Emollients are moisturising treatments that come in various forms. They treat many different forms of skin conditions.
- Moisturising treatments.
- Available in various forms.
- Available without a prescription.
If you are concerned about a skin condition, you can speak with one of our GPhC-registered clinicians via our online video consultation service, from 9.30am-4.30pm, Monday to Friday.
What are emollients?
Emollients are treatments that are used to soften and moisturise skin. They usually treat atopic eczema and psoriasis, as well as prevent these conditions from developing in the first instance.
What is atopic eczema?
Atopic eczema is sometimes referred to as atopic dermatitis. It typically presents in children before their first birthday, but it can develop in adults too. Although it is a long-term condition, in many cases it improves significantly over time, and in some cases disappears altogether. Symptoms include flaky, red, irritated skin that cracks, becoming sore and itchy. These symptoms tend to manifest on the backs of the knees, inside the fingers and on the hands, although they can appear anywhere on the body.
In children, it’s common for flare ups to occur on the face and scalp. Flare ups can happen as often as a few times a month, with periods of remission (without symptoms) in between. In some cases, however, the condition is chronic, with mild symptoms leading to more severe outbreaks without respite.
What causes eczema?
It’s thought that eczema is triggered by a number of different factors, including genetics (if a parent has it, it is more likely to occur in their children) and having dry skin. These are also substances or environmental circumstances that can lead to an outbreak, including soaps, detergents, food, synthetic materials, hormonal changes, infections, allergic reactions, stress, sweating and cold, dry or damp weather.
How is eczema treated?
Treatment for atopic eczema usually consists of either emollients or topical steroids. Emollients work by preventing the skin from becoming dry and cracked, while topical steroids reduce swelling and soreness when symptoms do appear. Alternative treatments and methods are antihistamines (which reduce itching) and visiting a dermatologist (a skin specialist) to see whether a stronger medication may be necessary. Self-care measures are also important, however. They include not scratching an affected area and avoiding the triggers listed above.
What is psoriasis?
Psoriasis is a skin condition that affects around 2% of the population in the UK. It can develop at any age, but is less likely to develop after the age of 35. Both men and women are affected by it equally. Psoriasis presents with patches of dry and irritated skin that appears red and silvery. It can be itchy or sore to the touch. There are many different types of psoriasis, which may differ in severity.
Plaque psoriasis, sometimes known as psoriasis vulgaris, is the most common form of the condition. Symptoms consist of patches of red and silvery skin, that can be itchy and bleed. It can occur anywhere on the body, but the elbows, back, scalp and the backs of the knees are the areas usually affected.
Scalp psoriasis can present in patches, or on the whole of the scalp. The rashes are similar to those described above, but not everyone experiences the discomfort of itching or soreness. In severe cases, temporary hair loss may also occur.
In around 50% of cases of psoriasis, the nails can be affected. Nail psoriasis results in crumbling and abnormal growth, and the nail occasionally becomes disconnected entirely from the finger or toe. Other types of psoriasis include guttate (which is connected to throat infections) and inverse psoriasis (which results in folds of skin and worsens in hot weather).
What causes psoriasis?
Psoriasis is thought to be triggered by the immune system, as a result of the rapid production of new skin cells. These cells are usually renewed after every three to four weeks, but in the case of psoriasis this may increase to every 3 to 7 days. This leads to a build-up of skin cells that the body hasn’t had the chance to shed, resulting in the symptoms described above.
There are several factors that may cause psoriasis, with genetics believed to be one of the most common. Other triggers that can instigate or worsen symptoms include damage to the skin (from injuries, bites, stings or sunburn), excessive alcohol consumption, hormones, stress, medications, infections and immune disorders.
While psoriasis has no cure, it can be managed with the right treatment. Treatments fall into three main categories. The first option is usually topical medications, which consist of creams and ointments (such as emollients) that you apply regularly. If topical treatments aren’t effective, phototherapy might be suggested, which uses ultraviolet light to help ease symptoms.
In more severe cases, systemic treatments may be considered. These measures may involve the use of oral medications or injections. While these treatments are the most effective, they can cause serious side effects.
If you would like to speak to a registered clinician about emollients or a related health condition, our online video consultation service is available from 9.30am to 4.30pm, Monday to Friday. Our clinicians can also issue referral to specialists for treatment and fit notes, where suitable.
What side effects can emollients cause?
All medications carry a risk of causing side effects, so it is important that you fully understand what these are before starting treatment. In most cases, emollients cause few or no issues, but you are unsure as to the potential side effects of your specific medication, you should speak to your clinician, or refer to the patient information leaflet that comes with your medication.
The following information relates to the emollient Emulsiderm: you should stop using this product immediately if you experience any allergic reactions or worsening psoriasis symptoms.
Is it safe to take emollients alongside other medications?
Emollients are not understood to interact adversely with other treatments.
Warnings and precautions when using emollients
You should inform your doctor if you have or have had any other health conditions before starting treatment. You can also refer to the patient information leaflet that comes with your treatment for a list of conditions that may make emollients an unsuitable treatment for you.
It’s important to avoid getting close to open flames while using emollients, as they may contain flammable ingredients. Any fabric that has been in contact with emollients may also become flammable, even after washing.
Because emollients are greasy, they may cause your bath to become slippery after use. Make sure that you fully clean your bath after bathing or showering to reduce the risks of falling.
Are emollients safe to use if you are pregnant?
In most cases, emollients are considered to be safe for use whilst pregnant or breastfeeding. However, if you are pregnant, thinking of becoming pregnant or breastfeeding, you should consult your clinician before starting treatment with this medication.
Can emollients affect my ability to drive?
Emollients should not affect your ability to operate any heavy machinery.
Can I consume alcohol whilst using emollients?
There are no restrictions regarding alcohol consumption and emollients.
Can emollients cause allergic reactions?
If you have any allergies, your clinician should be made aware of them before you start treatment with emollients. If you are buying this medication over the counter, you can also ask the pharmacist for advice.
The full list of ingredients contained in your specific treatment is listed on the patient information leaflet that comes with your medication. In the case of Emulsiderm, these include: benzalkonium chloride, liquid paraffin, isopropyl myristate, sorbitan monostearate, polysorbate 60, industrial methylated spirits, methylthioninium chloride and purified water.
Can I buy emollients over the counter?
Emollients are available to buy over the counter from your local pharmacy without a prescription.
How can I buy emollients online?
You can book an appointment with one of our GMC-registered clinicians to discuss emollients and any related health conditions using our online video consultation service. Our clinicians are available from 9.30am-4.30pm, Monday to Friday. They can also provide fit notes and referral to specialists for treatment, where appropriate.