This Is Why Emollients Are the Secret to Getting Rid of Dry Skin

emollient product squeezed from aluminum tube

Liz deSousa for BYRDIE

Moisturizers hydrate the skin, and that's how you get rid of dryness, right? Eh, kind of, but unfortunately it's not quite that simple. Moisturizers—be they for the face or body—actually contain a variety of different ingredients, all of which work in slightly different ways to help address and treat dryness. And in this arena, emollients, which help to smooth and soften the skin, are one of the most essential. Here's where things get even a little more complicated, though: the term emollient can refer to both particular ingredients, as well as products such as lotions, creams, and ointments. But don't worry, we'll explain all of that in a minute. Ahead, dermatologists help break it down and explain what you need to know about making emollients a part of your skincare routine.

Meet the Expert

Keep reading to learn all about the benefits of emollients for the skin.


Type of Ingredient: Moisturizing agent

Main Benefits: Smoothes and softens the skin by helping to repair cracks in the skin barrier, thus preventing water loss; acts as a lubricating agent in products.

How Often Can You Use It: Emollients can generally be used regularly and liberally on most types, the one exception being those with naturally very oily skin.

Works Well With: "Emollients work well with a range of other skincare ingredients," says Nussbaum. In moisturizers, emollients work best when paired with other moisturizing agents that have occlusive or humectant properties, meaning they coat and cover the skin or attract water to it, respectively, she explains. They can also be combined with other actives, such as anti-inflammatory botanical extracts.

Don't Use With: Avoid pairing emollients with ingredients that can have potentially irritating side effects that you don't want sealed into the skin, cautions Nussbaum, who cites retinol and alpha- and beta-hydroxy acids as common examples.

What Are Emollients?

Buckle up because there is quite a bit to unpack here. "This is a broad category with many different products and ingredients that can be considered or used as emollients," says Greenfield. Let's talk about the ingredient side of things first. 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 oil, explains Nussbaum. Regardless, they work the same way: "When 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," she says.

Types of Emollients

On the flip side, the term emollient can also (and often does) refer to a range of moisturizing products that contain these ingredients. These include, in ascending order of thickness, lotions, creams, and ointments, says Greenfield. The difference: The water-to-oil ratio.

  • Lotions contain mostly water and less oil, making them thinner in viscosity and fast-absorbing. These types of water-based emollients are great for people with normal or oily skin, says Nussbaum.
  • Creams contain both water and oil, enough to lock moisture in the skin, but without leaving a greasy residue.
  • Ointments contain the highest percentage of oil; they're thick and can be greasy, making them best reserved for severely dry and/or cracked skin. "These are often referred to as occlusive emollients since they help to form a protective barrier over the skin to seal or lock in moisture," Nussbaum explains.

Benefits of Emollients for Skin

  • Replenish the skin barrier to smooth and soften skin: Think of the outer layer of your skin—the often-cited skin barrier—as being made up of tiles and grout. The cells are the tiles, and when the grout (or the lipids) in between them is cracked or missing, skin can become dry and flaky, and even red and itchy. (A compromised barrier allows moisture to easily escape and irritants to more easily get in, neither of which does your skin any favors). Emollients act as the grout, filling in those gaps to smooth and soften the skin, says Nussbaum.
  • Can be beneficial for skin conditions that cause irritation and redness: Emollients are beneficial not only for anyone dealing with run-of-the-mill dry, rough skin, but also for those with conditions such as eczema, psoriasis, and contact dermatitis, says Nussbaum. Credit that same ability to help replenish the oh-so-important skin barrier.
  • Keeps the skin generally healthy: "Skin is most healthy when it's moist," explains Greenfield. "Environmental factors, as well as harsh soaps and cleansers, can strip it of its natural moisture, and this is when supplementing with emollients can be very helpful."

Common Skincare Uses for Emollients

  • Can help calm eczema and psoriasis: As eczema and psoriasis typically entail dry and red patches of skin on your body, an emollient product can help moisten the skin and repair the moisture barrier.
  • Can work to heal dry skin: As described above, emollients cover film with a protective barrier of moisture, helping to block ingredients that can dry skin out.
  • Can soothe burns: Those suffering from burns due to radiation treatments or sun exposure will appreciate the fact that emollients can help manage the dryness and itchiness that often accompany these skin conditions.

Who Should Use Emollients

Emollients are good for most skin types, the one exception being those with naturally very oily skin, notes Greenfield. In this case, emollients, particularly heavy, oil-rich products, can potentially be too heavy and lead to clogged pores and breakouts.

Safety Precautions for Emollients

It's important to note that there are risks with emollients—namely, that the residue from wearing them isn't cleaned often enough. Residue from certain lotions and creams can act as an accelerant. While emollients aren't necessarily flammable themselves, those who apply them should take care to wash their clothing frequently, as residue that accumulates over time can increase the speed of ignition of a fire.

Side Effects of Emollients

According to Nussbaum, most emollients can be used liberally and safely with no side effects. The major caveat? Be cautious when using the thicker emollient products (we're looking at you, ointments) on your face, particularly if your skin is easily congested or prone to acne. These can occlude sweat glands, causing sweat to build up and create blackheads, whiteheads, and pimples, says Greenfield. One other potential problem: Since lotion and cream emollients contain water, they're more susceptible to microbial contamination, so preservatives are added. While not common, some people with very sensitive skin may be allergic to these preservatives, Nussbaum points out.

How to Use Emollients

Aside from avoiding using particularly thick emollients all over your face, you really can't go wrong. (Though FYI, it's worth noting that it's best to avoid using them after procedures such as Fraxel or microneedling—these treatments leave open channels in the skin, so the emollients can potentially clog pores and cause breakouts, cautions Nussbaum). 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.

  • Can emollients clog pores?

    Emollients are good for most skin types, the one exception being those with naturally very oily skin, notes Greenfield. In this case, emollients, particularly heavy, oil-rich products, can potentially be too heavy and lead to clogged pores and breakouts.

  • What is the difference between emollient and moisturizer?

    An emollient is an ingredient in moisturizer that helps to smooth and soften skin.

  • How long do emollients take to work?

    Emollients soak into the skin within a matter of minutes.

Article Sources
Byrdie takes every opportunity to use high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial guidelines to learn more about how we keep our content accurate, reliable and trustworthy.
  1. Purnamawati S, Indrastuti N, Danarti R, Saefudin T. The role of moisturizers in addressing various kinds of dermatitis: a reviewClin Med Res. 2017;15(3-4):75‐87. doi:10.3121/cmr.2017.1363

  2. Bhanot A, Huntley A, Ridd MJ. Adverse events from emollient use in eczema: a restricted review of published dataDermatol Ther (Heidelb). 2019;9:193–208. doi:10.1007/s13555-019-0284-3

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