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Page last reviewed: 13/07/2011

Emollients are topical treatments (treatments that are applied directly to the skin). They reduce water loss from the outer layer of skin (epidermis) by covering it with a protective film. Emollients are also sometimes known as moisturisers.

Emollients come in several different forms, including:

  • soap substitutes
  • bath oils
  • moisturising creams and ointments

See Emollients - types for more details.

How do emollients work?

The skin is made up of layers that perform several functions, including storing water. Emollients keep the water in the skin where it is needed and allow damaged skin cells on the skin's surface to repair themselves.

As well as helping the skin to retain water, emollients:

  • moisturise dry skin
  • ease itching
  • reduce scaling
  • soften cracks
  • allow other topical treatments to enter the skin

When to apply emollients

Emollients can be applied as often as recommended by the manufacturer to keep the skin well moisturised and in good condition. In particular, it is a good idea to regularly apply an emollient to your hands because they are exposed to the elements more than any other part of your body.

You may also want to use emollients after:

  • washing your hands
  • having a bath
  • taking a shower

Emollients are best applied when the skin is moist and should ideally be applied to the skin at least three or four times a day.

Medicated emollients

Some emollients contain specially medicated formulas that can be used to treat skin conditions such as:

  • eczema: a long-term (chronic) skin condition that causes the skin to become reddened, dry, itchy and cracked
  • psoriasis: a chronic non-infectious skin condition that causes red, flaky patches of skin

Page last reviewed: 13/07/2011

Soap substitutes

Certain skincare products can remove your skin's surface layer of natural oils. These include:

  • soaps
  • shampoos
  • ordinary bubble baths
  • shower gels

This can make your skin dry and can further aggravate long-term (chronic) skin conditions such as eczema.

Soap substitutes, such as aqueous cream or emulsifying ointment, can be used instead of soap for hand washing and bathing. Aqueous cream can also be used as a substitute for shaving foam.

Using soap substitutes

Mix a small amount of soap substitute in the palm of your hand (about a half to one teaspoonful) with a little warm water, and spread it over damp or dry skin. Rinse and pat the skin dry, but do not rub.

If you are using a soap substitute and you are also using anti-psoriasis treatment, apply the soap substitute first. Allow 30 minutes after using a soap substitute before applying the anti-psoriasis treatment.

Some people may have a reaction to aqueous cream when it is used as an emollient. For this reason, it is recommended only as a soap substitute and not as a leave-on emollient. However, if your skin stings after using aqueous cream and does not settle down after rinsing, speak to your GP or pharmacist about an alternative soap substitute.

Emollient bath additives

Emollient bath additives can be added to a lukewarm bath to help prevent the loss of moisture from your skin. Bath additives can make surfaces slippery, so always use a non-slip mat and be careful when getting yourself or your child out of the bath.

Some bath oils include an antiseptic which can help prevent infection. However, these products should only be used occasionally unless the infection is recurrent or widespread.

Never use more than the recommended amount of bath additive. If the concentration is too high, it may cause skin irritation, particularly when used with antiseptic bath oils.

Emollient creams and ointments

Emollient creams are less greasy than emollient ointments. They are easy to spread, absorb easily into the skin and are good for use during the daytime. Emollient creams can be used on weeping eczema.

Emollient ointments are most suitable for very dry, thick skin and are not suitable for use on weeping eczema. Find one that is best suited to your or your child's condition and lifestyle.

Occasionally, emollient creams may sting when they are first applied to very dry skin. This usually settles down after a few days of treatment. If it persists, it may be due to a reaction to a preservative in the cream. If this occurs, talk to your GP or pharmacist about possible alternative emollients, such an emollient ointment.

Page last reviewed: 13/07/2011

Emollients are available in tubes, tubs and larger pump dispensers. They can either be bought over the counter from your pharmacy or prescribed by your GP. If you or your child need to use an emollient regularly, it is a good idea to keep some at home or at school in small pots or tubes.

Your pharmacist may also be able to provide you with small, labelled containers. Wash, dry and rinse the container thoroughly before filling and refilling it. Keep the container labelled, or if the label gets too greasy and keeps coming off, keep it in a labelled plastic bag.

Using emollients

Apply as much emollient as you need to keep your skin feeling well moisturised. It should be applied as generously and as often as possible.

Emollients can be used to replace lost moisture whenever your skin feels dry or tight. Emollients are very safe and you cannot overuse them because they do not get absorbed through your skin into your body.

A good routine to prevent and treat dryness is described below.

  • Use a soap substitute for cleansing all areas of your body.
  • Use moisturising bath oil in your bathwater or as you shower.
  • Pat yourself dry with a towel, rather than rubbing, after taking a bath or shower.
  • Apply an emollient cream or ointment as often as necessary after bathing or showering and between washing.

If you have a dry skin condition, such as eczema or psoriasis, you may need to use emollients more often. In such circumstances, use a medicated emollient even when your skin feels better, to help prevent patches of inflammation (selling) and flare-ups. Dry skin is more prone to infection.

See the Health A-Z topics about eczema (atopic) Eczema and Psoriasis for more information and advice about these skin conditions.

Whether you are prone to dry skin or not, it is important to use an emollient cream or ointment after washing or bathing. This is when your skin is most in need of moisture. The emollient should be applied as soon as you have patted your skin dry to ensure it is properly absorbed.

Try small quantities of several different emollients until you find one that you like. You may need to try a variety of different emollients before you find one that is best suited to you or your child. For example, you may decide to use a cream-based emollient for the daytime and an ointment base for night time.

Reactions to emollients

Possible reactions to emollients can include:

  • Irritant reactions. These include an overheating, 'burning' sensation or stinging. It is usually caused by a reaction to a certain ingredient contained in the cream or lotion. If the stinging is painful and continues, try a different emollient.
  • Folliculitis. Some emollients that work by sealing wounds or cracks in the skin with a protective barrier (occlusive) can occasionally cause hair follicles to become blocked and inflamed (folliculitis) and cause boils (painful, red bumps on the skin)
  • Facial rashes. Some facial emollients can cause rashes on the face and can aggravate acne (a skin condition that occurs on the face and commonly affects people during their teenage years).

Content provided by NHS Choices www.nhs.uk and adapted for Ireland by the Health A-Z.

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