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How to use emollients

NHS Choices Medical Reference

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Emollients are available in tubes, tubs and larger pump dispensers. They can either be bought over the counter from your pharmacy or prescribed by your GP. If you or your child need to use an emollient regularly, it is a good idea to keep some at home or at school in small pots or tubes.

Your pharmacist may also be able to provide you with small, labelled containers. Wash, dry and rinse the container thoroughly before filling and refilling it. Keep the container labelled, or if the label gets too greasy and keeps coming off, keep it in a labelled plastic bag.

Using emollients

Apply as much emollient as you need to keep your skin feeling well moisturised. It should be applied as generously and as often as possible.

Emollients can be used to replace lost moisture whenever your skin feels dry or tight. Emollients are very safe and you cannot overuse them because they do not get absorbed through your skin into your body.

A good routine to prevent and treat dryness is described below.

  • Use a soap substitute for cleansing all areas of your body.
  • Use moisturising bath oil in your bathwater or as you shower.
  • Pat yourself dry with a towel, rather than rubbing, after taking a bath or shower.
  • Apply an emollient cream or ointment as often as necessary after bathing or showering and between washing.

If you have a dry skin condition, such as eczema or psoriasis, you may need to use emollients more often. In such circumstances, use a medicated emollient even when your skin feels better, to help prevent patches of inflammation (selling) and flare-ups. Dry skin is more prone to infection.

See the Health A-Z topics about Eczema and Psoriasis for more information and advice about these skin conditions.

Whether you are prone to dry skin or not, it is important to use an emollient cream or ointment after washing or bathing. This is when your skin is most in need of moisture. The emollient should be applied as soon as you have patted your skin dry to ensure it is properly absorbed.

Try small quantities of several different emollients until you find one that you like. You may need to try a variety of different emollients before you find one that is best suited to you or your child. For example, you may decide to use a cream-based emollient for the daytime and an ointment base for night time.

Reactions to emollients

Possible reactions to emollients can include:

  • Irritant reactions. These include an overheating, 'burning' sensation or stinging. It is usually caused by a reaction to a certain ingredient contained in the cream or lotion. If the stinging is painful and continues, try a different emollient.
  • Folliculitis. Some emollients that work by sealing wounds or cracks in the skin with a protective barrier (occlusive) can occasionally cause hair follicles to become blocked and inflamed (folliculitis) and cause boils (painful, red bumps on the skin)
  • Facial rashes. Some facial emollients can cause rashes on the face and can aggravate acne (a skin condition that occurs on the face and commonly affects people during their teenage years).
Medical Review: June 20, 2010

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