Emollient and barrier repair treatments: what are the differences?

Why are emollients useful?
If you suffer from dry skin or atopic dermatitis, the right emollient product is key to relieving your discomfort.

The underlying cause of dry skin, and especially in atopic dermatitis, is a skin barrier defect. This defect makes it difficult for the skin to retain water properly and there is therefore an increase in TEWL: transepidermal water loss.

To counteract this process, you can apply an emollient that forms a semi-occlusive film over the skin. This film helps reduce evaporation, alleviating the feeling of dryness.

What are emollients?

Emollients, which are actually oils, are usually found in an emulsified system (a cream), which makes them more pleasant to apply.

In cosmetics, many molecules belong to the class of oils, even though they are very different from a chemical point of view and have different functions and sensory effects on the skin.

The most effective emollients for dry skin or atopic dermatitis are:

  • hydrocarbons, for example paraffinum liquidum,
  • mineral, animal and vegetable waxes like microcrystalline wax, beeswax or carnauba wax,
  • vegetable oils and butters, such as argan oil. These substances contain unsaturated fatty acids, like linoleic acid, which penetrate the stratum corneum and act as nutrients.

Synthetic lipids and silicones

Synthetic lipids and silicones are more appealing to the senses but less effective on dry or atopic skin.

Synthetic lipids belong to a large class of different molecules whose chemical characteristics influence their sensory properties, which are usually very pleasant.
In the same way, silicone oils appeal to the senses due to their chemical composition, as well as being easily applicable to the skin.

The function of these two classes of molecules is to counterbalance the oiliness of the more effective emollients, like hydrocarbons. They thus improve the product’s sensory appeal and promote compliance (consistency of product use).

Barrier repair treatments

To be effective (especially in skin suffering from atopic dermatitis), a product must also contain active ingredients that help repair the epidermal barrier.
By this we mean molecules that are able to rebuild the cement-brick structure found in the stratum corneum.

This category includes ceramides, cholesterol and fatty acids. These molecules (lipids) make up the intercellular cement that holds the bricks of the stratum corneum together, namely the epidermal cells.
When these three lipids are in the right proportion, they help rebuild the skin barrier, significantly reducing the symptoms of atopic dermatitis.

How to apply emollients

Applying the right amount of skincare product and being consistent are key to obtaining a successful outcome during the acute phase and when the condition begins to improve. This helps maintain the obtained results and prevent recurrence.

To ensure patient compliance, it is essential to identify, with the help of your doctor and/or pharmacist, the product that best meets your needs. It should combine the most effective ingredients to improve your skin condition with sensory appeal and pleasant application.


The above information is not medical advice. It is given purely as an indication and is not intended as a substitute for professional advice.