Emollients soothe and hydrate your skin. They can help people with eczema reduce symptoms and flare-ups. They come in various forms, including creams, ointments, and soap substitutes.

Eczema is a common skin condition marked by dry, itchy, red patches that swell and become painful or inflamed when scratched. As many as 1 in 10 people in the United States has eczema, but several prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) treatments can help, including emollients.

Emollients are different than moisturizers, although moisturizers contain emollients. Emollients are an essential part of skin care for people with eczema.

Here’s what to know and how to make them part of your skin care routine.

Emollients are ingredients that soothe and protect your skin and help relieve itching. They work by forming an oily layer over the outermost layer of skin. The oil traps water underneath, hydrating the skin and making it harder for irritants and bacteria to penetrate, inflame, or infect your skin.

Moisturizers, lotions, creams, and ointments use emollients to protect your skin’s barrier.

Emollients are available over the counter or by prescription. Prescription emollients are different from cosmetic ones in that they don’t have so-called “anti-aging” ingredients or fragrances and are safe and effective on skin affected by eczema.

You can get prescription emollients from a pharmacy or nonprescription emollients from just about any place that sells personal hygiene items and toiletries.

Emollients come in a variety of forms, including:

  • lotions
  • creams
  • ointments
  • gels
  • sprays
  • soap substitutes

A 2022 study compared the effectiveness of four different emollient types (lotions, creams, ointments, and gels) in children with eczema and found no significant differences. But the researchers did find that stinging as a side effect was less common in ointments.

Emollient vs. moisturizer

While many use the terms “emollient” and “moisturizer” interchangeably, they aren’t the same. The term “moisturizer” is a catch-all marketing term for lotions, creams, or other solutions made to help moisten the skin. There’s no consensus about what the term means, though.

Emollients have a specific method of action to soothe and soften your skin. Moisturizers may contain other types of compounds with different methods of action, such as humectants and occlusives.

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Emollients create an oily layer between your skin and the environment and help seal in water. Both these actions strengthen the skin barrier, protecting you from allergens, irritants, and bacteria. This reduces your risk of infection and eczema flares.

They also cause you to itch less, also reducing your risk of infection and flares. That’s because scratching your skin can damage it, allowing harmful substances to enter.

A 2018 study in children showed that regular emollient use reduced eczema symptoms. About 3 in 5 children in the study did not experience a new flare during the 12 weeks of using an emollient.

A systematic review of 77 studies that included both children and adults found that moisturizers with emollients can help:

  • increase the time without an eczema flare
  • reduce the number of flares
  • reduce the need for other treatments

Leave-on emollient products such as sprays, lotions, ointments, and creams can effectively treat eczema. Healthcare professionals may suggest different types depending on when and where you’ll use them.

For instance, you may request a spray if you have a sore, inflamed, or hard-to-reach area. You might use an ointment for when you sleep because it’s thick and delivers a high degree of moisture.

There isn’t much research showing that emollient bath additives are of much use in eczema, although healthcare professionals may prescribe them in certain situations.

The U.K.-based National Eczema Society recommends you apply emollients at least twice daily. You can apply them more frequently if your eczema is inflamed. This will help make your skin soft, smooth, hydrated, and flexible.

Use an emollient after every bath or shower. If the water stings, put your emollient on before you bathe, then gently wash it off.

Apply an emollient by rubbing gently in the direction of hair growth. Don’t rub it up and down, which could cause inflammation and block hair follicles. Make sure to apply them all over and get help for hard-to-reach places.

How to use different emollient types

The type of emollient you use varies depending on where and when you’ll be using it. Some work better in hard-to-reach or sore areas, while others are great for moisturizing your skin while you sleep.

  • Creams: Creams are suitable for use during the day because your skin absorbs them quickly, and they aren’t slick or greasy.
  • Lotions: While lotions aren’t as moisturizing as creams, they’re better for hairy areas or areas where the skin is cracked, has damage or pus, or is leaking fluid.
  • Sprays: Though not as moisturizing, sprays are best for places that are hard to reach or sore to the touch.
  • Ointments: Ointments are the thickest and most suitable for nighttime because they’re heavier and take longer to absorb. They’re effective for thick, dry skin.
  • Soap substitutes: Regular soap dries out already-dry skin. Use soap substitutes for handwashing, bathing, and showering. You can also use your regular emollient in place of soap.

Emollient side effects are uncommon. A 2019 review of 24 studies found just a few adverse effects, mostly mild, from 29 emollients.

The side effects researchers noted included:

  • stinging
  • itching
  • redness
  • dryness

Here are some answers to common questions about using emollients for eczema.

How often can I use emollients for eczema?

Use emollients at least twice a day as part of your regular skin care routine or more if you’re having a flare.

When is the best time to apply emollients?

Apply them at least twice a day and after every time you bathe or shower.

Can you use emollients and steroids together?

A doctor may prescribe topical steroids to apply to your skin for a short time to get a flare under control. Some experts suggest applying the steroid cream first, then waiting 30 minutes before using the emollient, but research suggests the order doesn’t matter.

Emollients help treat eczema by strengthening your skin barrier. They create an oily layer that traps water, and their fats slip between cells to plump and soften your skin.

Moisturizers may include emollients, but the two aren’t the same thing. Emollients come in various forms, including sprays, lotions, and ointments.

Experts recommend using an emollient at least twice daily as part of a regular skin care routine and after every time you bathe or shower.