Emollients are skin creams that reduce water loss from the outer layer of the skin (epidermis) by covering it with a protective film. Emollients are also known as moisturisers.
How do emollients work?
Your skin is made up of layers that have several functions, including storing water. Emollients work by keeping the water in the skin where it is needed, and by allowing damaged skin cells on the surface of your skin to repair themselves.
Emollients come in many forms, including soap substitutes, bath oils and moisturising creams or ointments. You can use them to soothe, smooth and hydrate your skin. Some specially medicated formulas can be used to treat dry skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis.
You can apply an emollient as often as you like to keep your skin in good condition and well moisturised. You may want to regularly apply an emollient to your hands because they are exposed to the elements more than any other part of your body.
Try to use emollients after hand washing, bathing, showering, and between baths or showers as often as necessary.
Different types of emollient
Soap - including moisturising soaps, ordinary bubble baths or shower gels - can strip your skin of its surface layer of natural oils. This can make your skin dry, and can further aggravate dry skin conditions such as eczema.
Soap substitutes, such as aqueous cream or emulsifying ointment, can be used instead of soap for hand washing and bathing. Aqueous cream also can be used as a substitute for shaving foam.
Mix a small amount in the palm of the hand (about a half to one teaspoonful), with a little warm water, and spread it over damp or dry skin. Rinse and pat dry, but don't rub.
Some people may have a reaction to aqueous cream when it's used as an emollient cream. For this reason, it's recommended only as a soap substitute and not as a leave-on emollient. However, if your skin stings after using aqueous cream and doesn't settle down after rinsing, talk to your pharmacist or GP about an alternative soap substitute.
Emollient bath additives
These emollients can be added to a lukewarm bath to help prevent the loss of moisture from your skin. Bath additives can make surfaces slippery, so always use a non-slip mat, and be careful when moving your child out of the bath.
Some bath oils include an antiseptic, and these can be used to help prevent infection in children who are prone to infected eczema. These products should only be used occasionally.
Never use more than the recommended amount of bath additive because if the concentration is too high, it may result in skin irritation, particularly when used with antiseptic bath oils.
Emollient creams and ointments
Emollient creams and lotions are less greasy than emollient ointments. Find one that's best suited to your, or your child's, condition and lifestyle.
Occasionally, emollient creams may sting when they're first applied to very dry skin. This normally settles after a few days of treatment but, if it persists, it may be a reaction to a preservative in the cream. If this happens, talk to your pharmacist or GP as soon as possible about alternative emollients.
Emollient is a lubricant (cream or lotion) that makes the skin feel softer and more pliable.
Antiseptic is a substance that reduces the growth and development of germs.
Last updated: 04 October 2011
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