Beauty

Why Urea Is An MVP For Dry, Winter Skin

It can treat calluses, psoriasis, flakes, and more.

Your guide to using urea in skin care, an under-the-radar moisturizing hero.
David Espejo/Moment/Getty Images

If you’ve examined ingredients in your moisturizer, you’ve probably noticed urea listed — then wondered what exactly that is. Because while other similarly hydrating elements have risen in popularity, urea in skin care has yet to become a household name despite its omnipresence in so many lotions.

In short, urea is a natural component of the natural moisturizing factor of the skin and can help to improve skin hydration, Dr. Marisa Garshick, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist, tells Bustle. The ingredient also serves as a humectant, meaning it attracts moisture from the environment to keep the skin hydrated, explains board-certified dermatologist Dr. Brendon Camp, M.D. And this is why you’ll often find it within moisturizing beauty products, says Camp.

Other humectants you might be more familiar with are its more popular peers in skin care, including hyaluronic acid and glycerin. Considering its science-backed hydrating abilities, why is urea not as widely talked about? Keep reading for what dermatologists have to say about using urea in skin care.

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What Does Urea Do For Skin?

What makes urea so special is its unique combo of benefits. Dr. Adarsh Vijay Mudgil, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist based in New York City, tells Bustle he considers it a “wonder ingredient.” That’s because it moisturizes and exfoliates: While urea does absorb water as a humectant to deliver hydration to the skin, Mudgil explains it also acts as a chemical exfoliant, meaning it helps to get rid of dead skin cells.

The concentration of urea you’re using affects what you get out of the ingredient. “The forms of urea found in skin care are all varying versions of each other, but tend to differ in concentration and vehicle,” Dr. Rachel Nazarian, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist, tells Bustle. “Lower concentrations, such as below 10%, are used to improve moisture and hydration, and to make the skin feel soft and smooth,” she explains.

Higher concentrations, on the other hand, are best used to target areas with especially rough skin, such as in the elbows or knees, Camp says. And while the maximum concentration available may be as high as 40%, any number above 10 acts as a keratolytic agent. This is a type of chemical exfoliant that breaks the bonds between dead skin cells, ultimately facilitating their removal from the surface of the skin, he explains. (Another keratolytic agent? Salicylic acid.) You’ll tend to find higher concentrations in targeted products that are meant to treat thick patches of skin and calluses, for example.

How To Use Urea In Your Skin Care Routine

The ingredient is generally well-tolerated by all skin types. You’ll mainly find urea in body care products, though you may find it in lower concentrations in facial skin care formulations. Most commonly, Nazarian says it’s used on areas that need gentle exfoliation to dissolve thick tissue (like your heels and elbows). Urea is also particularly useful in treating certain skin conditions. “Urea can also be used to help treat calluses, psoriasis, keratosis pilaris, and eczema,” Garshick says.

As for mixing it with other ingredients, derms say to be cautious with your exfoliants. “Occasionally, urea can be combined with glycolic acid or other exfoliating acids, but this is strictly for a deeper removal of thick skin, such as for the heels of the feet,” says Nazarian, noting it could potentially be irritating otherwise.

Which Concentration Is Right For Me?

The proper concentration is completely dependent on your skin’s needs. If you want a basic moisturizer, Mudgil suggests using a percentage with less than 10%, as this should provide ample hydration without too much irritation. “Lower levels of urea are fine for all skin types, and can be useful for maintaining a healthy moisturize barrier for anyone and everyone,” Nazarian says. Turn to 20% and higher if you’re looking to treat callused, thick skin, like elbows, and knees, and anything closer to 40% for the absolute thickest and driest skin on your body, such as the heels.

Shop Urea In Skin Care

For Rough Body Skin

Garshick and Camp recommend Eucerin Roughness Relief, a moisturizing lotion that can be applied to the whole body to help reduce rough and bumpy skin while also delivering long-lasting hydration. It’s both fragrance-free and dye-free, too, making it a good choice for all skin types.

For Calluses & Dry Feet

Garshick and Camp also both recommend this formula by Isdin, which is a gel oil that targets calluses and thickened, rough skin on the feet. “It helps to soften and smooth the skin without leaving the skin feeling greasy,” Garshick tells Bustle. A pro tip from Camp for treating your feet: “Try soaking your feet in lukewarm water for three to five minutes, then pat them dry, apply your urea product, and wear white cotton socks to bed,” he says. “This will facilitate the penetration of urea into the skin and prevent you from wiping it off on your sheets overnight.”

For Skin Barrier Protection

Formulated with 10% urea, hydrating squalane, calming collidal oatmeal, and fellow humectant glycerin, Soft Services’ Daily Toning Lotion delivers deep moisture to the skin as it mildly exfoliates. With regular use, you’ll nourish your skin barrier as you reap the benefit of smoother skin — all without irritation.

For All-Around Better Texture

Camp is a fan of this rexturizing treatment, which combines urea, skin-calming niacinamide, and hyaluronic acid. These superstar ingredients all work together to seamlessly deliver smooth, soft, and moisturized skin, he says.

For Dry Hand Relief

Formulated with 5% urea, rice ferment, and rice bran oil — the latter of which is high in omega-6 and acts as an emollient — Facetheory’s Chirosmooth Hand Cream soothes and hydrates severely rough, dry, and/or chapped skin on the hands.

Studies referenced:

Celleno L. (2018). Topical urea in skincare: A review. Dermatologic therapy, 31(6), e12690. https://doi.org/10.1111/dth.12690

Dall'Oglio, F., Tedeschi, A., Verzì, A. E., Lacarrubba, F., & Micali, G. (2020). Clinical evidences of urea at medium concentration. International journal of clinical practice, 74 Suppl 187, e13815. https://doi.org/10.1111/ijcp.13815

Piquero-Casals, J., Morgado-Carrasco, D., Granger, C., Trullàs, C., Jesús-Silva, A., & Krutmann, J. (2021). Urea in Dermatology: A Review of its Emollient, Moisturizing, Keratolytic, Skin Barrier Enhancing and Antimicrobial Properties. Dermatology and therapy, 11(6), 1905–1915. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13555-021-00611-y

Verzì, A. E., Musumeci, M. L., Lacarrubba, F., & Micali, G. (2020). History of urea as a dermatological agent in clinical practice. International journal of clinical practice, 74 Suppl 187, e13621. https://doi.org/10.1111/ijcp.13621

Experts:

Dr. Marisa Garshick, M.D., board-certified dermatologist

Dr. Brandon Camp, M.D., board-certified dermatologist

Dr. Adarsh Vijay Mudgil, M.D., board-certified dermatologist

Dr. Rachel Nazarian, M.D., board-certified dermatologist