As any dermatologist will tell you, moisturizer should be a non-negotiable step in every person’s skin-care routine, regardless of their skin type or the season. These formulas are critical for sealing in moisture to keep skin strong, hydrated, and healthy—three things that anyone can benefit from. Most of the time, your standard lotion or cream is enough to get the job done. But when things get to the extreme—say, in the middle of February—you may need something stronger, and that’s where a recovery cream comes in.
“Recovery creams are usually formulated with intensive moisturizing ingredients that help increase the skin’s overall moisture barrier, whereas a moisturizer is formulated with ingredients to hydrate and balance the skin,” explains Kenya Wilson, esthetician at BeautyFix MedSpa in New York City. “A recovery cream will offer you more benefits than a moisturizer being that it is formulated with hydrating, healing, and soothing ingredients to recover the skin rather than just moisturize.”
The primary difference between a moisturizer and a recovery cream is the level of hydration they provide. Moisturizers are designed to deliver basic hydration to the skin, while recovery creams take things to the next level with a whole lot more moisture.
During the coldest, driest months of the year, “basic hydration” may not be enough to quench your skin. But how can you tell? To find out, we spoke to Wilson and Sandy Skotnicki, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and author of Beyond Soap, for the tell-tale signs on when it’s time to ditch your moisturizer and grab your recovery cream to maintain great skin. Keep reading for what they had to say.
1. Excessive dryness
The most obvious sign that your moisturizer isn’t working is that your skin still feels dry after you apply it, explains Wilson. This should clue you into the fact that your complexion needs more of the “big three” hydrating ingredients (humectants, which draw water into the skin; occlusives, which seal in moisture; and emollients, which soften and repair skin), which you’ll find in a recovery-focused formula.
2. Oiliness or breakouts
On the opposite (and admittedly surprising) end of the spectrum, Wilson notes that excess oiliness can also be a sign that it’s time to change up your moisturizer. When your skin lacks moisture, it tries to compensate by overproducing its own natural oils, leaving you with a slick complexion. Though it may seem counterintuitive, a recovery cream (which, as mentioned, offers more moisture) can help balance things out.
3. Irritation, burning, or tingling
There are a number of reasons why skin can become irritated—environmental factors, hormonal shifts, overdoing it with skin-care actives and treatments, to name a few—but they all have one thing in common: All of them come as a result of a compromised skin barrier. While some moisturizers are intense enough to help rebuild that barrier, a recovery cream will do it better and help move the healing process along.
“A recovery cream can be used on skin that is irritated in general, red, burning, and or scaly—what we would call sensitive skin,” says Dr. Skotnicki. “Patients with sensitive skin often suffer from conditions like eczema and rosacea and recovery creams typically are soothing and contain ingredients such as ceramides and humectants as well as ingredients to reduce irritation.” Additionally, if you’re coming off of a pro-grade treatment like microneedling, laser, or a chemical peel, a recovery cream will be instrumental in the (literal) recovery process.
Bottom line: If your skin feels at all uncomfortable, even after you apply your usual moisturizer—if it’s burning, tingling, or flaking, for example—swap a recovery cream into your routine, instead.
Shop recovery cream
Designed for hyper-sensitive skin, this formula uses a blend of Avène’s proprietary thermal water and probiotics to calm skin in 30 seconds and keep it quenched for 48 straight hours. As one Amazon reviewer puts it, “It makes your skin feel wonderful and reduces redness.”
Touted as an “all-in-one First Aid kit for your skin,” this cream heroes adaptogenic moss and oat protein, which work together to improve barrier function and moisture retention over the course of two weeks. It’s also got ceramides, aka the “building blocks” of your barrier, and panthenol, aka a “moisture magnet” to keep skin strong and hydrated.
Though recovery creams tend to be thick and heavy by nature, this one breaks the mold by offering ultra-reparative benefits in a lightweight form. Crafted by famed esthetician Kate Sommerville, it’s great for healing post-treatment skin and winter-worn complexions alike. As one fan of the formula puts it on the brand’s website, “I buy this cream on repeat, because nothing else can hydrate and calm my skin like this one.”
This formula, from famed celebrity esthetician Tammy Fender, contains ingredients like Buriti Fruit Oil and Iris Root that work together to infuse and seal in moisture and rehydrate the complexion by delivering omega fatty acids and antioxidants directly into the skin.
Well+Good’s senior beauty editor, Zoë Weiner, swears by this recovery cream for her own ultra-dry winter skin. “This stuff has a thick, creamy texture and a divine sandalwood-neroli scent that make for a luxurious application that I look forward to every morning, but that’s not the only reason I love this stuff,” she says. “It makes my uncomfortably- parched skin feel soft, smooth, and hydrated, and I can’t imagine getting through February without it.”
This overnight cream works its magic while you sleep. It’s got a whipped, marshmallowy texture and is infused with omega oils and fatty acids to strengthen and plump skin so that you’ll wake up refreshed and recovered.
Unlike the rest of the lotions and creams on this list, this recovery product comes in balm form. This means that it provides the ultimate occlusive layer over your skin to seal in hydration while also adding moisture of its own with natural oils like sunflower seed, olive, and jojoba. What’s more, it’s got beta-glucan to soothe irritation and redness.