What Are Emollients And Their Benefits?

Coconut oil in jar

What are emollients used for?

Emollients are lipids that function to soften or soothe the skin.

The outermost layer of the skin, or stratum corneum, looks like loosely arranged flattened bricks with cracks between them. Notice when your skin is dry it looks chalky, flakes easily and feels rough? Emollients work by filling out the gaps between the ‘bricks’ so that the skin is more flexible and smoother.

Cosmetic ingredients like plant-based butter and oils are referred to as emollients. These ingredients support our own skin’s natural lipid production. Using emollients help to improve the skin’s barrier function to give the skin a healthier look and feel.

 

What is the difference between an emollient, a moisturizer and a humectant?

The term ‘emollient’ and ‘moisturizer’ are often used interchangeably. But emollients actually refer to specific ingredients in the moisturizer. Oils like coconut oil or jojoba oil count as emollients. Emollients also have an occlusive effect, meaning they create a barrier to trap water in the skin and keep moisture in for longer.

Humectants are ingredients that attract water from the dermis, or lower layer of the skin, to the upper layer of the skin surface. This helps keep the skin nice and plump.

 Moisturizers are a cocktail of ingredients like water, humectant, emollient and preservatives. They can also be formulated to target other concerns like wrinkles or acne.

 But all three are uniquely used to help break the dry skin cycle and keep the skin smooth.

 

What are the benefits of using an emollient?

Emollient on skin structure

Using an emollient creates a protective layer. This allows moisture to remain in the skin and prevent irritants from entering and disrupting the skin’s barrier.

 Anyone can benefit from using an emollient because it provides relief from skin dryness or itchiness.

Causes of dry skin are external and individual. External factors include a change in temperature or humidity and excessive cleansing. Individual reasons include aging and eczema. In fact, individuals with eczema are frequently advised to use emollients to relieve their symptoms.

 

How do you use emollients?

The best time to apply emollients is immediately after a bath or shower while the skin is still damp. If your skin is sensitive, it’s best to avoid products containing fragrance because that may dry out your skin even more. 

You can use a light, non-comedogenic oil directly on your skin on its own or combine it with a moisturizer if your skin feels very dry. It might take some getting used to using moisturizers regularly, but frequent use will keep skin scale-free and calm any itch attacks. Once you find a product that’s suitable for you, use it generously and reapply if your skin becomes parched again.

 

What are the types of emollient? 

Plant-based butter and oils are emollients that are great sources of triglycerides and essential fatty acids for the skin. These include shea butter, cocoa butter, almond oil, and olive oil.

Occlusive emollients are waxy and heavier. For example, petrolatum, the star ingredient in Vaseline, and paraffin wax are synthetic emollients. Beeswax, lanolin, candelilla and carnauba wax are more commonly used if you prefer natural alternatives.

Other types of emollients are ceramides and squalane, both of which occur naturally in the body.

 

References:

Emollient treatment of atopic dermatitis: latest evidence and clinical considerations

Advised best practice for the use of emollients in eczema and other dry skin conditions.

Role of topical emollients and moisturizers in the treatment of dry skin barrier disorders. 

Moisturizers: The Slippery Road