What Are Emollients? Best Emollients for Dry Skin

Posted by Dr. Natasha Ryz on

What is an Emollient? Benefits for Dry Skin

Emollients soften your skin.

The word emollient can refer to a skincare ingredient, such as sunflower oil, or a skincare product, such as a moisturizer, that softens the skin.

There are many natural emollients for dry skin.

This article will cover:

    • What are emollients?
    • What are moisturizers?
    • What is the difference between emollients vs. moisturizers?
    • What are occlusives?
    • What are the benefits of emollients for dry skin?
    • What are the different types of emollients for dry skin?
    • Summary
    • References

What are emollients?

The word emollient derives from the present participle of the Latin verb emollire, which means "to soften or soothe." Emollire, in turn, derives ultimately from mollis, meaning "soft." 

Emollients are a broad category of skincare ingredients and products.

Skincare ingredients that function as emollients include plant butters, vegetable and fruit oils, animal fats, and esters.

Products that function as emollients include moisturizers, creams, oils, serums, and balms.

An emollient is an ingredient in a moisturizer. The job of the emollient is to soften skin.

What are moisturizers?

A moisturizer is a skincare product, such as a cream or a lotion, that is used to prevent dryness in the skin.

Moisturizers contain water and add moisture to the skin.

Moisturizers also contain emollients, humectants and occlusives.

  • Emollients soften, smooth, and condition the skin.
  • Humectants attract and hold moisture to the skin.
  • Occlusives form a protective film that prevents moisture loss from the skin.

The balance of these ingredients determines whether a moisturizer is better for dry skin or oily skin. For instance, a moisturizer for dry skin would contain a high percentage of emollients and occlusives.

What is the difference between emollients vs. moisturizers?

Moisturizers are skincare products that contain emollients as ingredients.

The term "emollient" may also be used to refer to skincare products that contain emollient ingredients. For instance, skincare products such as moisturizers, creams and balms may be referred to as emollients. 

What are occlusives?

Occlusives are skincare ingredients or products that form a protective film that prevents moisture loss from the skin.

They are usually oily or waxy. 

Occlusives include:

  • Mineral oil
  • Petrolatum
  • Lanolin - from sheep's wool
  • Beeswax
  • Cocoa Butter
  • Jojoba oil

Mineral oil and petrolatum are two of the most effective occlusive ingredients.

Some ingredients that are emollients also have occlusive properties.

For instance, cocoa butter is an emollient because it softens skin, and cocoa butter is also an occlusive because it forms protective barrier on your skin.

What are the benefits of emollients for dry skin?

The function of emollients in skincare is to soften the skin, help the skin retain its moisture and to support the skin’s barrier function.

Skin that does not have sufficient lipid content on its surface can appear dull, dry and rough. Emollients "fill in the gaps" in the skin barrier and soften it along with giving it a healthier look

The role of emollients in the treatment of dry skin conditions is often underestimated. Emollients promote optimal skin health and prevent skin breakdown, and their use can improve quality of life.

Emollients are skin conditioning – the give skin a soft and smooth appearance, restoring suppleness and improving elasticity.

Emollients:

  • Make your skin feel soft and smooth.
  • Help reduce flaking and roughness from dry skin.
  • Help assist the skin barrier by filling in gaps between cells.

What are the different types of emollients for dry skin?

Emollients are a broad category of skincare ingredients and products.

Skincare ingredients that function as emollients include plant butters, vegetable carrier oils, animal fats, and esters.

There are many natural emollients for dry skin.

  1. Butter
  2. Vegetable carrier oils
  3. Animal fats
  4. Petrolatum and mineral oils
  5. Esters

1. Butters

Butters are thick, fatty substances extracted from various plant species, usually from nuts, beans and seeds that add a creaminess to cosmetic products. They are skin conditioning, emollient and occlusive and can be used in a variety of product formulas including body butters, balms, creams and lotions. 

Plant butters include:

  • Shea Butter
  • Cocoa Butter
  • Mango Butter

2. Vegetable Carrier Oils

Vegetable carrier oils be extracted from nuts, grains, seeds, fruit and berries.

Carrier oils are rich in essential fatty acids, and other beneficial components for skin, such as phytosterols, vitamins, carotenoids and squalane.

Vegetable carrier oils can replenish the beneficial fatty acids found naturally in your skin barrier, including linoleic acid. 

Learn more: Beneficial Fats Found Naturally in Your Skin Barrier

Carrier oils can soften, smooth and lubricate the skin.

Carrier oils from nuts include:

  • almond oil
  • hazelnut oil
  • macadamia nut oil
  • walnut oil

Carrier oils from grains include:

Carrier oils from seeds include:

  • sunflower seed oil
  • camellia seed oil
  • sesame seed oil
  • grapeseed oil

Carrier oils from fruits include:

Carrier oils from berries include:

  • sea buckthorn oil
  • strawberry seed oil
  • blueberry seed oil

3. Animal Fats

Animal fats are skin conditioning, emollient and occlusive and can be used in a variety of product formulas including body butters, balms, creams and lotions. 

Animal fats used in skincare include:

  • Tallow from cows or sheep. 
  • Emu oil from the emu bird. 
  • Lanolin from sheep's wool.

4. Petrolatum and Mineral Oils

Petrolatum and mineral oils are skin conditioning, emollient and occlusive and can be used in a variety of product formulas including body butters, balms, creams and lotions. 

      5. Esters

      Esters are emollients that have a light, dry, silky feeling. They can be naturally or synthetically derived. Esters are typically used in the same way as carrier oils. They can substitute up to 100% of the amount of a carrier oil in a formulation.

      Esters include:

      • Isopropyl Myristate (also called IPM)
      • Isopropyl Palmitate (also called IPP)
      • Isononyl Isononanoate
      • Coco Caprylate
      • Isoamyl Laurate (trade name Dermofeel Sensolv)
      • Heptyl Undecylenate (trade name Lexfeel Natural)
      • Dicaprylyl Carbonate (trade name Cetiol CC)
      • Isoamyl Laurate, Isoamyl Cocoate (trade name EcoSilk or Gosulin IL)
      • Undecane (and) Tridecane (brand name Cetiol Ultimate)

      Summary

      Emollients are a broad category of skincare ingredients and products.

      Skincare ingredients that function as emollients include plant butters, vegetable and fruit oils, animal fats, mineral oils and esters.

      There are many natural emollients for dry skin.

      Vegetable carrier oils are rich in essential fatty acids, and other beneficial components for skin, such as phytosterols, vitamins, carotenoids and squalane.

      Vegetable carrier oils can replenish the beneficial fatty acids found naturally in your skin barrier, including linoleic acid. 

      All lipids, fats and oils are emollients.

      Products that function as emollients include moisturizers, creams, oils, serums, and balms.

      Emollients soften, smooth and lubricate the skin.

      References

      Brown A, Butcher M. A guide to emollient therapy. Nurs Stand. 2005 Feb 23-Mar 1;19(24):68, 70, 72 passim. 

      Dyble T, Ashton J. Use of emollients in the treatment of dry skin conditions. Br J Community Nurs. 2011 May;16(5):214, 216, 218 passim. 

      Emollient Definition & Meaning - Merriam-Webster

      Kiechl‐Kohlendorfer, U., Berger, C., & Inzinger, R. (2008). The effect of daily treatment with an olive oil/lanolin emollient on skin integrity in preterm infants: a randomized controlled trial. Pediatric Dermatology, 25(2), 174-178.

      Moncrieff G, Cork M, Lawton S, Kokiet S, Daly C, Clark C. Use of emollients in dry-skin conditions: consensus statement. Clin Exp Dermatol. 2013 Apr;38(3):231-8; quiz 238. 

      Newton H. Using emollients to promote safe and effective skin care for patients. Nurs Stand. 2021 Oct 6;36(10):77-82.

      Proksch E, Lachapelle JM. The management of dry skin with topical emollients--recent perspectives. J Dtsch Dermatol Ges. 2005 Oct;3(10):768-74. 

      Verallo-Rowell, V. M., Dillague, K. M., & Syah-Tjundawan, B. S. (2008). Novel antibacterial and emollient effects of coconut and virgin olive oils in adult atopic dermatitis. Dermatitis, 19(6), 308-315.

      Carrier Oils Coconut Oil Dry Skin Fatty Acids Hemp Seed Oil

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