Asian woman in a bathroom applying face cream in front of a mirror.

An emollient is a powerful skin softener and soothing hydrator. It’s also known as a “barrier cream” since it forms a protective film on the skin that helps lock in moisture. You can find pure emollients (like prescription or psoriasis treatments) that target , irritation, and inflammation.

In skin care, emollients function as a critical component of . But contrary to popular belief, emollients aren’t the same as moisturizers. Rather, they work alongside occlusives and humectants to create a balanced, hydrating formula – a.k.a. a moisturizer. Together, they draw in water and seal it in, keeping skin soft, supple, and smooth.

Some butters, oils, and fatty acids are a few general types of emollients. Specific examples include , squalene, and . You might spot them in the ingredients list of your favorite serum or lotion. They’re typically wax-like and thickening as raw add-ons, bringing viscosity to formulas. When applied, they fill any cracks and dry areas in the skin to strengthen it against external irritants.

Why You Need Emollients in Your Skincare Routine

Everyone needs moisturizer in their routine. No matter your skin type, it’s your best defense against dryness. Yes, ! Being in the modern world regularly exposes you to skin-drying elements, like excessive , pollution, and erratic weather patterns.

While not a health concern on its own, dryness can lead to discomfort, irritation, and infection when left untreated. Moisturizers with emollients help keep the healthy, making you less vulnerable to dehydration and the troubles that come with it. Emollients also work with your natural oils to boost the skin's ability to self-nourish. Here are just a few of their proven benefits.

1. They soothe irritation and inflammation.

An emollient can help manage the symptoms of chronic skin conditions like , psoriasis, and contact dermatitis. They calm redness, relieve itching, and rebuild dry, damaged skin. You can also use them to treat minor sunburns, prevent chafing, and speed up wound healing.

2. They soften and hydrate while strengthening the skin barrier.

Daily wear and tear can compromise your skin barrier. Some culprits include and . Breakouts, dry patches, and roughness are all telltale signs of a damaged barrier. Emollients repair it by improving and regulating the moisture in your skin.

3. They prevent moisture loss to keep skin supple for longer.

Since emollients contain lipids that don’t break down in water, you can layer them on top of other hydrating goodies (like serums or toners) like a sealant. As a result, your skin doesn’t dry out as fast.

Types of Emollient Products and How to Use Them

Since most hydrating skincare contains emollients, you likely already have a few in your arsenal. Moisturizers are a given, but some supple serums and have them, too.

If your skincare routine features multiple formulas, the rule of thumb is to apply them from thinnest to thickest. Otherwise, they may not absorb properly. Different emollient products have varying consistencies depending on their oil content. 

Oil thickens a formula, but it also makes it more effective at trapping moisture. Pro tip: if you have oily or , use not-so-goopy hydrators to avoid breakouts or clogged pores.

To determine the proper of skin care, check out the texture of your products. For example, watery toners go before supple serums, and creamy moisturizers go after. Applying toners or serums before your moisturizer also helps the latter penetrate better, since emollients work best on damp skin.

1. Lotions

Lotions are lightweight, fast-absorbing, and contain minimal oil. You can apply them for some moisturizing action. Double the amount on areas that tend to get dry, like elbows and knees. Tip: apply lotion after a shower while your skin is still wet to maximize its benefits.

2. Creams

Creams tend to be thicker than lotions and are ideal for the face. There are various creams in the market that suit different skin types. If you have exceptionally , POND'S Bright Miracle Day Cream is a great choice. It contains ceramides for long-lasting hydration, plus niasorcinol for brightening the skin.

3. Ointments

Ointments are concentrated and a little greasy, so they do wonders for chapped or cracked skin. Vaseline Petroleum Jelly is a beauty staple you can always count on to save you from severe dryness. It has 100% petrolatum, which, although technically occlusive, boasts powerful emollient properties.

Bottomline: your skin needs emollients to stay soft and supple. Check if your go-to moisturizer has them among its ingredients to ensure you’re getting enough in your skincare diet.