Medically reviewed by Minimalist Health Specialist -  Written by Viddhi Patel (Journalist)  on 18th Dec 2020

What is NMF(Natural Moisturizing Factor) & why is it important for the skin?

What is NMF(Natural Moisturizing Factor)

It is hard not to be envious of someone’s effortless complexion and perfect skin when they do not use all the fancy skincare products you invest in. You have long been on a quest to tame all your skin problems.

Ideal conditions make our skin work exceptionally on keeping itself hydrated, naturally. Skin is the biggest organ and often the one that worries you. In normal conditions, the skin does a good job of protecting itself and the organs it hides beneath your body, given you are not stressed and are living in an unpolluted environment.

Our bodies work as profound machines and manage available resources.

Read on to know all about it.

The built-in moisturization system of skin is known as the “Natural Moisturizing Factor,” or NMF. This factor, along with genes, gives one the skin that you are forced to envy. Reduction in levels of NMF can be seen in people with skin conditions like atopic dermatitis, psoriasis, and seasonal or chronic dry skin that are the results of a lack of proper skin hydration.

Dry skin condition, also known as Xerosis, is a condition you may have experienced once in your life, maybe during cold, dry winter months. The condition becomes more prevalent as we age.

Inflammatory skin conditions like the ones stated above and irritant contact dermatitis cause localized areas of xerotic skin. Ichthyosis is one of the hereditary disorders that results in chronic dry skin.

Harness the powers of your body’s natural internal processes and get the radiant skin you have desired and the one that you deserve by knowing all about the natural moisturizing factor.  

What exactly is this NMF?  

The skin’s uppermost layers help keep it smooth, hydrated, and healthy-looking. The collection of naturally-occurring humectants keeps skin protected and moisturized.

Topical treatments help reinforce the skin’s surface to help skin take on a younger, replenished appearance.

NMFs’ expansive group of ingredients primarily is made up of amino acids along with urea and peptides

  • Amino acids_ 40%
  • Lactic acid_ 12%  
  • Sodium PCA_ 12%  
  • Sugars_ 8.5%  
  • Ions_ 18.5% [CI, NA, K, Ca, Mg, PO] 
  • Urea_ 7%  
  • Ammonia, uric acid, glucosamine, creatinine_ 1.5 %  
  • Citrate and Formate_ 0.5%  

NMFs keep the skin’s surface intact and supple. What NMFs comprise is not as important as what it does. The naturally occurring system of your skin helps attract water then decides what other elements are allowed into the skin.

NMF plays an important role in keeping all the bad stuff out of our bodies.

Nature has designed a pretty perfect system and has given your skin the remarkable ability to regulate the production of your NMF based on your environment. Low humid climates make your skin generate more NMF to keep itself hydrated, while high humidity environments have your skin make less NMF.

NMF derives moisture from the air, and hence low humidity means dehydration of the skin. What’s even more interesting is that NMF is produced by recycling filaggrin, a protein that binds corneocytes.

Hydration of NMF serves as the base to increase the elasticity of the stratum corneum. The resultant elasticity helps make the skin healthier and more supple by preventing cracking or flaking due to mechanical stress.

Though referred to as a nonviable tissue, the stratum corneum is a dynamic structure in which numerous enzymes still function. The enzymes require a certain amount of liquid water to perform. NMF is the one that binds the much necessary water.

Lack of these saviors correlated back to stratum corneum abnormalities that are clinically manifested as dry skin areas with scaling, flaking, or even fissuring and cracking. Atopic Dermatitis globally shows reduced NMF while psoriasis and ichthyosis have essentially absent NMF levels. 

Factors affecting NMF levels  

Superficial layers of the stratum corneum, if washed with soap, routinely lose NMF components. Bathing and UV exposure typically show reduced NMF levels. Aging too reduces NMF levels as there is a reduction in amino acid content in the stratum corneum. 

Below are other factors that may negatively affect the NMF:  

  • Hormones 
  • Pollution 
  • Low humidity weather 
  • Diet 
  • Stress 
  • Harsh cleansers 
  • Overbathing 
  • Excessive sun exposure
  • Aging.

Allow your skin to thrive in a balanced state, and it will show you its ability to protect your body inside-out. If your skin is in a state of imbalance, you'll see how it can adversely affect your health. Skin issues are often a result of environmental and internal stressors. Some stressors occur when you try to improve your skin and try to heal it rigorously.

Routine exposure to sensitizing ingredients like dry cleansing agents and denatured alcohol depletes skin’s NMFs levels immensely, making your skin dry, tighter, flaky. 

What NMF does for your skin and body 

Epidermis develops a mechanism to produce a chemical protective coat called Natural Moisturizing Factor responsible for keeping the stratum corneum’s adequate hydration. 

This hydration is crucial for healthy skin in the following ways:   

The primary role of NMF is maintaining adequate skin hydration.

It does so through the magical combination of amino acids, proteins, and acids nourish and protects skin by letting the moisture in and keeping out the free radicals.

Moisturization alone further serves three significant functions:

  • Maintains plasticity, protecting skin from damage.  
  • Allows hydrolytic enzymes to function in the desquamation process.  
  • Contributes to the smooth functioning of the stratum corneum barrier function. 

Benefits of the NMF 

Skin elasticity and suppleness 

Supple skin is what every heart desires. Thank the amino acids in the NMF that help loosen skin’s keratin fibers, proteins in the skin that regulate cell activity to make the skin more supple and reduce the chances of flaking or cracking. Higher the skin elasticity, the lesser the chances of mechanical change.  

Smoothens skin’s appearance   

NMF activates hydrolytic enzymes, which means NMF helps your skin easily shed old, flaky skin cells, ultimately giving your skin a smoother feel. Water dependent substances responsible for breaking down bigger pieces into smaller pieces, which is essential to the desquamation process, which is the skin's natural process of shedding dead skin.

Protective barrier  

Your top layer, the stratum corneum, is made of corneocytes. These cells, when hydrated through NMF, achieve the correct balance. This allows corneocytes to regulate the water transfers in or out of the skin, resulting in a barrier. The barrier protects underlying cells from infection, dehydration, and chemical damage.

Apart from the high water-binding property, NMF plays a vital role in sustaining the skin acid mantle, which protects the skin from the harsh world, and this is not the only effective defensive mechanism of the skin. Sebum production is another such mechanism; sebum creates an occlusive film on top of the skin and limits the evaporation of moisture from the skin.

Aging reduces the production of sebum and the level of NMF in the epidermis, which is why mature skin is associated with persistent dryness and dehydration. 

Skincare and NMF  

NMF works so perfectly that skincare products often use various humectants, emollients, and occlusives to mimic NMF. NMF components are so effective as humectants that they carry out the function of attracting and binding water from the atmosphere, drawing it into corneocytes even at humidity as low as 50%, allowing the corneocytes to maintain adequate water levels in low-humidity environments. Water absorption of NMF is so efficient that it dissolves within the water it has absorbed.

The majority of NMF ingredients can be derived and combined in a laboratory into a blend of mimicking properties of the natural human moisturization process. Urea, lactate, hyaluronic acid are ingredients you may have already heard of or even included in your skincare regimen due to their popular inclusions in cosmetic formulations. 

Niacinamide 5% Face Serum
Niacinamide 5% Face Serum
Niacinamide 5% Face Serum
Niacinamide 5% Face Serum

Niacinamide 5% Face Serum

₹ 595

When to use: AM / PM

Frequency: Everyday

View details

Products containing synthetic versions of the NMF blend or its ingredients are propitious in balancing your skin’s natural skin processes and rebuilding the moisture level.

More doesn’t necessarily mean better. Lactate or urea, and the likes moisturize only in a high dilution. Exceeding the advised dose may cause severe skin burns.

Consumers and dermatologists today have overwhelming options to choose from. Every moisturizer contains a combination of ingredients designed to alleviate dry skin symptoms. 

OTC moisturizers can be categorized into the following: 

  • Emollients: soften and smoothens the skin.  
  • Occlusives: prevent transepidermal water loss by forming a barrier. 
  • Humectants: bind and hold water in the stratum corneum. For instance, urea is a superior humectant that for decades has been a part of moisturizers to hydrate better. Lactate is also a humectant used in moisturizers.  
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Recently some moisturizers have added amino acids, PCA, and salts as humectants.

Topically applied NMF has been used widely in skincare products for dry skin treatments. The use of oils for smoothing has been used since 2300 BC. The 1950s brought light to the water-imbibing substances to retain moisture in the stratum corneum.

PCA [pyrrolidone carboxylic acid] effectively treats dry skin, although there is not enough research to back its topical application efficacy.

Urea, a major component of NMF, has been included in hand creams since the 1940s. It is a powerful skin humidifier and descaling agent. The component effectively treats dry skin in high concentrations and is more efficacious than salicylic acid and petroleum jelly. It reduces TEWL and is reported to influence skin barrier properties. It increases skin capacitance and reduces irritant reactions.  

Salicylic Acid 2% Face Serum
Salicylic Acid 2% Face Serum
Salicylic Acid 2% Face Serum
Salicylic Acid 2% Face Serum

Salicylic Acid 2% Face Serum

₹ 545

When to use: PM

Frequency: Alternate days

View details

Urea, in combination with polidocanol urea, has been reported to improve juvenile atopic dermatitis. When combined with lactic acid, urea has proven helpful in treating ichthyosis.

Lactic acid. Apart from being an NMH component, it is a member of alpha-hydroxy acids [AHAs], a class of molecules that exert unique skin structure and function benefits. Initially described for treating dry skin related disorders, the acid has become of considerable interest as it also influences skin cell renewal and other anti-aging benefits. It effectively moisturizes and ameliorates winter xerosis (a skin condition where your skin becomes rough and dry, especially during the winter months.   

Minimalist’s Word of Advice 

You cannot force your skin to balance NMH or produce more of this elixir. But when you provide some balance to your body, this positively shows on your skin. Some lifestyle improvements and skincare changes can help in this direction.  

  • Keep it simple 

Don’t over-exfoliate or overuse skincare ingredients and products.  

  • Use good quality products free from additives with no shady ingredient hiding behind the marketing facade.  

Wrapping it up 

Maintenance of adequate skin hydration requires NMF components. The water they bind provides healthy skin with elasticity. We now fully recognize the importance of the NMF in healthy and diseased skin and the remunerative clinical role these humectants can have as therapeutic agents.