider is the Beauty & Wellness Editor at mindbodygreen, covering beauty and wellness. She has a B.A. in Organizational Studies and English from the University of Michigan, and her work has appeared in Coveteur, The Chill Times, and Wyld Skincare.

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January 27, 2023

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Beauty marketing loves its monikers. I’m sure I’m not the only one to notice a cluster of products with near-identical ingredient lists and multiple names. (The lip care space is great at this—you have lip balms, lip masks, lip moisturizers, lip serums, lip butters, and the list goes on.) 

But sometimes categorization really is necessary! Consider barrier creams, for example: They aren’t just moisturizers gussied up with a more lavish name. In fact, if you treat them the same, you might be doing your skin a disservice. Ahead, find the difference between moisturizers and barrier creams and—here’s the kicker—how to use them both correctly. 


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What is a barrier cream?

Essentially, a barrier cream is a thicker, heavier moisturizer brimming with ingredients that strengthen and nourish the skin barrier (hence, barrier cream). Think ceramides, fatty acids, allantoin, and plenty of plant oils. But the term barrier cream can also refer to its function as a physical barrier to external irritants, be it eczema triggers or cold, dry air. “It provides a shield between one’s skin and harmful substances,” notes board-certified dermatologist Ife J. Rodney, M.D., founder of Eternal Dermatology.

We have a full guide to barrier creams here, if you’d like to dive deeper into the benefits. 

Barrier creams vs. moisturizers.

“Similar in formula, they are closely related but not necessarily identical,” says board-certified dermatologist Ava Shamban, M.D., founder of SKINFIVE. So while they do often contain moisturizing properties, you wouldn’t want to use a barrier cream the same way as a moisturizer (more on that later). Sure, some brands will name their fatty-acid-rich moisturizers “barrier creams,” but just know that the two aren’t so interchangeable. 

“Barrier creams are usually thicker than regular moisturizers and usually form a thin layer on top of the skin instead of melting and disappearing into the skin when applied,” says Rodney. “If you are looking to hydrate dry and itchy skin, you want to use a moisturizer. If you are looking for an added layer of skin protection against wind or harsh weather over already moisturized skin, you can use a barrier cream.” 

Think of it this way: Barrier creams don’t exactly hydrate your skin, but they do keep hydration locked inside. Shamban agrees: “They do more than introduce moisture; they have protectants and actives to work on decreasing inflammation, fighting redness, reducing itch, repairing and strengthening intracellular building blocks of the stratum corneum layers,” she says.


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Why are they so buzzy right now? 

One word: slugging. While not exactly a new trend (it popped up on Reddit’s Skincare Addiction thread around 2018), it has reached fever pitch recently thanks to the TikTok crowd. Basically, slugging involves slathering on a jelly balm as the last step of your nighttime routine to seal in moisture all night long. Traditional slugging typically includes a petrolatum product, like Vaseline, but you don’t have to use petroleum-derived formulas to achieve the same, sluglike effect. 

Enter, barrier creams! As consumers search for petroleum-free slugging balms, brands respond with barrier creams that not only keep moisture locked in but also replenish the skin barrier with healthy lipids. Win-win. 

Additionally, “It is wintertime, and most people are looking for longer-lasting solutions for dry itchy skin during long winter days, and barrier creams can certainly be helpful,” says Rodney. That’s why you might see a truckload of ’em on the market right now. 

How to use them correctly. 

If you have a balm-like barrier cream, always use it as the last step of your skin care routine to seal hydration inside. (Whereas some more spreadable formulas function as a butter-thick cream; you can go ahead and slather on like your usual moisturizer.) You can use a moisturizer and balmy barrier cream in the same routine—just layer your go-to moisturizer first. “I usually recommend that my patients use both: First apply a moisturizing (water-based) cream to hydrate and soften the skin, then apply the barrier cream as a protective layer to seal it all in,” advises Rodney. 

If this all sounds like a recipe for clogged pores, you may consider just using barrier creams at night (and make sure the formula doesn’t contain any comedogenic ingredients). Your skin is more permeable at night, which means it’s more prone to transepidermal water loss while you snooze, so using these richer creams before bed can help you wake up delightfully dewy. (Slugging tends to be a nighttime ritual, anyway.)

You might not even need to use barrier creams every single night if you don’t want to. “Generally, if they are heavier formulations, they are best to heal and seal for shorter periods of needed repair,” says Shamban. Feel free to peek at our full instructions here if you have any lingering concerns.

Shop the best barrier creams

The takeaway. 

Are barrier creams the same as moisturizers? Not quite. Some brands will market a thicker moisturizer as a barrier cream, yes, but generally, these products refer to dense occlusive balms that seal the skin barrier. They’re great for winter, and they’re top-notch for itchy, irritated skin—you can find a few more options in this curated list, if you’re up for more beauty browsing.