Atopic eczema is the most common type of eczema, affecting around one in 12 adults and one in five children in the UK. In this video, Dr Dawn Harper talks about living with the condition.

Media last reviewed: 10/01/2013

Next review due: 10/01/2015

Fire hazard

If you are using paraffin-based emollients, keep away from fire or flames and do not smoke, as dressings and clothing soaked with the ointment can be easily ignited.

Emollients are moisturising treatments applied directly to the skin. Often used to treat dry skin conditions such as eczema, they reduce water loss from skin by covering it with a protective film.

The everyday use of soaps, shampoos and shower gels can remove your skin’s surface layer of natural oils. This can make your skin dry and can further aggravate long-term skin conditions such as eczema.

Soap substitutes are one type of emollient that can be used instead of soap for handwashing and bathing, and aqueous cream can be used as a substitute for shaving foam. However, aqueous cream must always be washed and rinsed off the skin.

Emollients are also available as bath oils and moisturising creams and ointments.

They are available in tubes, tubs and larger pump dispensers and 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.

How they help

Emollients work by:

  • helping skin to retain water
  • moisturising dry skin
  • easing itching
  • reducing scaling
  • softening cracks
  • allowing other creams and ointments to enter the skin

How to use them

Soap substitutes

Mix a small amount of soap substitute in the palm of your hand (about a half to one teaspoonful) with a little warm water, and spread it over damp or dry skin. Rinse and pat the skin dry, but do not rub.

If you are using a soap substitute and you are also using anti-psoriasis treatment, apply the soap substitute first. Allow 30 minutes after using a soap substitute before applying the anti-psoriasis treatment.

Some people may have a reaction to aqueous cream when it is used as an emollient. For this reason, it is recommended only as a soap substitute and not as a leave-on emollient.

However, if your skin stings after using aqueous cream and does not settle down after rinsing, speak to your GP or pharmacist about an alternative soap substitute.

Bath additives

Emollient bath additives can be added to lukewarm bathwater to help prevent the loss of moisture from your skin. They can make surfaces slippery, so always use a non-slip mat and be careful when getting yourself or your child out of the bath.

Some bath oils include an antiseptic, which can help prevent infection. However, these products should only be used occasionally unless the infection is recurrent or widespread.

Never use more than the recommended amount of bath additive. If the concentration is too high, it may cause skin irritation, particularly when used with antiseptic bath oils.

Creams and ointments

Emollient creams are less greasy than emollient ointments. They are easy to spread, absorb easily into the skin and are good for use during the daytime. Emollient creams can be used on weeping eczema.

Emollient ointments are most suitable for very dry, thick skin and are not suitable for use on weeping eczema. Find one that is best suited to your or your child.

Occasionally, emollient creams may sting when they are first applied to very dry skin. This usually settles down after a few days of treatment. If it persists, it may be due to a reaction to a preservative in the cream. If this occurs, talk to your GP or pharmacist about possible alternative emollients, such an emollient ointment.

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

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 during the day and an ointment base at night.

When to apply them

Emollients can be applied as often as recommended by the manufacturer to keep the skin well moisturised and in good condition. It's especially important to regularly apply an emollient to your hands, because they are exposed to the elements more than any other part of your body.

You may also want to use emollients after washing your hands, having a bath or taking a shower.

Emollients are best applied when the skin is moist and should ideally be applied to the skin at least three or four times a day.

Whether you are prone to dry skin or not, it's a good idea 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.

Treating skin conditions

Some emollients contain specially medicated formulas that can be used to treat skin conditions such as:

  • eczema: a long-term skin condition that causes the skin to become reddened, dry, itchy and cracked
  • psoriasis: a long-term skin condition that causes red, flaky patches of skin covered with silvery scales 

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

Read about treating eczema and treating psoriasis.

Possible 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 can occasionally cause hair follicles to become blocked and inflamed (folliculitis) and cause boils.
  • Facial rashes. Some facial emollients can cause rashes on the face and can aggravate acne.

Page last reviewed: 18/06/2012

Next review due: 18/06/2014


How helpful is this page?

Average rating

Based on 83 ratings

All ratings

Add your rating


The 3 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

Jyc said on 14 May 2014

An emollient is there to soothe rather than solve the issue. I used countless creams for years until I asked for a referral to the skin specialist. Turned out I have an allergy to Kathon CG, which is in a lot of toiletries and cleaning products. For the man with the sore hands, no amount of cream will fix this if you are in regular contact will something that causes the irritation. Hope you manage to pinpoint the problem.

Report this content as offensive or unsuitable

bendigedig said on 03 February 2014

Hi, my hands are so painful/dry and deep bleeding cracks. I have doublebase wash gel prescribed to me, but i am worried that it is not going to clean my hands as good as soap will. I like to see the lather of bubbles -yes i have clinical OCD and i have worked on my hand washing and feel that the washing of my hands is realistic. Please could someone help me feel confident about the use of the "soap substitute". The information leaflet states "helps to cleanse". This does not fill me with confidence.

Report this content as offensive or unsuitable

angfred said on 15 June 2010

thank you - you are the first 'medical' person who has actually described my problem- and have given me some 'sound' advise
thank god for computers.,

Report this content as offensive or unsuitable

Look after your skin

Benefit your skin by stopping smoking, plus how to protect your skin against sun damage and more

Skin conditions clinic

Read specialists' answers to questions on eczema, acne, warts, rashes and other skin problems