Emollients: Types, Uses, and How to Apply Them

Medically Reviewed By Bukky Aremu, APRN
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An emollient softens the skin. Rather than being a moisturizer, an emollient is one of the most beneficial ingredients in a moisturizer. Your skin can be prone to various issues that can affect its appearance or cause discomfort. Many sprays, lotions, creams, and ointments can help soothe your skin and relieve the symptoms of certain skin conditions.

This article will discuss the function, types, and potential complications of emollients.

What does an emollient do? 

A woman applying facial cream
Studio Marmellata/Stocksy United

An emollient helps moisturize the skin but is different from a moisturizer. Emollients are ingredients in moisturizing products.

Hydration is essential for healthy skin. Without enough moisture, your skin can become dry and may flake or crack. Dehydrated skin can look unappealing and become painful.

In addition, extreme dryness can affect your skin’s protective barrier. Flaking and cracking leave exposed openings in the skin, allowing bacteria to enter, which can result in infections.

Emollients composed of lipids or silicones help fill the gaps in cracked or flaky skin. Products with oil help create a thin barrier that provides protection. These products called occlusive agents help seal in moisture for extra hydration.

What are the types of emollients? 

Emollients come in different forms and can vary in weight and ingredients. When choosing an emollient, you should consider the area where you will apply it, the condition to treat, and your preferences regarding feel and fragrance.

Some emollients may work better than others, so you might have to try a few types.

Sprays

Sprays are not heavy and contain only a minimal amount of oil. Although they are not highly moisturizing, they do have advantages. Skin will easily absorb sprays, and the application is helpful for difficult-to-reach areas or places where the skin should not be touched or rubbed. 

Lotions

Lotions may not be effective for severe skin issues. Many lotions contain mostly water with a small amount of oil. As a thin liquid, they will not feel heavy and are easy to spread over your skin. Lotions are particularly beneficial for areas where hair is present, such as your scalp. 

Lotions are easy to apply and lightweight, making them best suited to daytime use. Because they absorb quickly, you will need to reapply them frequently. When considering a lotion, watch out for preservatives and fragrances that may irritate your skin.  

Creams

Creams are heavier, containing equal amounts of water and oil. They are slightly more moisturizing than a lotion but still spread relatively effortlessly. In addition, the higher oil content of creams helps them trap water more effectively, forming a protective barrier. 

Creams are slightly heavier than lotions but not as greasy as ointments, and you can apply them during the day or night. Because cream emollients absorb easily, frequent applications may be necessary. 

Ointments

Ointments are the most moisturizing of the emollient types. They are also the heaviest and greasiest. Composed of mainly oil, they create a thick barrier.

Ointments are not easily absorbed, so you will not need to reapply often. They will help trap moisture, keeping your skin hydrated longer. 

You may wish to use emollient ointments before you sleep. They tend to be sticky and hard to apply, especially on areas with hair.

Dehydrated skin, thick skin, or skin with a rash can significantly benefit from these emollients. However, you should not use an ointment on an open wound or weeping skin.

What are the benefits of emollients?

Emollients are essential to maintaining your skin’s protective barrier and keeping it hydrated. In addition, they can improve your skin’s appearance by reducing fine lines and preventing the skin from cracking. 

Dermatologists often encourage the everyday use of moisturizers. However, certain skin conditions can benefit significantly from emollients in moisturizers, including:

These conditions can cause your skin to dry out. Emollients help restore hydration and protect the skin from external irritants. 

Individuals with diabetes, hypothyroidism, and kidney disease may also benefit from emollients. Dry, cracked skin can be a side effect of these conditions. Emollients are popular ingredients in burn creams and diaper rash ointments as well. 

How should you apply emollients? 

Using an emollient regularly can help you achieve the best results. Also, it can be beneficial to alternate your emollients, using a lighter one during the day and a heavier one at night. 

More severe conditions may require more frequent applications. You should also reapply every time the area of your skin gets wet. This means reapplying to your hands after washing or patches on your body after bathing, swimming, or exercising.

The National Eczema Association advises applying your moisturizer within 3 minutes of washing or getting wet when your skin is still lightly moist. Instead of vigorously drying your skin, pat it dry before using your emollient moisturizer. 

To apply, place a dab on the affected area. Then, gently and evenly spread it over your skin. You do not need to worry about rubbing it in entirely because this will help create a barrier.

In addition, applying products in the direction of hair growth can help keep hair follicles from getting clogged. 

Can emollients cause complications? 

A common risk of using a moisturizer with emollients, especially for people with sensitive skin, is skin irritation. In most cases, the irritation does not result from the emollient ingredients, but from preservatives and fragrances added to the moisturizer.

Common symptoms include itching, stinging, dryness, burning, and smarting. Discontinuing the moisturizer and trying a different type can help relieve these symptoms. 

Thicker emollient types, such as ointments, can occasionally clog hair follicles. This may cause inflammation or infection, leading to a condition called folliculitis. Spreading ointment following the direction of hair growth can help prevent this.

Greasy and thick emollients can also cause acne if they clog pores.

Frequently asked questions

These are a few other commonly asked questions about emollients. Bukky Aremu, APRN, has reviewed the answers.

What is the difference between emollients and moisturizers?

Emollients are key ingredients in moisturizers. Moisturizers rehydrate your skin, while emollients help lock in the hydration and fill in cracks.

Can emollients irritate your skin?

Emollients may irritate some people’s skin. Thicker emollients, such as ointments, can clog your pores or hair follicles and cause inflammation. Some people may also be sensitive to the preservatives and fragrances in products. Common symptoms of irritation include itching, stinging, or burning.

Summary 

Emollients are beneficial for dry, cracked, and flaky skin. They can come in sprays, lotions, creams, and ointments. Choosing the right emollient type is essential for avoiding irritation and maintaining your skin’s protective barrier.

Consistency is critical when using an emollient. With regular use, you can obtain softer and smoother skin that is less itchy and painful.

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Medical Reviewer: Bukky Aremu, APRN
Last Review Date: 2022 Aug 15
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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