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 has been overlooked, whose luster has worn off, but which may have useful application 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 skin care. 

Albert Kligman

So, what if I told you the key to super-healthy skin is hydration?

Dehydrated skin causes horizontal lines to appear; the types of lines that lead 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 not too many people know and that secret is Urea – which is, in my opinion, one of the most effective moisturising ingredients in cosmetic chemistry. Urea’s role within the skin is remarkable; it maintains a healthy moisture balance, bringing much-needed relief to dry skin, whilst keeping it soft, supple, and youthful.

It seems ironic to think that as far back as 1957, urea was viewed as an old, forgotten therapy despite being rediscovered by Dr Kligman, the man behind Retin A. And yet, even today there is very little information about what could be considered the holy grail of the skincare world.

So, What Is Urea?

Urea is a humectant, referred to as Hydroxyethyl Urea – not to be confused with the preservatives Imidazolidinyl Urea and Diazolidinyl Urea, which I discuss in more detail below.

Urea is a naturally-occurring substance found in the surface layer of our skin, and is an active part of our natural moisturising factor (NMF), which functions to keep skin hydrated, protected, and working efficiently.

It is made up of 40% amino acids, 12% sodium PCA, 9% glycerol, and 8.5% urea – all of which are water-binding (hygroscopic) components essential for maintaining the health, function, and hydration of the stratum corneum.

Healthy skin typically contains 28 micrograms of urea per square centimeter. Those with dehydrated and dry skin can see an improvement in their symptoms of as much as 50%, and in those with eczema, as much as 80%. There is evidence to suggest that urea helps treat ichthyosis, dermatitis, psoriasis, xerosis, and even nail fungus.

The Sciency Skin Bit

In order to understand how urea works, it is important to understand the skin’s structure.

Your outermost layer of the epidermis – the stratum corneum – is made up of corneocytes and an inter-cellular cement which has a high resistance to many chemical agents. Inside the corneocytes is our natural moisturising factor (NMF) – a mixture of substances that regulate the level of moisture on our skin’s surface by binding water molecules.

Urea is a natural component of our skin’s tissues and makes up 7% of our natural moisturising factor, which decreases with age.

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

To conclude, it helps to regulate the cell cycle; encouraging natural desquamation or exfoliation, enhancing your barrier function, and regulating the good micro-flora that reside on your skin to keep your protective acid mantle intact.

“Urea appears to be a highly-active small molecule regulator of genes that impact keratinocyte differentiation, lipid synthesis and antimicrobial peptide production, together leading to improved permeability barrier function and likely antimicrobial defense as well.” (1)

Dry Skin Connection

Dry skin results from a lack of oil and water in the outer layer of skin, the epidermis. Skin becomes scaly, cracked, and itchy.

Moisture is normally retained in the epidermis by a surface film of oils (sebum), broken-down skin cells, and natural water-holding substances. Urea is one of these water-holding substances, the others being lactic and amino acids. We know reduced levels of urea leads to a lower water-binding capacity within the skin, which in turn leads to roughness, tightness, flaking, and irritation.

Research has found a link between severe dry skin conditions – such as ichthyosis, seborrheic dermatitis, psoriasis, eczema, and even nail fungus – and drastically reduced amounts of urea in the stratum corneum.

Urea stimulates the components of the skin that keep it healthy, which is referred to as epidermal gene expression. When applied, it increases the formation of filaggrin; an important protein found within the skin that keeps everything balanced. It also maintains the barrier function by building up your skin’s defence mechanisms.

Urea’s Skin-Loving Benefits

Hydrophilic

Meaning “water-loving”, this property gives urea its amazing ability to hold onto water molecules, keeping our skin 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 lost through the skin.

On a molecular level, urea modifies the structure of amino chains and polypeptides within the skin, which is important for helping to moisturise our delicate tissues.

Research has found a direct correlation between our skin’s water content and its levels of amino acids. Basically, the more dehydrated and dry the skin is, the lower its share of dissolved amino acids.

To learn more about the damaging effects of dehydrated skin, follow the link.

Improves Barrier Function

One of the many ways urea benefits our skin is by helping to accelerate the cellular renewal process. The really great thing about this is that it strengthens the barrier function of the skin, helping to keep it youthful and healthy.

In the article, “Understanding the Acid Mantle“, I discuss the importance of having a strong barrier function and how it creates a stronger resistance against potential irritants.

Natural Exfoliant

Urea has powerful keratolytic properties that, combined with its hydrating properties, make it a potent moisturising and exfoliating treatment for the skin. It works in synergy with ingredients that create the molecular structure of healthy skin, such as lactic acid, helping other ingredients penetrate deeper.

Combined, these two ingredients actively work to remove dead skin cells and substances from the skin’s horny layer; improving cellular turnover in the epidermis and helping to dramatically improve the water-binding ability of the skin, literally REBUILDING HEALTHY SKIN from the inside out.

Fights Acne

Urea further improves skin health by metabolising the antimicrobial peptide LL-37, which literally kills the acne-causing bacteria within the skin. An in vitro study also indicates 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 the skin and has anti-itch properties.

This is really useful in helping to reduce cycles of inflammation and flare-ups, making it my product of choice for sensitive skin conditions.

Penetration

Studies have found that urea plays a key role in increasing the permeability of certain skin care ingredients, working as a vehicle for other performance ingredients by encouraging them to penetrate the epidermis easily.

Natural Moisturiser

Dry skin is often due to a reduction of urea in the skin’s delicate tissues, leading to tightness and flakiness. Because urea is a natural moisturising factor, it can offer instant relief to dry skin.

I include urea in H₂O Hydrating Complex to help hydrate and repair skin cells.

The gentle exfoliating action of urea helps to leave the skin super smooth, especially when layered; the texture of the skin is visibly softer, giving it a youthful glow. I have seen some great results from urea on my clients who suffer from extremely dry and dehydrated skin.

Urea’s Best Bits

Phew! With so many beautifying properties, where do you begin?

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

  • Urea is naturally produced by our skin
  • It regulates our skin’s moisture content and is an essential component of our Natural Moisturising Factor (NMF)
  • Urea is hygroscopic, which means it is able to bind moisture on to the outermost layer of our skin
  • The perfect treatment for dry skin, it has anti-itch and anti-microbial properties
  • It can kill the bacteria cause acne
  • It is also keratolytic, meaning it breaks down the connections between dead skin cells; naturally exfoliating the skin and helping ingredients penetrate further

Percentages used in skin care

  • Less than 10% in a formula helps with water retention in the skin, helping to bind moisture onto the skin. This is due to its extremely hydrophilic nature, making it a popular choice for its moisturising effect.
  • Over 10% urea has a light keratolytic effect, making it a great choice for those with dry, flaky skin that requires an extra boost. At this percentage, it creates an exfoliating product that won’t scratch the skin, perfect for those with conditions such as eczema.
  • At higher doses of around 30-40%, its strong keratolytic properties make it great for more serious therapeutic uses, such as treating psoriasis.

The Naked Truth

Urea is often referred to as Carbamide, the primary organic solid of urine, which is waste that has been 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 can be produced in either a 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 mold. They do get a lot of bad press as a preservative due to the fact that they are proven to release formaldehyde. Hydrovance (INCI name “Hydroxyethyl Urea”) is a potent humectant and considered safe as a cosmetic ingredient.

I do hope I have gone some way to answer your questions on what urea is. I appreciate that dry skin is a really frustrating skin type to treat, simply because it causes so many conditions within the skin:

  • Dehydration due to a lack of water
  • A lack of a protein called Fillagrin
  • Dryness due to a reduction in ceramides and moisturising lipids 

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

  1. Tyna says:

    Comment: Hi! Samantha! I truly appreciate your post. I got unto the site when I was searching for the meaning of urea and what it does.
    I had to do the search after I discovered that the foot cream I used for my itchy, cracked feet worked in a very remarkable and I may also add, miraculous way. Happy to learn so much from your post. I’ve just used it for the 2nd night. May be too early to draw conclusions. But I can’t keep the good results down anymore. Not after I’ve read from you. Thanks! I’ll keep you posted on further information that results from the continued usage.

  2. Kim says:

    My daughter has eczema on her hands feet, and neck and is really itchy and irritating. Would the urea creams help her in any way? Thanks.

    • Verified Author Samantha Miller replied:

      Hi Kim it will help in terms of keeping moisture locked in on the skins surface, so in that sense it will help to bring relief to her skin. I recommend using the product and doing your own assessment, we are all metabolically different, and that really does apply to someone who has eczema because there are so many triggers. lactose intolerance can be another one by the way! Good luck and any feedback would be really appreciated.

  3. Linda says:

    Thanks for the great information! I have severely dry fingernails that split and peel regardless of the amount of oil or cream I put on them. Will using a cream with urea help them? or any ideas of anything else that might cause some improvement?

  4. Dawn says:

    Dear Samantha, Your article is refreshingly clear, sensible but forward looking – a balance which is often hard to find. I have recently been prescribed a urea based facial cream by my GP. It was a godsend as after my first ever beauty salon treatment – a cosmetic facial peel, I contracted a staphylococcal infection which left my face so stressed that it became covered with weeping open sores. Although I am a nurse I was unable to tend these myself as they kept spreading an re-errupting, so after reluctantly taking a long course of antibiotics I was delighted to find out from you how and why the urea is so soothing and healing. I have learned my lesson about vanity, but will certainly return to your website whenever I need information and advice, as well as directing friends and clients to it. What a great find. Thank you.

    • Verified Author Samantha Miller replied:

      Hi Dawn

      Thank you so much for the lovely compliment, its great to have feedback especially positive feedback like this.
      I was really troubled to hear about your experience at a beauty salon and just goes to show how it can go very wrong. The use of chemical peels goes unregulated an area I really think needs looking at, simply because of some of the bad results I often see in my clinic, from peels that have gone terribly wrong.

      Since posting this article the positive feedback about urea, is making me realise it is something of a wonder ingredient.
      it would be great if you can tell us what percentage was in your formula if you know.

  5. kim payne says:

    What do you think about Dermal Therapy?
    I use the Heel Care, and it works well for cracked heels. It’s got 25% urea.

    • Verified Author Samantha Miller replied:

      Hi Kimberley
      I have not had any experience with this brand unfortunately. However if it is working for your cracked heels then go with it, because they can be very frustrating to treat. 25% urea does appear to be an acceptable amount to use on the feet, if you want to see real visible results.

  6. Mary Cooper says:

    I have heard that urea cream with 20% urea in it can help with spider veins, people in America have used it with good results. Underly smooth extra care with 20% urea seems to be good for this problem, but if you use more than 20% it can cause irritation. Can you help please. Thank you.

    • Verified Author Samantha Miller replied:

      Hi Mary thanks for getting in touch. Spider veins are dilated superficial blood vessels close to the skins surface, caused by increased pressure in the veins. I am going to be honest I have never ever heard of Urea being a vasodilater, or its ability to reverse spider veins? What I do know is that Urea is great for strengthening the skins barrier function, and helping to repair the skins delicate tissue, which is why their may be some visible improvement. I just did a bit of research on the company in question, and I would contact them directly and ask to see the clinical trials so they can validate their claims. Don’t forget there may also be controversy with using such a high amount of Urea, as it can upset the pH of the skin. Personally we have not worked with such high amounts so I don’t feel comfortable commenting on this, all I know is that on the face I have seen sensitivity with formulas using over 5%. In the meantime you have me intrigued and I may just conduct my own little experiment treating spider veins on the legs, the results of which I will post here in the comments in the future.

      • Mary Cooper says:

        Hi Samantha,
        Thanks so much for a quick reply. I have been to the shops and checked all the foot creams with urea in, l bought one with 25% and the other one l am not sure how much it has in, but it has it. So what l am going to do, is try one leg with the 25% and the other leg with the other one. I will let you know how l get on in a couple of weeks. The 25% urea cream was £4.50 in sale and the other one was £1.00. I only heard about this yesterday, and thought it was worth a try. I am a little worried about using 25% urea because it did state 20% was the one that seemed to work better. They did speak about irritation, that’s why l am worried. Thank you once again, speak to you in a couple of weeks. Mary

        • Mary Cooper says:

          Hi Samantha,
          The information about urea and spider veins is in The peoples pharmacy under how to get rid of spider veins. You will see the comments on ones using it for other problems, but finding spider veins benefited a lot by it accidentally. Thanks Mary.

          • Verified Author Samantha Miller replied:

            Hi Mary, since the last message a client of mine has been trialing urea on her spider veins on the back of her legs and interestingly she does appear to have seen some improvement. It would be great if you could share your results with us.

          • Mary Cooper says:

            Hi Samantha,
            Just to say my experiment did not work, it didn’t cost me a lot of money to try it. I am disappointed, when l heard that others had success, I thought why not have a go.

            Thanks for listening.

          • Verified Author Samantha Miller replied:

            Hi Mary

            That is a shame, I thought you could of been onto something there, but I really appreciate you doing the experiment. Just to recap for anyone who reads this the experiment was to…..try Urea @25% first on one leg then the other over a few weeks to see if this reduces spider veins, like a number of skin creams with Urea are claiming to. The result as we can see from Mary is that it was a disappointing no! Thanks once again Mary, if you ever do find any natural remedies please do get back to us.

      • jackie says:

        Hi there…im wondering if its advisable to use a urea containing lotion {25%} on my face…from research ive read it seems that it might help with wrinkles! Thanks

  7. susio says:

    It’s nice to read this article,,I hesitate to use certain products because they have urea and allantoin ingredients. Would you like to tell me,,what is allantoin derived from. Because in many articles it come from animal secretion. Thank you

    • Verified Author Samantha Miller replied:

      The Allantoin that is predominantly used in skin care is sourced from Comfrey,a nature identical but synthetically manufactured ingredient, that has been derived from the roots & leaves of the Comfrey plant. However you may want to check with the manufacturer where they source their Allantoin from.

  8. geneen says:

    Would like to say after years of hairdressing, cracked and bleeding hands have just discovered cream with 10% urea i could cry for joy!!!!!!!! :)))))))

    • Verified Author Samantha Miller replied:

      Its really great to hear that you are having good results with Urea for your hands, working in the beauty and skincare industry I know exactly how concentrated actives and chemicals can play havoc with the skin. Urea is extremely hydrating, I get great results with my clients who suffer from cracked skin on the hands and feet.

  9. JohnnyFox says:

    I’m finding at 60 I’m getting prone to facial wrinkles, but I also had a dry patch of skin which I treated briefly with the urea-and-lactic-acid formula of ‘Compeed Cracked Heel Overnight Cream’ which was so good on the dry hard skin of my feet. It SEEMS to be softening my facial wrinkles too. Any reason not to use it on the face?

    • Verified Author Samantha Miller replied:

      Hi anything over 5% on the face is going to be really irritating, as it can really mess with the pH of products and if the pH is out of balance this can strip the skin leading to sensitivity and inflammation. Typically I will include more in a formula for areas on the body, especially in areas that are really cracked such as the hands or feet with good results. Some companies use up to 10% in emulsions, but we again this may be just a bit to irritating on the skin.

  10. Sherry says:

    I used to have very bad break outs of red irritated, very itchy patches between my fingers. Which I would scratch til I bled. The dermatologist told me it was dermatitis caused by wetness and detergents stripping the moisture and the acid mantle from my skin. He recommended using an over the counter lotion with 10% Urea in it. It cleared the dermatitis up within 2 weeks and never had a problem with it again. If my hands start getting too dry, I just apply this lotion before bed, put socks on my hands and it really makes a huge difference by morning.

    • Verified Author Samantha Miller replied:

      Hi Sherry
      It is really great to know that you are having such good results with Urea, its just a wonderful humectant that locks water in the epidermis helping to eradicte dryness whilst bringing relief to cracked dry hands, thanks so much for sharing.

      Samantha

  11. Lor says:

    What product would you recommend for truly dry skin (I’m not dehydrated). I have read products containing Urea are the miracle creams sold by dermatologists. I’m have crocodile skin (legs primarily and now my hands). I drink tons of water and use quality moisturizers but nothing helps. Thanks in advance for your response.

    • Verified Author Samantha Miller replied:

      Hi
      Thanks for reaching out.
      Ideally you need to look for products that contain humectants such as Urea, which will help to trap the top layer of water in the skins tissues. Ideally you will want to layer your products, because a severely dry skin needs added moisture, protection and hydration. Look out for our body shot serums coming soon…and finally make sure you are taking your Omega oils internally, my motto what goes in goes on! Incidentally the reason the skin on the legs often gets so dry is because there are fewer oil glands on the legs..hope this helps. Samantha

      • Ajda says:

        hello!
        love your site and my dr recently prescribed me urea cream for my feet. They are peeling and flaky..
        I drink lots of water, but always have dry hands and crappy skin on arms… Can I use all over my body and face?
        I also don’t take a omega, can u recommend one, 48, female, healthy. thanks!!!

      • jen says:

        I am not flakey or crusty. My skin is severely lined on hands and feet like a dried up sponge. Regardless of eating fish i had low omegas on blood test. I now take 1000 mg of cod liver oil. i have been doing this for months and skin never got better. I was using coconut oil on my skin, which i think really made things worse. How long does it take for urea to plump up the skin?

    • Verified Author Samantha Miller replied:

      Hi Fiona, I don’t think you will have a problem at all using Urea as a humectant, providing the manufacturer is using the recommended amount maximum 2%! Otherwise you will have problems as it can knock the pH out of balance, something you want to avoid because currently your skins protective layer has been knocked out of balance.

  12. Anne says:

    I’m currently looking for a product that could help me with my super dry skin. I live in canada where dryness is all year round. It’s good to know more about urea. Your information helps people like me who knows nothing and just buy what the market offers.

    • Verified Author Samantha Miller replied:

      Hi Anne
      I understand dry skin really well as its a problem I battle with continually. You may also find the articles on dry skin useful for further information on treating dry skin, they are located in the skin code section. Samantha

    • Susan Wellyer says:

      Urea lotion can be prescribed by your doctor for dry skin. It is not expensive. I have been using it for years on my feet and started a year ago on my face and legs. I prefer the lotion over the gel. The only thing is that it has a slight creamy color to it so I use it at night.

  13. Amanda says:

    I was wondering where I could get urea online, in a cosmetic grade. I want to make lotion containing urea, but all I can find is fertilizer. 🙁

    • Kelli says:

      Hi Samantha. Just came across your site. Fantastic information. I love reading info from people who know what they are talking about.
      Just wanted to respond to Amanda’s question. Majestic Mountain Sage (MMS) sells Hydrovance and its under the Lotion Supplies section. I use it also. It’s a great ingredient and only has to be used in small amounts (1 to 2%). It can affect pH but I use a small amount of Glucono Delta Lactone in formulation when Hydrovance is part of that formulation. It helps to keep the pH from creeping upward due to the Hydrovance and Lotioncrafters and The Herbarie both sell Glucono Delta Lactone. Hope that helps and I look forward to reading more of your articles Samantha. Keep em coming!!

  14. Mohammad udubu says:

    Your submission is really relevant to maintaining natural beauty and care of the skin. This is a really great controbution to humanity, please keep up your writting I really like your style..

  15. John Connole says:

    Samantha I love the way you write, your website is so informative for those looking for advice about skin care. There is a lot of confusion in the public about the differences between Diazolindinyl Urea and Urea. Many feel that the preservative form is the ingredient they looking for the relief of dry, parched skin. The preservative acts by releasing formaldehyde. Education in the community is important to relate the difference and you are doing a fantastic job!

    • Verified Author Samantha Miller replied:

      Hi John

      Thankyou for your information, we will certainly post this infomation for our readers. Oh and we 100% agree knowledge is key, to many compnies are trying to pull the wool over customers eyes! Thanks once again.

  16. julliana says:

    You write well and are definitely better than most sites I have been to as I would like to start making body lotion as a way to make a living here in ZIMBABWE. I used to work as a Chemical Assistant in a cosmetic company and they used to use too many ingredients and I want to keep it simple and still have a great product.

    • Verified Author Samantha Miller replied:

      Juliana my advice is to give it a go, the cosmetic science industry is wonderfully addicitive, our advice-keep it as natural as possible, because after all what goes on goes in. Glad the blog has inspired you x

        • harshiv says:

          thank you for the amazing post. I have a question though. does the percentage of urea in the cream/lotion that you use matter ? I’ve acess to only a 12% urea cream right now but I’ve seen that most facial Creams are usually around the 5-10% range.

          thanks in advance for the answer!

          • Verified Author Samantha Miller replied:

            Hi harsh
            My formulas with urea I keep to 1% on the face, anything more can be sensitising and you have to remember that urea also natural desquamates the skin so I keep my percentages fairly low, on the body this would be a different matter however. Samantha

    • Inayat says:

      Could you please share your WhatsAPP number so that we go for the more discussion related skin issues and useful products. My WhatsApp number s +17006299308. Please text me

    • Marlene Emslie says:

      How safe is it to use Urea with a cleanser as a “scrub”? Why does the emulsion turn ice cold as soon as you add urea to a little cleanser?

      • Verified Author Samantha Miller replied:

        Hi Marlene. It is all to do with the ingredients you are using and the formula you are putting the ingredients into. Using urea in a wash off scrub would be a waste of a valuable ingredient in my opinion. Samantha

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