Often, the word emollient is used interchangeably with moisturiser, and we tend to think of them as creams or ointments that smooth, soften and rehydrate skin. But emollients are actually a sub-class of moisturisers—or, more precisely, a type of ingredient that gives the moisturiser those benefits.
Some common emollients you might have heard of include:
How emollients work
The outermost layer of skin, called the stratum corneum, needs to have about 20-30% water content to function at its best. If the water content drops too low, the skin cells start to dry out and shrivel up, causing small cracks to open up in the skin. Not only does this make the skin appear dry, dull, and flaky, but it weakens the skin barrier, making it less adept at protecting you from irritants, allergens and pathogens.
Emollients can help by filling the spaces between cracks, smoothing the rough and flaky skin. They also help support the skin barrier. Because emollients tend to be light oils, water can’t easily cross through, so when they’re spread in a layer over the skin, they help keep water on the inside from escaping, preventing it from drying out further.
As well as helping with the look and feel of dry skin, emollients can help reduce itch, which often goes hand in hand with dryness.