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Leaflet: A Guide to Emollients

Podiatry Services

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Last updated: April 2020
Next review: April 2022

Safety advice when using emollients

Follow this general safety advice when using emollients:

  • 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 emollients, but does not remove it entirely.
  • Use a clean spoon or spatula to remove emollients from a pot or tub. This reduces the risk of infections from contaminated pots.
  • 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.

What are emollients?

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

Types of emollients

Emollients are available as:

  • Lotions – good for hairy or damaged areas of skin (such as weeping eczema) as they’re thin and spread easily, but aren’t very moisturising.
  • Sprays – good for hard-to-reach areas and are absorbed quickly.
  • Creams – good for daytime use as they’re not very greasy and are absorbed quickly.
  • Ointments – good for very dry, thickened skin and night-time use as they’re greasy, thick and very moisturising.
  • Soap substitutes – they can be bought from a pharmacy without a prescription. If the skin condition is more severe, talk to a GP, nurse or health visitor, as you may

How to use emollients


Leave-on emollients

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 can’t overuse them.

You may need to experiment with different emollients or try a combination.

Using emollients with other skin treatments

If you’re using a steroid cream or another treatment for your skin condition, wait at least 30 minutes after putting on your emollient before applying it.

This avoids diluting the effect of the treatment and spreading it to areas of skin that don’t 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.

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

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:

  • an overheating, burning sensation or stinging that doesn’t settle– usually caused by a reaction to a certain ingredient in the emollient
  • blocked or inflamed hair follicles

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

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