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Int J Cosmet Sci. 2014 Oct;36(5):412-8. doi: 10.1111/ics.12136. Epub 2014 May 20.

Effects of water activity and low molecular weight humectants on skin permeability and hydration dynamics - a double-blind, randomized and controlled study.

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Biomedical Science, Faculty of Health and Society, Malmö University, SE-205 06, Malmö, Sweden; Biofilms - Research Center for Biointerfaces, Malmö University, SE-205 06, Malmö, Sweden.



The mammalian skin is a barrier that effectively separates the water-rich interior of the body from the normally dryer exterior. Changes in the external conditions, for example ambient humidity, have been shown to affect the skin barrier properties. The prime objective of this study was to evaluate the effect of water activity of a topical formulation on skin hydration and permeability. A second objective was to gain more understanding on how two commonly used humectants, urea and glycerol, affect skin barrier function in vivo.


Simple aqueous formulations were applied under occlusion to the volar forearm of healthy volunteers. Following 4-h exposure, skin water loss (by transepidermal water loss measurements), skin hydration (by Corneometry) and skin permeability (by time to vasodilation due to benzyl nicotinate exposure) were monitored.


The results demonstrate that a relatively small change in the water activity of a topical formulation is sufficient to induce considerable effects on stratum corneum hydration and permeability to exogenous substances. Exposing the skin to high water activity leads to increased skin hydration and also increased permeability. Furthermore, urea and glycerol promote skin hydration and permeability even at reduced water activity of the applied formulation.


These results highlight the importance of considering the water activity in topically applied formulations and the potential benefit of using humectants. The results may impact formulation optimization in how to facilitate skin hydration and to modify skin permeability by temporarily open and close the skin barrier.


barrier function; glycerol; humectants; skin hydration; urea; water activity

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