What Is an Emollient and How Does it Benefit Skin Health?

Do you have very dry skin? An emollient can help. Learn all about it and its benefits here.
What Is an Emollient and How Does it Benefit Skin Health?
Leonardo Biolatto

Reviewed and approved by the doctor Leonardo Biolatto.

Last update: 10 June, 2023

The term ’emollient’ is generally used to refer to a variety of substances that have the property of creating a barrier to protect the skin from various elements that can be irritating.

In this way, they’re useful for maintaining hydration, as well as elasticity and softness. They even help soothe irritations due to their anti-inflammatory effects. Below, we’ll tell you what they are, which ones are the best known, and how they work to benefit skin health.

What is an emollient and what is it used for?

According to its etymology, the word emollient comes from ‘ēmolliēns’, which in Latin means “that softens or smooths”. To be more precise, its function is to provide a protective barrier by creating an oily film.

Therefore, it’s a substance that contributes to skincare, as it helps to maintain moisture, reduce dryness and increase softness. In addition, it protects against elements that can be irritating.

It’s important to remember that when the outer layer of the skin – known as the epidermis – lacks sufficient moisture, it dries out and tends to crack, flake and suffer wounds that leave the door open to possible infections. However, emollients seal these spaces with fats.

Therefore, they’re ideal for people with delicate skin or suffering from any condition (e.g. eczema or psoriasis). They help to improve symptoms such as itching, redness, irritation, and inflammation.

Research reported in Drugs in Context highlights that emollients help retain water in the skin with atopic dermatitis, in addition to exerting anti-inflammatory effects.

Although moisturizers are often confused with emollients, it’s important to clarify that they are different substances. The former provides water, while the latter prevents water from coming out.

Therefore, if the skin isn’t damaged or has not been subjected to any factor that causes irritation or dryness, it’s better to use a moisturizer. In fact, there are often emollients in moisturizers.

Different types of emollients

It’s important to note that not all emollients protect the skin in the same way, as some contain more fat. In this regard, there are two basic types of formulation:

  • Hydrophilic: Their base is more aqueous, with alcohols or glycerin; therefore, absorption is faster.
  • Lipophilic: These are more oily and, therefore, slower to absorb, although their effect is more persistent.

On the other hand, a wide variety of products containing emollients are available on the market. In turn, these can come in various forms and presentations, such as:

  • Aerosols: They’re generally easier to apply in difficult areas of the body, as well as in those parts where they should not be touched, to avoid infections.
  • Lotions and creams: They’re for topical use, of course; the more liquid they are, the easier they are to apply and absorb – for example, in areas where there’s a lot of hair.
  • Ointments: These are thicker in consistency and provide a greater protective layer.
  • Soaps are used as alternative cleansers to provide protection. They allow you to avoid using products that may dry, especially on sensitive skin that’s already affected.

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Natural emollients

In the various cosmetic or pharmaceutical products mentioned above, the ingredients are usually glycerin, kerosene, or petroleum jelly, as well as oils of vegetable or animal origin. Therefore, there’re also different natural products that have emollient properties. Let’s see which are the most commonly used.

Aloe vera

The properties of aloe vera are widely recognized. Because it contains fatty acids and is moisturizing, it’s included in many skin care products. It can also be used directly for the treatment of irritations, thanks to its anti-inflammatory enzymes.

A study reported in the Indian Journal of Dermatology highlights that the gel of this plant is moisturizing and helps to prevent signs of aging. In itself, it stimulates fibroblasts that produce collagen and elastin, which allows a more elastic and youthful skin.

Shea butter

Shea butter comes from a tree of African origin with great application in the cosmetic industry is extracted. It’s an ingredient widely used in body creams as well as hair masks, as it contains oleic acid with emollient properties.

Research in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences highlights that this butter is a source of oleic, stearic, linoleic, and palmitic fatty acids. Because of this, it has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties that benefit skin health.

Coconut oil

Another vegetable product that is highly valued in cosmetics. Its fatty acids (capric, caprylic, and lauric acid) have antioxidant and antimicrobial properties and help reinforce the skin’s protective barrier to prevent moisture loss.


Rosehip oil is rich in fats, vitamins, and antioxidants, so it’s very beneficial for the skin. It protects the skin from the effect of free radicals and contributes to the cell regeneration process.

Cocoa butter

Cocoa butter is well known for its use as an emollient, especially to prevent dry lips during winter days. It also contains polyphenols, which help reduce visible signs of aging and maintain skin elasticity.


Beeswax is known for its high vitamin A content. It’s also attributed to moisturizing and antibacterial effects. Due to its properties, it has different purposes for the skin; for example:

  • Dermatitis
  • Acne
  • Stretch marks
  • Scars
  • Wrinkles and expression lines


Jojoba oil contains fats that help form a protective layer on the skin to preserve its moisture. In addition to moisturizing, it is used in the treatment of dandruff and to aid in wound healing.


This is a natural organic compound. It’s obtained from shark liver oil, as well as from plant sources such as rice bran, wheat germ, and olives. It has a high fatty acid content.

A study shared in the journal Molecules details that this substance has moisturizing, emollient, antioxidant, and antitumor qualities. Hence, it’s highly valued in dermatology.

Butterfly skin.
Emollients are for topical use, so they’re meant to be applied directly to the skin.

How to use an emollient to take care of your skin

As mentioned, emollients are for topical use, so they’re applied directly to the skin. Generally, they don’t require any additional product. However, there are some recommendations to keep in mind, such as the following:

  • If you have any skin condition, it’s best to have your dermatologist’s approval before starting to use the emollient.
  • Carefully read the label or the product’s package insert to know the composition and avoid any mistakes when using it.
  • The frequency of application varies, although the key is to do it at least once a day; it all depends on the skin condition. In this regard, your doctor’s indications should also be taken into account.
  • For the hands, it’s recommended to apply after having washed them well.
  • They often work best when the skin is slightly moist.
  • For chafing, such as diaper rash, clean the area first, then apply, and wait for it to dry a little before putting on a garment.
  • Apply gently, following the direction of the hair.
  • Do not rub excessively.
  • Avoid contact with mucous membranes (eyes, mouth, nose, or intimate area).
  • It can be applied to prevent irritation in tasks such as masonry.

The properties and benefits of emollients

Emollient creams help in the management of some symptoms such as dryness, flaking, or itching. They also moisturize and nourish the skin to maintain its elasticity and softness.

Therefore, they are used in the treatment of conditions such as eczema, psoriasis, xerosis, ichthyosis, and burns, among others. Regarding their benefits, research indicates the following:

  • They have beneficial effects on patients with atopic dermatitis.
  • They improve the skin barrier function.
  • Reverse dryness in aging skin.
  • Improve clinical signs (wrinkles, hyperpigmentation) and overall severity of photodamage.
  • They help improve skin hydration and pH, so it is considered can be for senile xerosis.
  • According to a 2018 study, they may help prevent atopic dermatitis in children at risk of developing this condition.
  • In other research, it was found that they can reduce epidermal thickening, have anti-inflammatory activity and also soothe irritation.

It should be clarified that an emollient alone doesn’t guarantee a cure for conditions such as atopic dermatitis, psoriasis, or xeroderma. It only helps in their treatment and in the management of symptoms.

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Possible risks and side effects

In most cases, emollients are safe to use, since their ingredients are inert and unreactive. However, there is the possibility of some side effects.

This can occur when applied to sensitive skin, from interaction with medications, from other ingredients in products to which the person is allergic (such as preservatives and fragrances), or from exposure to the sun.

Unwanted reactions include irritation, redness, stinging, warmth, rashes, and folliculitis. Unusual changes such as paleness or moist skin may also be observed.

If any of these symptoms occur, discontinue your use of the product immediately and seek medical advice. On the other hand, in order to prevent unwanted reactions, the following recommendations can be taken into account:

  • Always consult product labels for warnings of possible interactions and precautions to be taken in case of a reaction.
  • Provide your physician with information about the medicines used, even if they’re natural extracts.
  • Report any history of other skin problems or if there are wounds, infections, or sores.
  • If you are prone to acne, opt for products that are non-comedogenic.
  • Use sunscreen and clothing that covers the area of the skin where the product is applied, if you have to expose your skin during hours of high radiation.
  • Finally, in case you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, don’t use any product without a doctor’s authorization.

The best emollient for your skin

Keeping your skin hydrated is a key aspect of a basic beauty routine for skin care. Although moisturizers are always important, in some cases, an emollient may be more necessary.

Now, because there are a variety of products for such purposes with different ingredients, you may want to know how to choose the right one for each skin type and need. But how can you do this?

The best thing to do is to go to a specialist – in this case, a dermatologist – who will guide you in your choice, depending on the degree of dryness, condition, allergies, and other cosmetics you use. Of course, products that help heal the skin without causing additional reactions or problems are always best.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

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This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.