Emollients are lotions, creams and ointments that contain ingredients which soothe and soften rough, dry and flaky skin. Many people use the terms “emollient” and “moisturizer” interchangeably, however, an emollient is typically one of several ingredients in a moisturizer.
When the skin’s top layer (a.k.a. the epidermis) becomes dehydrated, it can crack and flake, leaving gaps between the cells. Emollients fill in those gaps with fatty substances, known as lipids, which make the skin softer and smoother.
Emollients containing large amounts of oil also serve as occlusive agents. This means that they coat the skin with a thin layer of oily film, which acts as a barrier, sealing in much-needed water.
What are the benefits of using emollients?
Emollients are beneficial in soothing and treating dry, flaky skin caused by a variety of factors, including:
- Burns (e.g., sunburn, burns from radiation treatment)
- Certain skin conditions (e.g., atopic dermatitis, eczema, psoriasis)
- Cold weather
- Diaper rash
- Frequent hand washing
- Handling harsh chemicals or cleaning products
- Kidney disease
- Taking long or frequent baths or showers
Regardless of the cause, itchy, dry, irritated skin should be addressed to help prevent cracking, bleeding and potential infection.
Types of emollients
There are three types of emollients: ointments, creams and lotions. The type of emollient you choose may vary depending on the affected body part, the cause and severity of dryness and personal preference. You may even want to test out a few different emollients before determining which is right for you.
Emollients are commonly classified by their oil content. The more oil they contain, the better they are at locking moisture into the skin:
- Ointments. These contain the highest concentration of oil and are typically very thick and greasy. They are slow absorbing, and therefore, don’t require frequent reapplication. Because they are sticky, ointments may be hard to spread on skin, especially over hairy areas (e.g., the scalp). Often used at night, they are generally the best choice for skin that is extremely dry or thick.
- Creams. These lighter-weight emollients contain equal parts oil and water. Although they are less moisturizing than ointments, they are also less messy and easier to spread on skin. Creams require more frequent application than ointments and are commonly used during both day and night.
- Lotions. These contain mostly water, plus a small amount of oil. They are less moisturizing than ointments and creams and require more frequent application, which makes them better suited for daytime use. Since they are mainly liquid, lotions are typically much easier to apply to skin (especially the hairy areas!) than their thicker, oilier counterparts.
Following are some quick tips for using emollients and moisturizers:
- Use liberally, frequently and consistently (according to package directions)
- Apply to moist skin for best results
- Reapply every time affected area gets wet (e.g., after washing hands or swimming)
- Dab onto skin and then rub in direction of hair growth (to avoid clogging follicles)
- Use preventatively (e.g., during winter when skin is prone to dryness)
Please note that emollients should not be applied to open wounds.
Ready to experience the benefits of emollients? Here are a few emollient-rich products to consider:
Reviva Labs Ultra Rich Ultra Light Daytime Moisturizer with Vitamin C. This lightweight moisturizer is packed with vitamin C and emollients. It “refines skin texture and helps protect against pollutants, free radicals and moisture loss.”
Alba Botanica® Daily Shade Broad Spectrum SPF 15 Very Emollient Body Lotion. Want to “to soothe, nourish and revitalize dry, sensitive skin?” This unique, emollient-rich, therapeutic formula does it all!
Lily of the Desert Aloe Vera Gelly Soothing Moisturizer. Not all moisturizers are created equal. This soothing selection “naturally replenishes and relieves skin after prolonged sun or wind exposure.” It also cools and refreshes!
NOW Foods Solutions Shea Butter. This “100% natural shea butter has a rich, luxurious texture that penetrates deep to condition and moisturize every type of skin.” Even the toughest areas, like knees, elbows and heels, will benefit from its emollient effects!