How Do Emollients Work?


Emollients are medical moisturizers used to treat or prevent dry, rough, scaly, and itchy skin and skin irritations. The outer layer of skin does not contain enough water that causes the skin to dry, crack, and flake, leaving an open space between the cells of the skin. Emollients contain a lot of oil, work as occlusive agents, and fill the empty spaces in the skin with fatty substances called “lipids”.

Emollients work by coating the skin with an oily film that locks water inside the skin and retains moisture, thus keeping the skin hydrated for a longer duration. These are different from cosmetic moisturizers as they are unperfumed and do not have anti-aging properties.

Based on their key ingredients, emollients are of two types:

  • Humectant-enhances the way the skin holds water
  • Occlusive agents form a layer of oil on the skin surface and prevent water loss
    • Petrolatum
    • Waxes
    • Oils
    • Silicones

Emollients are a crucial part of the dry skincare routine; they are classified according to their oil content into the following:

  • Ointments-contain a lot of oil
  • Creams-contain a mixture of oil and water
  • Lotions-least oily and good for daytime use
  • Sprays-easily absorbed into the skin
  • Soap substitutes-protect and nourish the skin


People often get dry skin in winters and by frequently washing hands and using harsh chemicals. Emollients are effective for cleansing and soothing the skin in many cases including:

  • Eczema (a condition wherein patches of skin become inflamed, itchy, cracked, and rough)
  • Psoriasis (skin condition causes a thick, patchy, red rash with silvery, white scales)
  • Diaper rash
  • Rash due to radiation therapy (radiation burn)
  • Dermatitis (itchy, dry skin, or a rash on swollen, reddened skin)
  • Sunburn
  • To relieve dryness and scaling of the skin
  • Fine lines and wrinkles
  • Rash due to washing dishes
  • Ichthyosis (an inherited skin disorder in which dead skin cells accumulate in thick, dry scales)

Emollients should be used two to four times a day; follow all the directions on the label for proper use:

  • Apply the product after bathing/shower while the skin is still moist
  • Pat dry the wet area
  • Apply it gently and cover the entire affected area
  • Avoid rubbing which can trigger irritation
  • Use it every time the affected skin becomes wet
  • Long, hot, and frequent washing can worsen the dryness


Avoid using in sensitive areas such as the eyes, inside mouth/nose, and the vaginal area.

Common side effects include:

  • Redness
  • Dryness
  • Folliculitis (inflamed hair follicles)
  • Aggravation of acne/boils
  • Itching
  • Burning/stinging sensation

Other rare side effects include:

  • Skin changes (turning white/soggy)
  • Serious allergic reaction
    • Rash
    • Swelling of face/tongue/throat
  • Severe dizziness (feeling faint, woozy, weak, or unsteady)
  • Trouble breathing
  • Perioral dermatitis (inflammation of the skin around the mouth in the form of a scaly or bumpy rash)

Information contained herein is not intended to cover all possible side effects, precautions, warnings, drug interactions, allergic reactions, or adverse effects. Check with your doctor or pharmacist to make sure these drugs do not cause any harm when you take them along with other medicines. Never stop taking your medication and never change your dose or frequency without consulting your doctor.


Drug names include:             

  • Alpha hydroxyl acids (Droxy cream)
  • Ammonium lactate (amlactin, proxymetacaine, lac hydrin)
  • Urea (carmol 10, keralac, aquacare, utopic, vanamide)
  • Dimethicone (herpecin L, aveeno, monistat soothing care)
  • Vitamins A and D (A and D ointment, clocream)
  • Vitamin E (E-oil, palomar E, vite E crème, vitec)
  • Petrolatum & mineral oil (eletone cream, tropazone)
  • Lactic acid (lactinol HX)
  • Lanolin (lanaphilic, lan-O-soothe)

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