Skin that’s well cared for is supple, soft to touch, and radiant. If your complexion isn’t there yet despite all the effort you put into your skincare routine, you may be missing a vital ingredient. Here’s where hydration-boosting humectants come to rescue dry, dehydrated complexions. As they pull moisture from the environment into the skin, they are a necessity to maintain a hydrated and plumped appearance. Better still, choose the best of the bunch and look for urea in skincare formulations. As we’ll see, urea is a real multitasking skin hero; it’s not only effective at restoring moisture but packs a punch as an exfoliator, too.
What is urea?
Urea – or carbamide, as it’s also known – is an organic compound found in human tissues. The molecule was first isolated from urine, but urea is far from a waste product. In fact, this beautifying compound is revered in dermatology for its rare dual powers of hydration and exfoliation. Oh, and you’ll be glad to know that urea present in skincare products is synthesized, not extracted from urine.
How does urea benefit the skin?
Here’s how urea can benefit your skin:
Hydration is essential for maintaining the strength and elasticity of the skin. As a hygroscopic (water-absorbing) molecule, urea is a critical component of the natural moisturizing factor (NMF) — a group of hygroscopic molecules responsible for the skin’s ability to retain moisture. NMF is a powerhouse complex that does a lot of the heavy lifting in keeping our complexion dewy. It not only draws water into the stratum corneum (the top layer of the skin) but also helps it stay there.
The concentration of urea (and NMF) in our skin decreases as we age, though. This loss reduces our skin’s water-binding capacity, and the telltale signs include dryness, tightness, and fine lines. Fortunately, topical application of urea can replenish what is lost over time and restore our skin to a healthy state.
Maintaining a radiant complexion requires the regular removal of dead cells from the skin’s surface. Urea not only hydrates but also acts as an effective exfoliator, helping to clarify skin and correct uneven texture. At concentrations above 10%, urea has a keratolytic effect: it breaks down the glue-like hydrogen bonds that hold cells together in the top layer of the skin, encouraging the shedding of dead cells to reveal the fresh, healthy skin underneath. Since this exfoliating action is chemical rather than mechanical, it’s both gentle and effective.
The acid mantle – the fine, slightly acidic surface layer of the skin – keeps invaders like bacteria, viruses, and other irritating contaminants from penetrating our skin. If the acid mantle is damaged, the impaired barrier function can cause many skin problems. As a component of the NMF, urea plays an essential role in strengthening the skin barrier and protecting against irritation. Urea also enhances the skin’s defenses by regulating gene expression and encouraging the production of antimicrobial peptides in the top layer of the skin.
If you have dry skin, urea is your beauty BFF. The concentration of urea is typically very low in dehydrated, chapped, and irritated skin. Therefore, topical application of urea as an emollient and moisturizer is a soothing treatment for eczema, psoriasis, and other dry skin conditions. Urea is even more powerful when used in tandem with other skin-repairing ingredients since it enhances skin penetration.
How safe is urea?
Urea has been used in skincare for a long time and boasts a great efficacy and safety track record. Urea-based products are well tolerated by most skin types, though people with sensitive skin should take care as high concentrations can cause irritation.
How to use urea
Urea is added at different concentrations (up to 40%) to supercharge a range of skincare products, from serums to lotions and creams. How do you know which one is right for you? First, consider your skin’s needs. Are you looking to give your complexion a general boost, or do you want to target a specific skincare concern? Remember that urea at lower strengths (<10%) is a skin moisturizer, while at higher doses (>10%), it starts exacerbating exfoliating effects. Hence, if your skin is on the sensitive side, it’s best to stick to a concentration of urea below 10%, while a concentration of above 10% is suitable for normal to dry and rough skin. Anything above 20% is used to treat more severe skin conditions.
Last but not least, urea works in synergy with most skincare ingredients. Look for formulations that contain other humectants, such as hyaluronic acid and glycerin, for instant and long-lasting hydration. Also, you should apply occlusives like petrolatum and squalane after using your urea product, especially if you live in a low-humidity area. Using humectants without occlusives can actually increase transepidermal water loss, leading to dehydration. Occlusives help by forming a protective film on the skin’s surface to reduce water evaporation. This is why slugging is on the rampage now; you should try it.
Women’s Concepts uses reliable sources, including dermatologists’ insights, clinical trials, and scientific journals, to find accurate information and support all the facts shared in our articles. All statements and claims have clear and legit references. Read our editorial policy to learn more about our sources of information, our process of researching and fact-checking the content, and how our team strives to keep all articles updated, completed, and trustworthy.
- Verzì AE, Musumeci ML, Lacarrubba F, Micali G. History of urea as a dermatological agent in clinical practice. Int J Clin Pract. 2020 Dec.
- Mojumdar EH, Pham QD, Topgaard D, Sparr E. Skin hydration: interplay between molecular dynamics, structure and water uptake in the stratum corneum. Sci Rep. 2017 Nov 16.
- Piquero-Casals J, Morgado-Carrasco D, Granger C, Trullàs C, Jesús-Silva A, Krutmann J. Urea in Dermatology: A Review of its Emollient, Moisturizing, Keratolytic, Skin Barrier Enhancing and Antimicrobial Properties. Dermatol Ther (Heidelb). 2021 Dec.
- Marini, A., Krutmann, J., Grether-Beck, S. (2012). Urea and Skin: A Well-Known Molecule Revisited. In: Lodén, M., Maibach, H. (eds) Treatment of Dry Skin Syndrome. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg.
- Celleno L. Topical urea in skincare: A review. Dermatol Ther. 2018.
- Pan, M., Heinecke, G., Bernardo, S., Tsui, C., & Levitt, J. (2013). Urea: a comprehensive review of the clinical literature. Dermatology Online Journal, 19(11).
- Danby SG, Andrew PV, Taylor RN, Kay LJ, Chittock J, Pinnock A, Ulhaq I, Fasth A, Carlander K, Holm T, Cork MJ. Different types of emollient cream exhibit diverse physiological effects on the skin barrier in adults with atopic dermatitis. Clin Exp Dermatol. 2022 Jun.
- Grether-Beck S, Felsner I, Brenden H, Kohne Z, Majora M, Marini A, Jaenicke T, Rodriguez-Martin M, Trullas C, Hupe M, Elias PM, Krutmann J. Urea uptake enhances barrier function and antimicrobial defense in humans by regulating epidermal gene expression. J Invest Dermatol. 2012 Jun.