While moisturisers—be they for face or body – do hydrate the skin, they contain a variety of different ingredients, all of which work in slightly different ways to help treat dryness. Amongst these are emollients - which help to smooth and soften the skin.
What is an emollient?
Emollients are a type of moisturising agent. They smooth and soften the skin by helping to repair cracks in the skin’s barrier, thus preventing water loss from the skin. Emollients act as a lubricating agent in products like moisturiser.
Butters, oils, esters, lipids and fatty acids are all considered emollients. These can be either natural options such as shea butter or coconut oil, or synthetically derived ones, such as mineral oils.
The term “emollient” can also refer to a range of moisturising products that contain these ingredients. These include, in ascending order of thickness: lotions, creams and ointments.
The difference between these three types of products is their water-to-oil ratio.
- Lotions contain mostly water and less oil, making them thinner in consistency and fast-absorbing – great for people with normal or oily skin
- Creams contain both water and oil, enough to lock moisture into the skin, but not leaving a greasy residue on the skin
- Ointments contain the highest percentage of oil – they are thick in consistency and can be greasy, making them best for severely dry and/or cracked skin and one to avoid for very oily skin
What are the benefits?
Replenishes the skin barrier
When the skin is dry and flaky, there are open spaces in your skin cells. An emollient can help to fill those spaces and smooth out the skin. When the skin barrier is damaged it allows moisture to escape and irritants to get in. Emollients fill the cracks in the skin barrier to smooth and soften the skin.
Beneficial for skin conditions
Emollients are beneficial not only for people dealing with your average dry, rough skin, but also for those with skin conditions such as eczema, psoriasis, and contact dermatitis, due to their ability to help replenish the skin barrier.
Keeps the skin healthy
Skin is most healthy when it is hydrated. Environmental factors, harsh soaps and cleansers can strip the skin of its natural moisture, and this is when emollients can be useful.
What can I use it with?
Emollients work well with a range of other skincare ingredients. In moisturisers, emollients work best when paired with other moisturising agents that coat and cover the skin, or agents that attract water to the skin.
Avoid pairing emollients with ingredients that can have potentially irritating side-effects that you don't want sealed into the skin, such as retinol and alpha- and beta-hydroxy acids.
How do I use an emollient?
Aside from avoiding using thick emollients all over the face, you can't go too wrong.
For an added benefit, try applying them in gentle sweeping motions along the skin when skin is still a bit damp (like right after washing your face or stepping out of the shower) as they can help seal in the moisture that's already on your skin.
Are there any side effects?
- Be careful when using thicker emollient products like ointments on the face, particularly if your skin breaks out easily or is prone to acne. These thicker emollients can cover sweat glands, causing sweat to build up and create blackheads, whiteheads and spots.
- A rare, but potential problem for those with very sensitive skin can come with lotion and cream emollients. As they contain water, they are more susceptible to microbial contamination, so preservatives are added. While uncommon, some people with very sensitive skin may be allergic to these preservatives.