Emollients and moisturisers

Author: Dr Mark Duffill, Dermatologist, Hamilton, New Zealand, 1998. Updated by A/Prof Amanda Oakley, February 2016.

What are emollients and moisturisers?

Emollients are products used to soften skin. Moisturisers are products used to add moisture to the skin. There are numerous emollients and moisturisers on sale at general stores and pharmacies. Options include:

Emollients and moisturisers are most effective when applied immediately after bathing but can also be applied at other times

Why use emollients and moisturisers?

Uses of emollients and moisturisers include:

What do emollients and moisturisers contain?

Active ingredients of emollients and moisturisers are occlusives and humectants. They often include other ingredients such as surfactants (non-soap cleansers), fragrances and preservatives.

Occlusive moisturisers

Occlusives are oils of non-human origin, often mixed with water and an emulsifier to form a lotion or cream. They provide a layer of oil on the surface of the skin to reduce water loss from the stratum corneum.

The choice of occlusive emollient depends upon the area of the body and the degree of dryness and scaling of the skin.

Sorbolene cream is general-purpose moisturiser that is non-greasy, cheap and available in bulk without prescription.

The minimum quantity for an occlusive emollient is 250 g (or ml) and often 500 g or 1 kg is needed: liberal and regular usage is to be encouraged. How frequently it is applied depends on how dry the skin is: very dry skin may benefit from a greasy emollient every couple of hours, but slightly dry skin may only need a light moisturiser at night.


Humectants increase the water holding capacity of the stratum corneum. They include:

Urea and the acidic preparations often sting if applied to scratched or fissured skin. They are also keratolytic, ie they have a descaling or peeling effect, important in management of ichthyosis.

Adverse reactions to emollients

Irritant reactions

People with sensitive skin associated with atopic dermatitis or rosacea often describe irritant reactions to emollients and moisturisers such as burning and stinging. If irritation is transient, the product can continue to be used. It should be discontinued if contact dermatitis appears.

Contact allergy

Contact allergy to moisturisers and emollients is rare. Suspected contact allergy to preservative, fragrance or vehicle can be investigated by patch testing.


Occlusive emollients can cause or aggravate acne, perioral dermatitis, folliculitis and boils.

Thermal burns

Thermal burns from paraffin-containing ointments on the skin, clothing or bedding, can be dangerous and may occur if exposed to cigarettes or a lighted fire.

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