Easy-to-read medicine information about emollients and moisturisers – what are they, and how to use them.

What are emollients and moisturisers?

Emollients and moisturisers hydrate the skin (retain moisture in the skin) by drawing water from the deeper skin layer to the surface, to keep the skin moist, or by creating a layer on the skin's surface that prevents water from escaping.

  • Emollients and moisturisers are available as creams, ointments or lotions and are designed to treat dry skin, eczema or dermatitis.
  • While the names are often used to mean the same thing, emollients are designed to soften skin, while moisturisers add moisture.
  • For dry skin conditions, apply an emollient or moisturiser two or more times per day.
  • For moderate or severe dermatitis or eczema, other treatments such as topical steroids may also be needed.
  • If an emollient and a topical corticosteroid are prescribed at the same time, one product, i.e. emollient or corticosteroid, should be applied at least 30 minutes before the other; the order of application is not important.  

Types of emollients

Emollients can either be left on the skin once applied (called leave-on emollients) or must be washed off the skin after a few minutes of application (wash-off emollients or also called soap substitutes).

Leave-on emollients

There are a variety of leave-on emollients, which range from less greasy to very greasy. The choice of emollient is based on how dry your skin is and your preference. Emollient products may also need to be changed depending on the season for example, if you experience drier skin during winter, you may benefit from temporarily using a more greasy emollient.

Light, non-greasy lotion

  • These are referred to as mineral oil lotions and examples include BK Lotion®, Alpha-Keri Lotion®, DP Lotion®, Hydroderm Lotion®.
  • These products contain lanolin and may cause irritation in some people. This is more common in people who have atopic eczema.

Slightly greasy cream

  • Examples include Cetomacrogol®, or also known as Non-Ionic (healthE)® cream.

Moderately greasy cream

  • Examples of these include Sorbolene with Glycerin®, healthE Urea Cream®, or healthE Fatty Cream®.
  • Do not apply urea-containing cream to cracked, broken or oozing skin,

Very greasy ointment

  • Examples of these are petroleum jelly (Vaseline®) or Duoleum®.
  • These are preferred for very dry or thickened skin.

How to use leave-on emollients

  • Apply at least two times per day, or more if possible. Three or four times is beneficial especially when your skin is very dry and cracking. 
  • Use it all over the body, including the face.
  • Using emollients soon after a bath or shower can make them more effective. Apply immediately after towel drying the skin. Do not rub the skin vigorously with a towel. Rather gently pat the skin dry and apply the emollient.  
  • Emollients are best applied by dotting the product on the skin then spreading it using a downward stroking motion.  It is not necessary to spread the product until it is all absorbed.
  • Use a spatula or spoon to get cream out of a pot container (reduces risk of contaminating rest of cream).
  • Apply cream or ointment in a downward direction or in the direction of hair growth to avoid blocking hair follicles.
  • The quantity of leave-on emollient required will vary depending on the size of the person, the extent and severity of the skin condition, and whether the emollient is also being used as a soap substitute.
  • As a general guide, if you needed to treat the whole body, the recommended quantities used are 600 grams per week for an adult, and 250 grams to 500 grams per week for a child

Wash-off emollients or soap substitutes

  • Regular soap can be irritating to dry or inflamed skin so soap substitutes are a good alternative.
  • Two common soap substitutes  are aqueous cream and emulsifying ointment
  • They contain sodium lauryl sulfate which can irritate the skin if left on for prolonged periods. It is fine if in contact with the skin for a short time, and must be washed off. 
  • Soap substitutes should be rubbed onto the skin before rinsing off completely or added to bath water and soaking in the bath for 10–20 minutes, then rinse off.  
  • Take care when using soap substitutes — these can make the floor or surface slippery and increase the risk of falls.  

Which emollient is best?

  • There is no 'best emollient'. The type or types to use will depend on the dryness of the skin, the area of skin involved and what is comfortable, and acceptable to you.
  • More that one emollient may be required for use at different times of the day and emollient products may also need to be changed depending on the season for example, if you experience drier skin during winter, you may benefit from temporarily using a more greasy emollient.
  • Try different products till you find one you like and will use throughout the day.

Learn more

Emollients and moisturisers  Dermnet NZ
Emollients for eczema Patient Info, UK
Emollient and barrier preparations NZ Formulary

Credits: Written by Health Navigator Oct 2014.