What Are Emollients?

what are emollients

Emollients are commonly used ingredients in cosmetic products to help make your skin soft and smooth. They are usually lipids (fats), oils, silicones, or chemical additives such as propylene glycol. They may also be categorized as occlusive agents, humectants, or barrier repair ingredients. All the word “emollient” really tells you is that its function is to smooth and soften skin. It doesn’t give you any clue about how the ingredient achieves this. For this reason, I don’t really like using the word “emollient.” I prefer the more functional descriptive words such as occlusive, humectant, or barrier repair ingredient.

If your skin is often dry or flaky, using a moisturizer that contains the right combination of moisturizing ingredients will help to alleviate your symptoms. Here, you’ll find an overview of what emollients are, how they work, and some examples of the best moisturizing ingredients.

How Do Emollients Work?

The epidermis of your skin is made up of four to five layers. In the bottom layer, called the basale layer, new cells called keratinocytes are produced. During the process of keratinization, those new keratinocytes travel upward toward the surface of your skin, pushing the old cells up with them. When they get to the outermost layer, called the stratum corneum, the old dead skin cells flake away, leaving room for the new cells. This is called desquamation.

During desquamation, your skin might appear flaky and rough as the dead skin cells “scale” away from the surface. Emollients fill in the empty space between these desquamating cells, as well as help to flatten curled edges of cells. This creates a smoother, softer surface that allows for more light refraction, therefore making your skin also appear brighter. I like to think of emollients as the spackling between the skin cells that makes them appear smooth.  Emollients only give the skin a temporary smoothing effect that goes away once the emollient is cleansed away.

What Are Some Examples of Emollients?

Emollients can also act as occlusives and/or humectants. Occlusives form a protective seal over your skin to prevent transepidermal water loss (TEWL), and humectants absorb moisture from their air or deeper layers of skin to create a plumping and smoothing effect on the surface.

Examples of occlusive agents that also act as emollients are:

  • Lanolin
  • Beeswax
  • Mineral oil
  • Petrolatum
  • Shea butter
  • Safflower oil

Many fatty acids also exhibit emollient properties, including:

  • Stearic acid
  • Linoleic acid
  • Oleic acid
  • Lauric acid

What Are the Best Emollients for Dry Skin?

To improve dry skin, a combination of types of emollients including humectants, occlusives, and barrier repair ingredients is the best approach. These should be chosen according to your Baumann Skin Type®. Very dry, damaged skin is caused by an impaired skin barrier and needs specialized care, so work with a Skin Type Solutions doctor to find the right barrier repair cream for your skin.

Barrier Repair Creams Are Emollients

The most effective emollients that treat the underlying cause of dry skin are barrier repair creams.  These should contain a 1:1:1 ratio of ceramides, fatty acids, and cholesterol that mimic the natural structure of lipids present in healthy skin. These lipids are what make up your skin’s protective barrier that works to seal moisture in and keep irritants out. Zerafite™ is a good example of an effective barrier repair cream for people with dry and sensitive skin. The brand’s Barrier Repair Moisturizer uses MLE technology to deliver the proper ratio of lipids to your skin. It also contains a blend of humectants and occlusives/emollients, including stearic acid, squalane, and grapeseed oil.

In Summary

Understanding ingredient science can help you to take optimal care of your skin. Humectants, occlusives, and barrier repair ingredients are types of emollients that play distinct roles in moisturizing formulations. It is important that you work with a knowledgeable physician to help you diagnose your Baumann Skin Tyep and create a customized skin care regimen that includes the correct moisturizers and treatment products for your skin’s needs. Many patients do not realize that using the wrong moisturizer can make your dry skin or eczema worse.

If you have specific questions about your Baumann Skin Type® or the moisturizer you’re currently using, you can contact our Miami office online, or find an STS physician partner near you.

For more skin care science, news, and recommendations from Dr. Leslie Baumann, follow Baumann Cosmetic on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube.

Wishing you great skin!


©2018 MetaBeauty, Inc.

November 26, 2018 Eczema/Dry Skin