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What is Urea and its Benefits in Skin Care?

What is Urea? Chemical Structure of Urea

It often happens in the search for new therapeutic agents that some old stand-by is overlooked, whose lustre has worn off, but which may have useful applications in moments when the miracle drugs falter. In the world of topical therapy, urea is such a drug. Youthful skin with a visible glow – it’s the holy grail of skincare. 

Albert Kligman

What if we told you the key to super-healthy skin and anti-ageing is hydration?

Dehydrated skin causes horizontal lines to appear, the type that leads to deep-seated wrinkles, especially if not treated correctly.

That’s right; something as simple as keeping your skin plump and moist can ward off premature ageing for many years to come.

But shhh! There is one little “beauty secret” that few people know about.

And that is gorgeous urea, and in our opinion, this ingredient is one of the most effective moisturisers in cosmetic chemistry.

Its role on your skin is quite remarkable; it can help maintain a healthy moisture balance at low percentages.

Higher percentages encourage cellular turnover, which is why you will often find it in foot products.

In dermatology, urea lotion is used for both its keratolytic and hydrating properties; this dual effect gently exfoliates and moisturises simultaneously.

It seems ironic that as far back as 1957, urea was viewed as a forgotten therapy despite being rediscovered by Dr Kligman, the man behind Retin A.

And yet, even today, there is little information about what could be considered the holy grail of the skincare world.

What is urea cream made of?

Urea is a humectant, referred to as hydroxyethyl urea, not to be confused with the preservatives imidazolidinyl urea and Diazolidinyl Urea, which we discuss in more detail below.

It is a naturally-occurring substance found on the surface of the skin. It is an active part of our natural moisturising factor (NMF), which functions to keep our skin lovely, plump, supple, and working efficiently.

Urea is a natural component of your skin’s tissues. It makes up 7% of our natural moisturising factor, along with 12% sodium PCA and 9% glycerol, all of which are water-binding – which is essential for maintaining the health, function, and hydration of the outer layer of skin.

Like many naturally occurring compounds in our skin, urea decreases with age and trauma from harsh ingredients and environmental pollutants, making the skin more susceptible to dryness, inflammation, and ageing.

From the many thousands of skins we have clinically treated over the years, we believe that inflammation and dehydration is the leading cause of premature ageing; the fact that urea skincare has the potential to treat both of these concerns, it’s no wonder we refer to it as the veritable ‘fountain of youth’.

As if that isn’t enough from this wonder ingredient, when topically applied, those with dehydrated skin can see an improvement in their symptoms of as much as 50%, and in those with eczema, as much as 80%.

There is also evidence suggesting that urea helps treat skin conditions such as ichthyosis, dermatitis, psoriasis, xerosis, and even nail fungus – all these conditions share a similar pathological cause — namely, a yeast called malassezia.

Urea’s skin-loving benefits

Hydrophilic: This term means “water-loving”, which gives urea its amazing ability to hold onto water molecules, keeping your skin plump and moist.

Not only does it readily absorb water, but it also has a very high water content, which helps to reduce the amount of water that is lost through your skin.

On a molecular level, urea modifies the structure of amino chains and polypeptides within your skin, essential for moisturising the skin’s delicate tissues. There is a direct correlation between the skin’s water content and its levels of amino acids. The more dehydrated the skin is, the lower its share of dissolved amino acids.

Studies suggest that urea’s keratolytic and hydrating effects are due to the breakage of hydrogen bonds in the stratum corneum, the outer layer of skin; it is essential to loosen epidermal keratin and increase the water-binding sites within the skin.

Improved barrier function: One of the many ways urea benefits your skin is by strengthening and protecting the barrier function and keeping it healthy.

Natural Exfoliant: Urea becomes a natural keratolytic (exfoliator) at higher percentages within a formula. This, combined with its hydrating properties, makes it a potent skin treatment. Urea works in synergy with other ingredients like lactic acid, which make up the molecular structure of healthy skin, thus enhancing the penetration of other ingredients.

Combined, urea and lactic actively remove dead skin cells and substances from the skin, improving cellular turnover whilst dramatically improving the water-binding capability of the skin, literally rebuilding skin from the inside out.

Fights Acne: Urea improves your skin’s health by metabolising the antimicrobial peptide LL-37, which attacks acne-causing bacteria within the skin. An in vitro study found that urea directly inhibits the yeast Malassezia, which is often the cause of fungal acne.

Possible Anesthetic: Urea has another interesting profile; it can create a local anaesthetic effect on your skin and has anti-itch properties. This is useful in reducing cycles of inflammation and flare-ups, making it our ingredient of choice if you have sensitive skin.

Penetration: Studies have found that urea plays a crucial role in increasing the permeability of certain skin care ingredients. It works as a vehicle for other performance ingredients by encouraging them to penetrate the epidermis easily.

Natural Moisturiser: Dry skin can be due to a reduction of urea in your skin’s tissues, leading to tightness and flakiness. Urea is a critical component of the natural moisturising factor found within your skin; using a body lotion with urea will offer you instant relief if you have dry skin.

For this reason, we include urea in H₂O Hydrating Complex and Quench ultra-hydrating water gel, both of which work as a moisture magnet to infuse dry skin with moisture.

The gentle exfoliating action of urea helps to leave the skin super smooth, especially when layered; the skin’s texture is visibly softer, giving it a youthful glow. Our clinic has seen great results from these formulas on our clients who suffer from extremely dry, dehydrated skin.

Testimonials

So you have heard it here from us first, ureas laundry list of skin-loving benefits.

But if you are still not convinced, don’t just take our word for it; here are some of our client’s testimonials who have had great results at varying percentages:

Lorree from Brisbane wrote

The best urea cream I use contains 5% carbamide/urea. I use it for my dry scalp issues and apply after showering, and it takes away all the dryness/flakiness.

 

Jane from London wrote

I use carbamide creams containg urea at 10% that also contains Shea and a 30% foot gel for my partner. Both are working exceptionally well and this summarises why urea is such a fantastic ingredient. Thank you so much for writing this article.

 

Kathy from Auckland wrote

I started using your face creams uwith urea I especially love Quench which I use twice daily on my face. I have then been sealing it with my chosen moisturiser and am really impressed with the results, I am already noticing visible improvements in my skin it feels really hydrated and much smoother and it has its youthful glow back.

So happy that you introduced me to this wonder ingredient Samantha

 

John from Texas wrote

Initially, I began using a cream with 15% urea peeling but washed it off after 5min because it was irritating. Next, I tried 5-6% and it was still sensitising – small red bumps appeared on my higher cheeks and near the lipline. I switched to 2% and love it, it is really hydrating and I found it helps to prevent the dead skin buildup that often clogs my pores? I have a very sensitive skin, which doesn’t like actives like AHA/BHA and physical exfoliation.

 

Kelly a client wrote

I have suffered from eczema on my hands and neck and I have been using a 5% urea skin care cream coupled with layering your Fortify barrier repair cream repair, a gentle no foam wash, and no exfoliating products at all. My skin is getting better, the texture is smoother, and not so irritated. I am so pleased with the results, thank you so much, Samantha, I wish you every success in the future and appreciate all you do, I agree it certainly is your calling.

The sciencey skin bit

To understand how what does urea do for the skin, it is essential to understand the skin’s structure, so please bear with us as we get a little technical here:

Your outermost layer of skin, the stratum corneum, comprises corneocytes and an intercellular cement, which has a high resistance to many chemical agents. Our natural moisturising factor (NMF); here, a mixture of substances regulates moisture levels on the surface by binding water molecules.

Whilst applications of emollients and occlusive ingredients coat your skin’s surface to create instant moisturisation; it is only a temporary fix; they don’t improve your skin’s ability to develop and hold water the way urea does. When applied to your skin, it penetrates the stratum corneum, where it readily absorbs and retains water, increasing your skin’s capacity to hold moisture and rehydrate.

To conclude, urea in products helps to regulate the cell cycle, encouraging natural desquamation or exfoliation, enhancing your barrier function, which in turn governs the good micro-flora that keeps your all-important acid mantle intact.

The dry skin connection

Dry skin results from a lack of oil and water in the outer layer of your skin; thus, your skin can become scaly, cracked, and itchy.

Moisture is usually retained in the epidermis by a surface film of substances; urea is one of these water-holding substances, along with lactic and amino acids.

As discussed previously, reduced urea levels can lead to a lower water-binding capacity within your skin, which in turn leads to roughness, tightness, flaking, and irritation.

Research has found a link between severe dry skin conditions and drastically reduced urea in the stratum corneum. Urea stimulates the skin components that keep it healthy, referred to as ‘epidermal gene expression.’

When applied topically, urea on the face increases filaggrin formation; an essential protein found within your skin that keeps everything balanced. It also maintains a healthy barrier function by building up your skin’s defence mechanisms.

Percentages Used in Skincare Products

Less than 10%: This can help with water retention in your skin, helping to bind moisture due to its highly hydrophilic nature, making it a popular choice for its moisturising effect.

Over 10%: This has a light keratolytic effect, making it a great choice if you have dry, flaky skin that requires an extra boost. It is still hydrating at this percentage, but it becomes quite exfoliating; it can be irritating when used on the face but is ideal in body preparations.

At higher doses of 20-40%: It becomes a powerful keratolytic (exfoliator), making it great for more serious therapeutic uses, such as treating psoriasis and calloused skin on the feet.

Getting to grips with the types of urea

Urea is often called Carbamide, the primary organic solid of urine, which is waste that the body has produced after it metabolises protein.

Thankfully, the urea used in the cosmetic industry is made from synthetic sources and is not animal-derived. It is formed from ammonia and carbon dioxide and produced in solid or liquid form.

There are three forms of urea found in personal care products: Hydroxyethyl Urea, Diazolidinyl Urea, and Imidazolidinyl Urea. People often get confused by these, but they are, in fact, completely different ingredients.

Diazolidinyl and Imidazolidinyl Urea are antimicrobial preservatives used in the skincare industry to protect personal care products from bacteria, yeast, and mould. They do get a lot of bad press as a preservative since they are proven to release formaldehyde.
Hydrovance (INCI name “Hydroxyethyl Urea”) is a potent humectant and considered safe as a cosmetic ingredient.

Conclusion

Phew! With so many beautifying properties, we appreciate its a lot to take in

For the benefit of those who require a little recap, here are this cool little ingredient’s best bits:

  • your skin naturally produces urea
  • it regulates your skin’s moisture content and is an essential component of your NMF
  • urea is hygroscopic – it can bind moisture onto the outermost layer of your skin
  • urea lotion is the perfect treatment if you have dry skin; it has anti-itch and antimicrobial properties
  • it can help to prevent acne-causing bacteria
  • it is keratolytic at higher percentages, meaning it breaks down the connections between dead skin cells; naturally exfoliating your skin and helping ingredients to penetrate further

320 thoughts on “What is Urea and its Benefits in Skin Care?

  1. Nica says:

    Hello! I would like to ask about the effectiveness of 10% urea in a body wash. Would it still be moisturising and exfoliate despite the short contact on the skin?

  2. Momo Chan says:

    Do you know if it’s okay to use 20 percent urea cream all over my body like a regular moisturizer? I have acne and psoriasis so those are factors. I find it stings applied to my psoriasis and makes my skin feel weird and sticky. I just started using it today though. 🙂 Wouldn’t a strong humectent effect possibly dry out your skin without an occlusive agent? Or does urea have occulsive properties itself, or is it usually formulated with enough oils in an urea cream that it’s not an issue? Does it have antifungal effects all on its own? I read stuff saying it could have those effects, but they add that it’s probably bc it allows anti fungal medications to penetrate deeper.
    Do you know if topical AHA cleansers provide any real benefit? I see a lot of people online claiming they don’t have the right ph, don’t sit on the skin long enough and therefore won’t do anything. Paula’s Choice Facebook page 9 yrs ago made a big post about they were useless but I seem to remember a Beauty Brains blog post on BHA that said it didn’t matter how long you leave it on, it will still work. Maybe I’m confusing it with retin-a?
    I’m kind of worried I wasted money on AHA and niacinamide cleansers.
    Sorry for the bombardment, urea is my skin care obsession atm.

    • Samantha Miller says:

      Hi, it’s not something I would recommend no sorry as it can also promote cellular turnover which may be problematic for you at high strengths. AHA does have a role but essentially we are all metabolically different so I recommend trial and error introducing it slowly and seeing how you get on

  3. Mike Wing says:

    Hi,
    Has anyone had any success using urea and actinic keratosis and at what percentage to try first.
    Thanks
    Mike

  4. priyasha says:

    Hi there! How are you?
    Could you please tell me if this composition and ingredients list of a hydration cream for skin is safe to use life long and won’t cause any diseases?

    Composition:
    Each gram contains:
    Propylene Glycol IP 15mg
    Diazolidinyl Urea (Preservative) 1.5 mg
    in a cream base

    List of ingredients:
    Lecithin, magnesium aluminum silicate,
    carbomer 934P, glycerin, sodium hydroxide,
    capric acid triglyceride, dimethicone,
    squalene, poloxyl 40 stearate, stearic acid,
    glycol stearate, glyceryl stearate, cetyl alcohol,
    myristyl myristate, C-10-30 carboxylic acid
    sterol ester, butylated hydroxy anisole,
    toluene, water, EDTA

    TIA,
    Priyasha

  5. Alison says:

    Hi Samantha, very interesting article,
    Do you think Urea would be beneficial in breaking down hyper pigmentation on the skin? And if so what percentage do you think would be required (for face).
    Many thanks

    • Samantha Miller says:

      Hi, Alison, I have known it to lighten hyper-pigmentation but not a huge amount. you just have to be careful on the skin because if you are working in high percentages it can become irritating. It’s trial and error I am afraid. Samantha

  6. Justin says:

    Amazing article!

    I have a few questions:

    1: Which of your products contain urea and what percent do they have?

    2: Is a 5% urea cream safe to use along with AHA’s?

    3; is urea more effective in a toner/serum or a thicker cream? Like would it be better suited in the beginning of your routine or one of the last steps?

    4: should you start at a lower percentage and work your way up to 5% or maybe 10% urea on your face?

    Thank you

    • Samantha Miller says:

      Hi Justin

      Thank you for that feedback. In answer to your questions:
      H20 and urea contain urea
      Urea is a keratolytic as is lactic acid, if you have thick, leathery mature skin that is in serious need of exfoliation then yes, but it should be a skin type that presents no underlying sensitivity. otherwise, avoid this combination for the face.
      Urea in my opinion is more effective in a cream base, esp[ecially for areas of toughened skin lie the feet.
      As with everything we are all metabolically different, so it’s all about trial and error, my advice is to start low and build up over time.

      I hope this helps
      Samantha

      • Justin says:

        thanks for your reply!! after reading your article, i added a 5% urea cream to my skincare routine for my face. I also use a 10% mandelic acid gel every 3 days and this combination has helped my skin a lot! I don’t think I’d ever try anything higher than 5% on my face, the next step up is usually 10% and I believe it would be too harsh. Thanks so much for your informative articles and advice

  7. Brittany says:

    Thank you for this! Do you have an idea of how urea might affect the hair? I would like to try a cream with 5% or 10% urea on my scalp (they have done wonders for my skin), but I would rather avoid damaging my hair if I can.

  8. Stephanie M Chung says:

    Hello, great questions and enlightening responses thanks except not asked is can UREA be safely used for genital and anal eczema itches?

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