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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 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, New York City dermatologist Marnie Nussbaum, MD, and dermatologist Nava Greenfield of Schweiger Dermatology Group in Brooklyn, NY help break it down and explain what you need to know about making emollients a part of your skincare routine.
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.
WHO SHOULD USE IT 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.
HOW OFTEN CAN YOU USE IT Barring the exception noted above about oily skin and thicker emollients, they can generally be used regularly and liberally.
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 retinols 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.
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."
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 Nussabum.) 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.
The Best Emollient-Rich Products
Skincare starts in the shower, says Nussbaum, who recommends this creamy cleanser, which, "won't strip the skin or disrupt your pH balance, like many alkaline bar soaps do." This formula contains hydrating ingredients such as pro glycerin to pull moisture into the skin, as well as emollients such as shea butter and petrolatum that help to maintain the skin’s natural moisture barrier, she says.
"This is an amazing multi-tasker that can be used from head to toe," says Nussbaum. "It contains organic and unrefined coconut oil, a natural emollient, and is loaded with fatty acids to seal in moisture." Use it as a lip balm, shaving cream, body butter—the options are truly endless. FYI, it solidifies when cool, but will melt quickly when rubbed between hands.
Greenfield loves this option, particularly for the acne-prone and sensitive sets, given that it deeply hydrates without being comedogenic (AKA clogging pores). The formula is clean and fragrance-free, and Greenfield is also a fan of the ultra wallet-friendly price point.
One of our top 10 lotions for eczema, this is another derm-favorite (and a best-seller from the staple drugstore brand). Credit a heavy-hitting blend of humectants and emollients, plus skin-repairing ceramides that simultaneously lock in moisture and help keep irritation at bay. Additionally, it's oil-free and non-comedogenic, so there's no need to feel stressed about clogged pores if you do want to apply it on your face.
The star of the show here is squalane, an emollient that mimics the oil your skin naturally produces. It's paired with omega fatty acids—also emollient superstars—to keep your complexion supple and silky. But it doesn't stop there. The creamy formula touts hyaluronic acid, too, which acts like a magnet to draw in even more moisture to your skin. In a 28-day clinical study, 100 percent of women experienced an improvement in their skin moisture barrier.
Not all emollients have to be super thick and heavy. Nussbaum likes this lightweight gel formula, which absorbs instantly but still delivers lasting hydration for up to 72 hours. Emollients in the formula keep the lipids between skin cells in a healthy state and help restore the barrier, she points out. Also nice: It has a pollution shield technology that helps block out damaging environmental toxins, too.
"I love this lotion because it's easy to apply and not too thick, but still provides optimal hydration," says Greenfield of this pick. (Credit a blend of emollients such as grapeseed and jojoba oils.) And because it's specially-formulated for pregnant and nursing women, you can feel confident knowing the ingredients are safe to use, she points out. While it doesn't contain any added, artificial fragrances, lemon oil gives it a light and refreshing scent.