Emollients are moisturising treatments applied directly to the skin to soothe and hydrate it. They cover the skin with a protective film to trap in moisture.

Emollients are often used to help manage dry, itchy or scaly skin conditions such as eczema, psoriasis and ichthyosis.

They help prevent patches of inflammation and flare-ups of these conditions.

Types of emollients


Lotions are good for hairy or damaged areas of skin (such as weeping eczema – where pus is seeping out of damaged areas of skin). This is because lotions are thin and spread easily, but they're not very moisturising.


Sprays are good for hard-to-reach areas and sore or infected skin that should not be touched, and are absorbed quickly.


Creams are good for daytime use as they're not very greasy and are absorbed quickly.


Ointments are good for very dry, thickened skin and night-time use as they're greasy, thick and very moisturising. Ointments are usually free of preservatives so are suitable for sensitive skin, but should not be used on weeping eczema.

Leave-on products

There are lots of different types of leave-on emollient that can be put directly on the skin.

Some create a protective barrier over the skin to lock in moisture. Some have added ingredients to reduce itching or prevent infection.

Your doctor or pharmacist will talk to you about which type of emollient will work best for your skin condition.

You may have to try a few different emollients to find the best one for your or your child's skin.

Many of these leave-on products can also be used to wash with.

Soap substitutes

Everyday soaps, shampoos and shower gels usually dry out the skin and can make skin conditions like eczema worse.

It's recommended to use leave-on emollients as a soap substitute if you have dry or itchy skin.

Emollient soap substitutes that are used instead of normal soap in the bath or shower are not usually available on the NHS.

How to get emollients

You can buy emollients from a pharmacy without a prescription. If the skin condition is severe, talk to a GP, nurse or health visitor, as you may need a stronger treatment.

If you or your children need to use an emollient regularly, it's a good idea to keep some in small pots or tubes at home, school or work.

How to use emollients

How to use emollients on your skin

Emollient lotions, sprays, creams and ointments should be applied directly to the skin.

They should be smoothed, not rubbed, into the skin gently in the same direction that your hair grows. This helps prevent hair follicles getting blocked.

They can be used to replace lost moisture whenever your skin feels dry or tight. They're very safe and you cannot overuse them.

You may need to experiment with different emollients or try a combination. For example, you may decide to use a cream during the day and an ointment at night.

How to wash with emollients

Mix a small amount (around teaspoonful) of leave-on emollient or soap substitute in the palm of your hand with a little warm water and spread it over damp or dry skin.

Rinse and pat the skin dry, being careful not to rub it.

You can use leave-on emollients or soap substitutes for handwashing, showering or in the bath.

They do not foam like normal soap, but are just as effective at cleaning the skin.

If your skin stings after using an emollient wash product and does not settle after rinsing, ask a pharmacist to recommend a different product.

Using emollients with other skin treatments

If you're using a steroid cream or another treatment for your skin condition, wait 20 to 30 minutes between using an emollient and using the other treatment. Ask a doctor which one to use first.

This avoids diluting the effect of the treatment and spreading it to areas of skin that do not need it.

When to apply emollients

Emollients can be applied as often as you like to keep the skin well moisturised and in good condition. Ideally, this should be done at least 3 or 4 times a day.

It's especially important to regularly apply an emollient to your hands and face, as they're exposed to the elements more than any other part of your body.

Certain activities, such as gardening, can irritate the skin. It may help to apply an emollient before doing these.

It may help to apply an emollient before and after swimming. Leave enough time for it to be absorbed into your skin before you swim.

It's a good idea to protect babies' hands and cheeks with an emollient before mealtimes to stop them getting sore from food and drink.

Emollients are best applied after washing your hands, taking a bath or showering because this is when the skin most needs moisture.

The emollient should be applied as soon as you have patted your skin dry to make sure it's properly absorbed.

Skin reactions

Emollients can sometimes cause a skin reaction, such as:

If you experience any of these symptoms, talk to a GP, nurse or pharmacist.

Safety advice when using emollients

Fire safety

Keep away from fire, flames and cigarettes when using all types of emollients (both paraffin-based and paraffin-free). Dressings, clothing and bedding that have been in contact with an emollient can easily catch fire. Washing fabrics at high temperatures may reduce the build-up of an emollient, but does not remove it completely.

Risk of infections

Use a clean spoon or spatula to remove emollients from a pot or tub. This reduces the risk of infections from contaminated pots.

Risk of slipping

Be careful not to slip when using emollients in a bath or shower, or on a tiled floor. Protect the floor with a non-slip mat, towel or sheet. Wear protective gloves, wash your bath or shower afterwards with hot water and washing-up liquid, then dry with a kitchen towel.

Skin irritation from aqueous cream

Aqueous cream is no longer recommended as an emollient. It contains an ingredient called sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS) which can cause skin irritation such as burning, stinging, itching and redness. Some people still find it helpful as a soap substitute.

Page last reviewed: 24 October 2023
Next review due: 24 October 2026