Moisturizers hydrate the skin, and that's how you get rid of dryness, right? 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 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. In this article, we break it down and explain what you need to know about making emollients a part of your skin care routine for dry skin.
Do’s & Don’ts for Emollients
The main benefits of these skin care gods are that they smooth and soften the skin by helping to repair cracks in the skin barrier thus preventing water loss; it also acts as a lubricating agent in products. 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.
Barring the exception noted above about oily skin and thicker emollients, they can generally be used regularly and liberally. Emollients work well with a range of other skincare ingredients. 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. They can also be combined with other actives, such as anti-inflammatory botanical extracts.
Avoid pairing emollients with ingredients that can have potentially irritating side-effects that you don't want sealed into the skin, like 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. 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 (which you want to avoid). 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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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. 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. 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
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.
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.
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 micro needling—these treatments leave open channels in the skin, so the emollients can potentially clog pores and cause breakouts.)
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. This is a great tip for anyone with eczema or psoriasis to help nourish your dry, cracked skin and get one step closer to managing your skin condition better!
Natural Emollients from Wild Naturals
Shea butter and coconut oil are prevalent in our natural products. We understood from inception that we needed to have the best moisturizing and beneficial ingredients in our skin care, and we didn’t fail there! Shop the full line of hair, body, and face products from Wild Naturals today and enjoy that dewy skin glowing back at you in the mirror!