Urea in Dermatology: A Review of its Emollient, Moisturizing, Keratolytic, Skin Barrier Enhancing and Antimicrobial Properties

Dermatol Ther (Heidelb). 2021 Dec;11(6):1905-1915. doi: 10.1007/s13555-021-00611-y. Epub 2021 Oct 1.


Urea is a hygroscopic molecule (capable of absorbing water) present in the epidermis as a component of the natural moisturizing factor (NMF) and is essential for the adequate hydration and integrity of the stratum corneum. Urea improves skin barrier function including antimicrobial defense by regulating gene expression in keratinocytes relevant for their differentiation and antimicrobial peptide production. It also plays a fundamental role in regulating keratinocyte proliferation. One of the first uses of urea in modern medicine was the topical treatment of wounds due to its proteolytic and antibacterial properties. At present, urea is widely used in dermatology to improve skin barrier function and as one of the most common moisturizers and keratolytic agents. Urea-containing formulations are available in diverse formulations and concentrations. Multiple clinical trials on the use of urea-containing formulations have shown significant clinical improvement in many of the dermatosis presenting with scaly and dry skin such as atopic dermatitis, ichthyosis, xerosis, seborrheic dermatitis and psoriasis, among others. Furthermore, urea can increase skin penetration and optimize the action of topical drugs. Urea-based products are well tolerated; their side effects are mild and are more frequent at high concentration. Here, we present a review of the use of urea in dermatology, discussing its mechanism of action, safety profile and frequent indications.

Keywords: Atopic dermatitis; Ichthyosis; Keratinocytes; Psoriasis; Urea.

Publication types

  • Review