Role of topical emollients and moisturizers in the treatment of dry skin barrier disorders

Am J Clin Dermatol. 2003;4(11):771-88. doi: 10.2165/00128071-200304110-00005.


Emollients and moisturizing creams are used to break the dry skin cycle and to maintain the smoothness of the skin. The term 'moisturizer' is often used synonymously with emollient, but moisturizers often contain humectants in order to hydrate the stratum corneum. Dryness is frequently linked to an impaired barrier function observed, for example, in atopic skin, psoriasis, ichthyosis, and contact dermatitis. Dryness and skin barrier disorders are not a single entity, but are characterized by differences in chemistry and morphology in the epidermis. Large differences also exist between moisturizing creams. Moisturizers have multiple functions apart from moistening the skin. Similar to other actives, the efficacy is likely to depend on the dosage, where compliance is a great challenge faced in the management of skin diseases. Strong odor from ingredients and greasy compositions may be disagreeable to the patients. Furthermore, low pH and sensory reactions, from lactic acid and urea for example, may reduce patient acceptance. Once applied to the skin, the ingredients can stay on the surface, be absorbed into the skin, be metabolized, or disappear from the surface by evaporation, sloughing off, or by contact with other materials. In addition to substances considered as actives, e.g. fats and humectants, moisturizers contain substances conventionally considered as excipients (e.g. emulsifiers, antioxidants, preservatives). Recent findings indicate that actives and excipients may have more pronounced effects in the skin than previously considered. Some formulations may deteriorate the skin condition, whereas others improve the clinical appearance and skin barrier function. For example, emulsifiers may weaken the barrier. On the other hand, petrolatum has an immediate barrier-repairing effect in delipidized stratum corneum. Moreover, one ceramide-dominant lipid mixture improved atopic dermatitis and decreased transepidermal water loss (TEWL) in an open-label study in children. In double-blind studies moisturizers with urea have been shown to reduce TEWL in atopic and ichthyotic patients. Urea also makes normal and atopic skin less susceptible against irritation to sodium laurilsulfate. Treatments improving the barrier function may reduce the likelihood of further aggravation of the disease. In order to have optimum effect it is conceivable that moisturizers should be tailored with respect to the epidermal abnormality. New biochemical approaches and non-invasive instruments will increase our understanding of skin barrier disorders and facilitate optimum treatments. The chemistry and function of dry skin and moisturizers is a challenging subject for the practicing dermatologist, as well as for the chemist developing these agents in the pharmaceutical/cosmetic industry.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Administration, Topical
  • Dermatitis / etiology
  • Dermatitis / metabolism
  • Dermatitis / pathology
  • Dermatitis / therapy*
  • Emollients / pharmacology
  • Emollients / therapeutic use*
  • Epidermis / anatomy & histology
  • Epidermis / physiology
  • Humans
  • Ichthyosis / etiology
  • Ichthyosis / metabolism
  • Ichthyosis / therapy*
  • Skin Absorption / drug effects*
  • Water Loss, Insensible / drug effects*


  • Emollients