What is an emollient?

Meaning soother or softener, an emollient softens dry, rough, flakey skin, making it look and feel better. When the top layer of your skin doesn’t contain enough water, it dries out. This causes skin to crack and flake off, leaving open spaces between the cells in your skin. Emollients fill those spaces with fatty substances, called lipids, which make your skin smoother and softer.

Emollients that contain a lot of oil are also occlusive agents. This means they coat your skin with a thin oily film that seals the water in your skin. Occlusive agents keep your skin hydrated longer.

Although many people think an emollient and a moisturizer are the same thing, they aren’t. An emollient is one of the ingredients in a moisturizer. The other ingredients in a moisturizer bring water into your skin. Emollients are the part of a moisturizer that keep your skin soft and smooth.

What are the benefits of an emollient?

Most people get dry, irritated skin from time to time, especially during the winter when the air is cold and dry. You can also get dry skin from washing your hands often, or from working with harsh chemicals. Emollients are effective for soothing and healing dry skin due to almost any cause, including:

Emollients can treat these conditions as well as other skin irritations such as burns from radiation treatments and diaper rash.

Other actions that cause you to have dry skin that can be treated with emollients include:

  • using very hot water when you bathe or shower
  • taking frequent or long baths or showers
  • exposing your hands to water for a long time when you clean or wash the dishes
  • positioning your skin close to a strong heat source like a space heater for a long time
  • using soaps or cleansing products that are harsh or drying
  • excessive sun exposure

No matter what the cause, dry, itchy, irritated, cracked skin is uncomfortable. Even worse, openings in your skin due to scratching or cracking can bleed or become infected.

Emollients can help improve and control your symptoms and heal your skin.

Types of emollients

The type of emollient that is best for you depends on the cause and severity of your skin condition, the part of your body that is affected, and your personal preferences. You may want to try a few different emollients before deciding on one you prefer. You may even use different types at different times of the day or year, as the dryness of your skin varies.

The most common way to classify emollients is by how oily or greasy they are. All emollients soften and smooth your skin, but the amount of oil in them determines how strong of an occlusive agent they are. The more oil an emollient contains, the better it is at forming a protective layer on your skin to trap moisture.

The types of emollients are:

Ointments

Ointments are mostly oil and are very greasy. They are thick, so they prevent your skin from losing water and don’t have to be reapplied very often because aren’t absorbed quickly. They are sticky and hard to spread on your skin, especially on hairy areas.

Ointments are very moisturizing and are the best emollients for very dry or thick skin. They can stain your clothes and are messy, so many people prefer to use them only at night while they sleep. Most ointments don’t have any preservatives, so your skin is less likely to have a bad reaction to it. You should not use them on skin that is oozing or weeping fluids.

Creams

Creams have a balance of oil and water. This makes them easy to spread on your skin, but they are less moisturizing than an ointment. They have enough oil to trap the water in your skin, but they are less greasy and messy. They are lighter and easier to apply than ointments, which makes them good to use during the daytime. They are also heavier and more moisturizing than lotions, which makes them good for nighttime use, too. Your skin absorbs a cream emollient relatively quickly, so you need to reapply it more often than ointments.

Lotions

Lotions are mostly water with only a small amount of oil. They’re the least moisturizing of the three types of emollients. Since they’re a liquid, they’re easy to spread on your scalp and other areas of your body that are hairy.

This type of emollient is good for daytime use because they’re thin and easy to apply. But you have to reapply lotions more frequently because your skin absorbs them quickly. Most lotions have preservatives in them, so it’s more likely your skin will have a bad reaction to them. Before you use a new lotion, test it on a small patch of skin to make sure you do not have an adverse reaction. You can use a lotion on skin that is oozing or weeping fluid.

How to use emollients

You should apply an adequate amount of emollient frequently to obtain the best results. Use it between two to four times a day. The worse your symptoms are, the more often you should apply it.

Along with the regular applications, reapply it every time you get the affected area wet. If your hands are affected, apply the emollient every time you wash them. If you go swimming or exercise, apply the emollient afterwards.

According to the National Eczema Association, you should apply an emollient, or any moisturizer, within three minutes of washing your hands or getting out of the shower or bathtub while your skin is still moist. Gently pat yourself dry, then apply the emollient before the water can evaporate.

Apply the emollient by dabbing some on your skin, then gently rubbing it in. You don’t need to rub it in completely. You should always rub it downward in the direction of hair growth to avoid clogging your hair follicles.

During times of the year when you know your skin gets dry, or when a flare of a skin condition has cleared up, you should continue to consistently and regularly use the emollient to help keep your skin hydrated and prevent a recurrence of the flare.

The takeaway

Emollients are effective for healing dry, flaky, itchy skin. It’s important that you find one or two that you like and are comfortable with, so you use it regularly.

Emollients work best when you use a generous amount consistently and frequently. When you do, you may be surprised how quickly the moisture returns and your dry, itchy skin becomes soft and smooth again.