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What is Urea and its Benefits in Skincare (Updated2022)

What is Urea? Chemical Structure of Urea

Some old stand-by are overlooked in the search for new therapeutic agents
Whose lustre has worn off but may have useful applications 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 on your skin that lead to deep-seated wrinkles if not treated correctly.

Keeping your skin plump and moist can ward off premature ageing for many years to come.

But shhh! There is one little ingredient that is a “beauty secret”.

And that is gorgeous urea.

In our opinion, it is one of the most effective moisturisers and penetration enhancers in cosmetic chemistry.

Urea is known for its unusual dual action in dermatology; it gently exfoliates and moisturises simultaneously.

It is 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.

With an impressive laundry list of benefits, let’s explore this wonder ingredient in more detail:

Urea Explained?

So what is urea? What is this sorcery? Can an ingredient offer increased moisturisation and exfoliation all at once?

Urea’s role on your skin is remarkable; it can help maintain a healthy moisture balance at low percentages.

Higher percentages encourage cellular turnover; bringing a luminous quality to your skin.

Urea is otherwise known as hydroxyethyl urea or urea 40. It is not to be confused with the preservatives imidazolidinyl urea and diazolidinyl urea, discussed below.

It is a natural component of your skin’s tissues. It makes up 7% of your moisturising factor (NMF), which functions to keep your skin lovely and plump.

Like many natural compounds in your skin, urea decreases with age making your skin more susceptible to dryness and inflammation.

In our opinion, the fountain of youth begins with keeping your skin hydrated and plump, which is why we all need a little urea in our skincare routine.

The Sciencey Skin Bit

So how does urea work on your skin? To understand the skin’s structure, we have to get a bit technical here:

The stratum corneum, your outermost layer of skin, comprises of corneocytes and an intercellular cement, which has a high resistance to many chemical agents.

Your natural moisturising factor (NMF) is a mixture of substances like sodium PCA and lactic acid, which is there to regulate 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 you apply urea to your skin, it readily absorbs and retains water, increasing your skin’s capacity to hold moisture and rehydrate, giving you that wonderful youthful glow.

So what all this means is that urea regulates your cellular cycle, encourages natural exfoliation and improves your protective barrier function, which governs the good micro-flora that keeps your all-important acid mantle intact.

All hail urea!

If it is the ultimate skin health you are after, you need urea in your skincare routine.

Urea’s Role on Your Skin is Twofold

The concentration of urea in your skin is roughly around 28 mg per square inch; in overly dry skin, technically referred to as xerotic skin, this is a lot less.

Research has found, that skin with psoriasis has a concentration of only 40%, and in eczema, it can be reduced by up to 85%. (1)

When urea is applied topically it works by stimulating gene expression in the outer layer of skin and activating the components of your skin that keep it healthy.

it also increases the formation of filaggrin, an abundant protein found in your skin which is vital for the formation and hydration and building your protective barrier function.

A deficiency in the filaggrin gene will cause an impaired barrier, leading to water loss. Allergens are also likely to penetrate your skin, triggering breakouts and inflammatory, and allergic immune responses, including atopic eczema.

This is why we emphasise replenishing your skin with what it loses over time, and urea should be at the top of that list. Our Quench skin plumping gel is an excellent example of a product designed for this role.

So let’s break this down for you:

Urea is a humectant: It attracts moisture from the air and locks it into or under the skin’s surface, making it ideal for dry, dehydrated skin.

Urea is keratolytic: Urea molecules have a Keratolytic effect. It breaks down the keratin bonds that bind skin cells together, removing rough, dry skin and stubborn skin cells, thus allowing moisture to reach deep down, which is essential for those who want to encourage cellular turnover and shed dead, dry skin for that lit from within glow.

In other words, your skin benefits from a double whammy combo by both moisturising and exfoliating at the same time, an extremely rare feature of a skincare ingredient.

Side note: 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%.

Why Urea’s the Perfect Treatment for Dry Skin

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 your outer layer of skin by a surface film of substances and urea is one of these water-holding substances, along with lactic, sodium PCA and amino acids.

Reduced urea levels can lead to a lower water-binding capacity within your skin, leading to roughness, tightness, flaking, and irritation.

Urea stimulates the skin components that keep it healthy, referred to as ‘epidermal gene expression.

When applied topically, urea increases filaggrin formation, maintaining a healthy barrier function by building up your skin’s defence mechanisms.

Urea’s Skin Loving Benefits

Research suggests that urea helps treat skin conditions such as ichthyosis, dermatitis, psoriasis, xerosis, and even nail fungus – all these conditions share a similar pathological cause, Malassezia. (2)

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

Our clinic has seen great results from these formulas on our clients who suffer from extremely dry, dehydrated skin.

Research has found that when urea and lactic acid is combined, they actively remove dead skin cells and substances from the skin. This improves cellular turnover whilst dramatically improving the water-binding capability of your skin, literally rebuilding your barrier from the inside out.

It is no wonder urea is used to successfully treat dermatological issues like psoriasis and eczema.

Intensely moisturising: Urea is hydrophilic, which means “water-loving”, which gives urea its fantastic ability to hold onto water molecules, keeping your skin plump and moist.

It readily absorbs water, but it also has a very high water content, which helps reduce the amount of water lost through your skin.

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 urea cream will offer your dry skin instant relief.

For this reason, we include urea in our Quench formula, which contains similar ingredients to your natural moisturising factor (NMF) working as a moisture magnet to infuse your dry skin with moisture.

A natural Exfoliant: Urea becomes a natural keratolytic (exfoliator) at higher percentages within a formula.

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; this is what makes urea’s role on your skin so important it loosens epidermal keratin and increases the water-binding sites within your skin.

It penetrates thick, scaly skin, making it ideal for soles that are cracking and foot calluses.

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.

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. (3)

Possible Anesthetic: Urea 40 can create a local anaesthetic effect on your skin and has anti-itch properties, which helps to reduce inflammation.

A potent antifungal treatment: When a thick layer of urea cream is used with other anti-fungal ingredients, this clever ingredient’s permeability ability means that it absorbs extremely well, helping to soften your skin around narly nails to combat any stubborn fungus infections you may have.

Penetration enhancer: At concentrations of 10% and above, urea becomes a lipid barrier disruptor, working to disrupt the hydrophilic components in your skin, to improve the delivery of the molecules into your skin. Studies have found that urea plays a crucial role in increasing the permeability of certain skin care ingredients, working as a vehicle for other performance ingredients by encouraging them to penetrate your outer layer of skin more readily. 

Or as this research study found:

“The decrease in trans epidermal water (TEWL) that we observed after long-term use of urea was really unexpected in respect of its keratolytic, permeability-increasing and hydrating properties”. (4)

Testimonials

Now that we’ve looked at the science behind urea, let’s look at the following anecdotal experiences that have had great results at varying percentages:

Lorree from Brisbane wrote

My skin has always been extremely dry, and as I have aged, it seemed that no amount of hyaluronic and humectants would work. I started doing a lot of research on the barrier function and what is urea in skincare I bought your Quench Skin Plumping Gel Cream and Immortelle moisturiser and have never looked back. I have been using it for a week and it is like a magic potion, my skin is already looking more youthful and glowing then it did in a long long time. use it for my dry scalp issues and apply after showering, my once dull, flat dry skin is positively glowing, urea truly is a wonder ingredient. 

The reason Lorree was having this problem is that a lot of moisturises sit on top of your skin, yet when you combine urea with other skin-identical ingredients like sodium PCA and lactic acid (other elements of your NMF), it begins to work at a cellular level and with repeated use makes your skin incredibly soft with repeated use

 

Jane from London wrote

I have been suffering from hyper-keratinization, or excess keratin where my skin cells dont naturally exfolaite and cellular turnover is really slow. I’m left with thick skin that is dull no matter how much I exfoliate, which leaves my skin red and inflammed. After reading your article I tried a cream containg 10% hydroxyurea. It is working exceptionally well and this summarises why urea is such a fantastic ingredient. Thank you so much for writing this article and raising awareness.

Jane has had such success with this high percentage urea cream because it is a potent keratolytic emollient. Over time urea dissolves the intercellular matrix of cells, promoting natural exfoliation of areas of thick skin and stubborn cells, resulting in a softening of the hyperkeratotic areas on her face.

 

Kathy from Auckland wrote

I started using 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, it is no longer rough to touch and it has alovely hydrated, lumminous glow to it.

Kathy is one of our regular clients in the salon. She uses a moisturiser and Quench skin plumping gel cream containing a star-studded list of hydrating ingredients naturally found in your skin, including urea, glycerin, hyaluronic acid, sodium PCA, twice daily, and she has seen great results.

 

John from Texas wrote

I suffer from acne and 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 loved it, it is really hydrating and have seen my acne almost disappear. I find it prevents the dead skin buildup that often clogs my pores. Its natural gentle exfoliating properties and the hydration it brings to my skin really helps withthe acne inflammation. because my skin is so sensitve it cant tolerate AHA’S or physical exfoliation so urea is a god send.

Whilst there is no official research on urea in healing acne, urea has an antimicrobial peptide (LL-37); this no doubt is why John was getting such good results, as it has been shown to kill acne-causing bacteria in vitro.

 

Kelly from New Zealand 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 by the day, 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 for skin health.

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 keratolytic effect, making it a great choice if you have dry, flaky skin that requires an extra boost or cracked heels. It is still hydrating at this percentage, but it becomes pretty 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

A question we are asked a lot is what is urea cream? And what is it comprised of? Urea is often called Carbamide, the primary organic solid of urine, which is waste produced by the body 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 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.

As we can see, urea delivers a serious dose of moisture by drawing moisture into the skin for serious hydration, so it’s ideal for someone with dehydrated or flaky/scaly skin.

But it doesn’t end there; urea is also a keratolytic emollient. It softens your skin tissue softener, loosening dead, scaly skin. This action makes it ideal for treating a thick leathery skin damaged by the sun or skin conditions like eczema, psoriasis, and keratosis pilaris.

For the benefit of those who require a little recap on what is urea used for when it comes to your skincare.

  • 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 assisting the ingredients in penetrating further

326 thoughts on “What is Urea and its Benefits in Skincare (Updated2022)

  1. Jay says:

    Hi there, does urea in skin care products(toners or serums) have to be hydroxyethyl urea instead of urea?

    i have a toner that has the following ingredients –

    Aqua, Urea, Niacinamide, Panthenol, Glycerin, Sodium Hyaluronate, Althaea Officinalis Root Extract, Sodium PCA, Glucose, Glutamic Acid, Lysine, Glycine, Allantoin, Lactic Acid, Propylene Glycol, Phenoxyethanol, Ethylinate, Ethylinhexyl, Ethylin Sodium Benzoate

    the product causes some itch when i apply and also i do not use a strong occlusive, i use a gel moisturizer so i am not sure if i am dehydrating my skin more.

    • Samantha Miller says:

      Hi Jay, the ingredient will no doubt be Hydroxyethyl urea, but on the inci list, they have just described it as urea, however, it may be wise to reach out to the company for clarification.

  2. 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?

  3. 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

  4. Mike Wing says:

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

  5. 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

  6. 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

  7. 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

  8. 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.

  9. 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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