Author: Vanessa Ngan, Staff Writer, 2005.

What is urea?

Urea is naturally present in healthy skin. It is one of three natural moisturising factors (NMF) in the outer horny layer of our skin. The other two NMF are lactic acid and amino acids. There are markedly reduced amounts of urea in dry skin conditions.

Topical preparations of synthetically manufactured urea, either alone or in combination with other medicines, can be particularly useful in treating scaly and itchy dry skin conditions including:

How does urea work?

Urea preparations are emollients that are essential in the management of dry skin conditions. Emollients moisturise dry skin by reducing water loss from the epidermis (upper layer of skin) resulting in softer and more supple skin.

The specific actions of urea include:

Urea preparations

Urea preparations come in several forms and strengths. Available dosage forms include cream, lotion, shampoo, gel and shower/bath washes. Strengths of urea preparations range from 3-40%. The form and strength chosen depends on the condition that is being treated and the severity of the condition.

The most commonly used urea preparation in New Zealand is a 10% cream. The cream helps urea to retain water for longer in the stratum corneum and prevents water loss by slowing down evaporation. Urea 40% aqueous solution can be made up by a pharmacist and has been used for the treatment of black hairy tongues, acne conglobata, and to dissolve and remove diseased nails.

Most urea preparations are available from your pharmacy. Higher strength preparations and preparations that contain other active ingredients, e.g. corticosteroids (hydrocortisone), may only be available on a doctor's prescription.

How to use urea preparations

Side effects

Urea preparations are usually well tolerated. Side effects that may occur include mild stinging, itching and skin rash. These usually do not require medical attention unless they continue and become bothersome.

Related information

Email Newsletter

Would you like to receive our dermatology updates by email?


Submit your images

We're seeking high-quality photos of skin diseases.  


Machine diagnosis

Watch DermNet's proposal to create a 'Skin Disease Image Recognition Tool' - winner of the 2017 'Clinicians' Challenge Active Award' by the NZ Ministry of Health and HiNZ.

Subscribe to our mailing list

* indicates required
DermNet NZ Newsletter