Emollients are ingredients that make your skin feel soft and smooth. They work by filling in the gaps between cells with little droplets of oil - in much the same way your sebum (skin oil) conditions your skin.
Emollients are mostly oils and lipids (the technical term for fat or fat-like substances), so you might recognise them as plant oils and butters in your skincare. Some emollients can also act as occlusives, especially if applied heavily - shea butter is often used like this.
How Do Emollients Work In Skincare?
Creams are a mix of water and oil, and emollients usually make up the oil portion of the cream. They condition the skin to make it feel soft, and smooth, while the other ingredients in the cream like humectants and occlusives work to keep your skin hydrated.
There’s a common misconception that emollients ‘moisturise’. However, it’s not entirely true as they don’t primarily affect the moisture content within the skin - this is what humectants and occlusives do.
Using a straight up plant oil on your skin will condition it so it feels smoother, but it won’t necessarily affect the moisture content. Unless, you use so much that the oil itself becomes your primary occlusive.
Emollient vs Humectant Vs Occlusive
Moisturisers generally require all three types to perform well.
Emollient = soften, smooth, and condition the skin
Humectant = attracts moisture to the skin
Occlusive = protective film that prevents moisture loss
The balance of these three ingredients determines whether a moisturiser is better for oily skin vs dry skin, or better in a humid climate vs a dry climate.
What Do Emollients Do For The Skin?
- Help reduce flaking and roughness from dry skin
- Help assist the skin barrier by filling in gaps between cells
- Help soothe skin conditions that cause irritation or redness.
List Of Common Emollient Ingredients In Skincare1
- Isopropyl palmitate
- Isostearyl alcohol
- Decyl oleate
- Propylene glycol
- Octyl stearate
- Glyceryl stearate
- Jojoba oil
- Castor oil
- Plant oils and butters like safflower oil, rosehip seed oil, shea butter
- Silicones like dimethicone & cyclomethicone
- Octyl octanoate
- Isopropyl myristate
- Isopropyl isostearate
- Diisopropyl dilinoleate
- Source: Table 2, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5849435/