Some old stand-bys are overlooked in the search for new therapeutic agents
But they may have helpful applications when the miracle drugs falter
In the world of topical therapy, urea is such a drug that youthful skin with a visible glow
It’s the holy grail of skincare.
Hydrated skin is youthful skin.
Dehydrated skin creates horizontal lines that can lead to deep-seated wrinkles if not treated correctly.
So keeping your skin plump and moist wards off premature ageing.
When it comes to hydration, there is one ingredient that truly is the fountain of youth.
And that is gorgeous urea.
It is one of cosmetic chemistry’s most effective moisturisers and penetration enhancers.
Urea is known for its unusual dual action in dermatology; it gently exfoliates and moisturises simultaneously.
Ironically, 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 this interesting ingredient.
Which could easily 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:
So What is Urea?
It is also known as hydroxyethyl urea or urea 40.
But what exact;y is this sorcery? Can an ingredient really improve 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, stimulating components in the skin that keep it healthy, referred to as epidermal gene expression.
It is a component of your skin’s tissues, making up 7% of the natural moisturising factor (NMF), which keeps your skin lovely and plump.
Urea decreases with age, making your skin more susceptible to dryness and inflammation.
Research suggests that urea helps to treat conditions such as ichthyosis, dermatitis, psoriasis, xerosis, and even nail fungus – all these conditions share a similar pathological cause, Malassezia. (1).
Research has found that skin with psoriasis has a concentration of only 40%, and it can be up to 85% in those with eczema. (2)
Reduced levels in your skin can lead to a lower water-binding capacity, causing roughness, tightness, flaking, and irritation.
Allergens are also likely to penetrate your skin, triggering breakouts and inflammatory and allergic immune responses, including atopic eczema.
This is why replenishing your skin with what it loses over time should be at the top of your list. H20 hydrating gel is an excellent example of a product designed for this role.
The benefits of Urea
Prevents Dehydrated Skin
Your skin has a natural moisturising factor (NMF), which is made up of a mixture of substances, including hyaluronic acid, sodium PCA and lactic acid, all of which regulate moisture levels on the surface of the skin by binding water molecules.
Urea is hydrophilic, which means “water-loving”, which gives urea its fantastic ability to hold onto water molecules, keeping your skin plump and moist; when topically applied, dehydrated skin improves by as much as 50%.
Whilst applications of emollients and occlusive ingredients coat your skin’s surface to create instant moisturisation; they don’t improve the skin’s ability to develop and hold water the way urea does.
Urea allows your skin to absorb and retain water, increasing its capacity to hold moisture and giving you that youthful glow.
The fountain of youth begins with keeping your skin hydrated, which is why we all need a little urea in our skincare routine.
Improves an Impaired Barrier Function
When applied topically, it increases the formation of filaggrin, an abundant protein in the skin that is important for hydration and reinforcing the barrier function.
A deficiency in the filaggrin gene can impair the barrier, leading to water loss.
Natures Natural Exfoliant
Urea becomes a natural keratolytic (exfoliator) at high percentages within a formula, breaking down the keratin bonds that bind skin cells together, removing rough, dry skin and stubborn cells, thus allowing moisture to reach deep into the dermis, encouraging cellular turnover, shedding dead skin cells, helping you achieve that lit from within glow.
It can penetrate thick, scaly skin, making it ideal for dry legs and soles that are cracking and foot calluses; this combined with its hydrating properties, makes it a potent skin treatment for your feet and body.
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.
This is why we combine it with lactic acid to create a unique product: gorgeous immortelle with urea at 2%.
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)
Urea 40 can create a local anaesthetic effect on your skin and has anti-itch properties, which help to reduce inflammation.
A Potent Antifungal Treatment
When a thick layer of urea cream is used with other antifungal ingredients, this clever ingredient’s permeability ability absorbs exceptionally well, helping soften your skin around narly nails to combat any stubborn fungus infections you may have.
At concentrations of 10% and above, urea becomes a lipid barrier disruptor; it disrupts the hydrophilic components in the skin to improve the delivery of 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 transepidermal water (TEWL) that we observed after long-term use of urea was unexpected in respect of its keratolytic, permeability-increasing and hydrating properties”. (4)
So urea regulates cellular turnover, encourages natural exfoliation and improves the barrier function, which governs the good micro-flora keeping the acid mantle intact.
As you can see, If it’s skin health you’re after, then urea is the key.
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:
Jane from London wrote
I have been suffering from hyper-keratinisation, or excess keratin, where my skin cells dont naturally exfoliate and cellular turnover is slow. I now have thick skin that is dull no matter how much I exfoliate, which leaves my skin red and inflamed. After reading your article I tried a cream containing 10% hydroxy urea. It works exceptionally well and summarises why urea is such a fantastic ingredient. Thank you so much for writing this article and raising awareness.
Jane has succeeded 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 recently read your article what is urea and i wanted to let you know I started using your humectant with urea twice daily on my face. I have been sealing it with my chosen moisturiser and am impressed with the results; I am already noticing visible improvements in my skin. It feels really hydrated and much smoother, and it is no longer rough to touch, and my skin has a lovely hydrated, luminous glow.
Kathy is one of our regular clients in the salon. She uses a moisturiser and Quench skin plumping gel cream containing hydrating ingredients found naturally in your skin, including urea, glycerin, hyaluronic acid, and 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%, which is hydrating and has almost removed all my acne. 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 helps to reduce my acne inflammation. Because my skin is so sensitive it can’t tolerate AHA’S or physical exfoliation, urea is a godsend.
Whilst there is no official research on urea healing acne, urea has an antimicrobial peptide (LL-37) and kills acne-causing bacteria in vitro. This is why John is getting such good results.
Lorrie from Brisbane wrote
My skin has always been dehydrated, and many lines and wrinkles are appearing; 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 already looks more youthful and glowing than it did in a very long time; my once dull, flat dry skin is positively glowing, urea truly is a wonder ingredient.
Lorrie had this problem because many moisturisers sit on top of the skin. 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.
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 a gentle no foam wash and no exfoliating products at all. My skin is getting better daily; the texture is smoother and not so irritated. I am so pleased with the results.
What Percentage is Best?
Less than 3%: We recommend using a lower percentage if you have sensitive skin.
Less than 10%: This can help water retention in your skin, binding moisture due to its highly hydrophilic nature. It is a popular choice if you want that extra moisturising effect.
Over 10%: This has a keratolytic effect, making it a great choice if you have thick, dry, flaky skin that requires an extra boost. It’s also great if you have dry skin on your body or cracked heels. It’s important to note here it is still hydrating at this percentage but becomes rather exfoliating, and it can be irritating for some when used on your face.
At high percentages 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 your feet.
Types of Urea
A question we are asked a lot is what urea cream is. And what is it comprised of? Urea is 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 is considered safe as a cosmetic ingredient.
To Conclude; The naked truth
Phew! With so many beautifying properties, we appreciate there is a lot to take in.
As you can see, urea delivers a serious dose of moisture, so it’s ideal if you have dehydrated or flaky/scaly skin.
But it doesn’t end there; urea is also a keratolytic emollient, which will help loosen dead, scaly skin. This action makes it ideal for treating thick leathery skin damaged by the sun or conditions like eczema, psoriasis, and keratosis pilaris.
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.
For the benefit of those who require a little recap on what is urea used for when it comes to your skincare.
- it can help to prevent acne-causing bacteria
- 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
- your skin naturally produces urea; it regulates your skin’s moisture content and is an essential component of your NMF
- 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.