Emollients are moisturising treatments applied directly to the skin to soothe and hydrate it. They cover the skin with a protective film to trap in moisture.
Emollients are often used to help manage dry, itchy or scaly skin conditions such as eczema, psoriasis and ichthyosis. They help prevent patches of inflammation and flare-ups of these conditions.
This page covers:
Types of emollients
How to use them
When to apply them
Types of emollients
Emollients are available as:
- lotions – good for hairy or damaged areas of skin (such as weeping eczema) as they are thin and spread easily, but they're not very moisturising
- sprays – good for hard-to-reach areas and for sore or infected skin that shouldn't be touched; quickly absorbed
- creams – good for daytime use as they're not very greasy and are absorbed quickly
- ointments – good for very dry, thickened skin and for night-time use as they are greasy, thick and very moisturising; they're usually free of preservatives so are suitable for sensitive skin, but they shouldn't be used on weeping eczema
- bath oils and shower products
- soap substitutes
They can either be bought over the counter from your pharmacy or be prescribed by your GP, nurse or health visitor.
If you or your children need to use an emollient regularly, it's a good idea to keep some in small pots or tubes at home, school or work.
Although aqueous cream is often prescribed, it's not always the best option. Some people may have a reaction to an ingredient in aqueous cream, and it's thinner and less effective than other products as a leave-on emollient.
There are lots of different types of leave-on emollient that can be put directly on the skin.
Some create a protective barrier over the skin to lock in moisture. Some have added ingredients to reduce itching or prevent infection.
Your doctor or pharmacist will talk to you about which type of emollient will work best for your skin condition. You may have to try a few different emollients to find the best one for your or your child's skin.
Many of these leave-on products can also be used as wash products.
Soap substitutes (emollient wash products)
Everyday soaps, shampoos and shower gels usually dry out the skin and can make skin conditions, such as eczema, worse. Using an emollient soap substitute instead of normal soap for handwashing and bathing can help to improve your skin.
How to use emollients
Emollient lotions, sprays, creams and ointments should be applied directly to the skin. They should be smoothed, not rubbed, into the skin gently and in the same direction that your hair grows, to help prevent hair follicles from getting blocked.
They can be used to replace lost moisture whenever your skin feels dry or tight. They are very safe and you can't overuse them.
You may need to experiment with different emollients or try a combination. For example, you may decide to use a cream during the day and an ointment at night.
Soap substitutes (emollient wash products)
Mix a small amount (around teaspoonful) of soap substitute in the palm of your hand with a little warm water and spread it over damp or dry skin. Rinse and pat the skin dry, being careful not to rub it.
You can use soap substitutes for handwashing, showering or in the bath. They don't foam like normal soap but are just as effective at cleaning the skin.
If your skin stings after using an emollient wash product and doesn't settle after rinsing, ask your GP or pharmacist to recommend a different soap substitute.
Emollient bath additives often come as a bath oil. Add this to warm or lukewarm bath water and soak in it for at least 10 minutes. Once out of the bath, pat your skin dry with a towel.
You can also apply bath oil directly to the skin in the shower, but this isn't as effective as soaking in the bath.
Using a bath additive leaves a protective film of oil over the skin that helps it to stop losing moisture.
Some bath oils contain an antiseptic, which can help prevent infections. But these products should only be used occasionally, unless the infection covers a large area of your skin or comes back. Talk to your GP, nurse or pharmacist if you have questions about this.
Never use more than the recommended amount of bath additive, as high concentrations may cause skin irritation.
Using emollients with other skin treatments
If you're using a steroid cream or other treatment for your skin condition, wait at least 30 minutes after putting on your emollient before applying it. This avoids diluting the effect of the treatment and spreading it to areas of skin that don't need it.
When to apply emollients
Emollients can be applied as often as you like to keep the skin well moisturised and in good condition. Ideally, this should be done at least three or four times a day.
It's especially important to regularly apply an emollient to your hands and face, as they're exposed to the elements more than any other part of your body.
Certain activities, such as swimming or gardening, can irritate the skin. It may help to apply an emollient before doing these.
It's a good idea to protect babies' hands and cheeks with an emollient before meal times to stop them getting sore from food and drink.
Emollients are best applied after washing your hands, taking a bath or showering because this is when the skin most needs moisture. The emollient should be applied as soon as you have patted your skin dry to ensure it is properly absorbed.
Emollients can sometimes cause a skin reaction, such as:
- an overheating, burning sensation or stinging that doesn't settle after a few days of treatment – usually caused by a reaction to a certain ingredient contained in the emollient
- blocked or inflamed hair follicles (folliculitis) that may cause boils
- rashes on the face that can aggravate acne
If you experience any of these symptoms, talk to your GP, nurse or pharmacist.
Safety advice when using emollients
Follow this general safety advice when using emollients:
- Keep away from fire, flames and cigarettes when using paraffin-based emollients. Dressings and clothing soaked with the ointment can be easily ignited.
- Use a clean spoon or spatula to remove emollients from a pot or tub. This reduces the risk of infections from contaminated pots.
- Take care of slipping when using emollients in a bath or shower, or on a tiled floor. Protect the floor with a non-slip mat, towel or sheet. Wearing protective gloves, wash your bath or shower after with hot water and washing up liquid, then dry with a kitchen towel.
- Never use more than the recommended amount of bath additive. It may cause skin irritation if the concentration is too high, particularly when used with antiseptic bath oils.
- Be careful of using aqueous cream. It can cause burning, stinging, itching and redness for some people, especially children with atopic eczema. Read more information about the safety of aqueous cream on the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) website.