You know when you’re buying all the new LE blushes because OMG they’re so pretty and then you end up using the same old one again and again because that’s what works for you? Urea is like that blush. While you’re getting carried away by all the new skincare bling – Stem cells! EGF! Bee venom! – urea’s the workhorse that’s keeping your skin all soft and glowy.
It deserves a bit more credit, don’t you think? Especially, cos your skin goes south quickly when it doesn’t get enough of it. Just ask anyone with eczema or psoriasis. Their skin has very little urea and look at how much damage that is wreaking. Ugh. So, what is this urea thingie and how can you make sure your skin always has all the urea it needs? Here’s everything you need to know about the skincare benefits of urea and why you need to add it to your skincare routine immediately, especially if you have dry, scaly skin:
What Is Urea?
Urea is protein garbage. Literally. And your body makes it. Let me explain. When your body uses protein, it spits out a nitrogenous waste byproduct called urea through sweat and urine (ewww!). Your body doesn’t need it. But your skin…. it can’t get enough of this stuff.
“Urea is a naturally-occurring byproduct of protein metabolism in our livers. Synthetic urea is manufactured for skincare use,” explains NYC dermatologist Dendy Engelman. In case you’re wondering, the urea in skincare products doesn’t come from urine. It’s man-made. I guess for once we can all be glad something ain’t natural.
Urea is part of your Natural Moisturising Factors (NMF, for short). Made famous by The Ordinary, your NMF is a group of water-loving elements that include amino acids, glycerin, and hyaluronic acid. Together with epidermal lipids, they make up your skin’s protective barrier. The barrier that keeps moisture in for plumper, softer skin. This barrier also keeps irritants out. Urea makes up 7% of your NMF.
Urea has two super powers: it exfoliates skin AND hydrates it at the same time. Cool, huh Healthy, young skin has plenty of urea. But as you get older, your skin makes less of it. That’s one of the reasons why you usually need more hydrating products as you get older.
You know who else needs their extra share of urea? Psoriasis and eczema sufferers. Skin with psoriasis has 40% less urea than healthy skin. Skin with eczema fares even worse: it lacks 85% of the urea it needs!
Benefits Of Urea For Skin
Urea is a godsend for dry and troubled skin. It can treat a truckload of skincare conditions, including:
- Contact dermatitis
- Seborrheic dermatitis
Impressive, isn’t it? And it’s all thanks to its super hydrating and exfoliating properties. If you’ve got the patience for the science, here’s how it works:
1. Urea Intensely Hydrates Skin
Urea is a humectant, a.k.a. a moisture magnet. Its job is to attract moisture from the air and bind it to your skin to keep it hydrated. Hyaluronic acid and glycerin are the most famous member of the humectant family but urea has got what it takes to give them a good run for their money. Not only urea readily absorbs water, it also has a very high water content itself. That means it can hold a truckload of moisture in the skin.
The Koreans aren’t bluffing when they say moisture is the fountain of youth. When your skin is well-hydrated and has all the moisture it needs, it functions better. All this moisture plumps out your skin, so your fine lines and wrinkles look smaller. It smooths out skin, giving it a softer texture. It provides instant relief to dry, itchy skin and nurses it back to health. It makes it glow. You can use all the antiaging superstars money can buy, but if you get the hydration part wrong, your skin is never going to look good. Never.
According to The Naked Chemist, “when [urea is ] topically applied, dehydrated skin improves by as much as 50%!”. Plus, urea also increases the production of filaggrin, a protein that aids skin hydration and reinforces the skin’s protective barrier. When your skin loses too much of this protein, you get water loss and dehydration. This makes urea a godsend for dry skin and any skin condition that’s aggravated by dryness, including psoriasis, eczema, or simply sensitivity to retinoids.
Related: What The Heck Are Humectants And Why Should You Add Them To Your Skincare Routine?
2. Urea Is An Exfoliant
Urea has exfoliating properties, but it works a bit differently from other exfoliants. While scrubs manually remove dead cells from your skin and acids chemically dissolve the “glue” that keeps them stuck together, urea works with the ingredients that make up the molecular structure of the skin. Together, they regulates the skin’s cellular turnover, i.e. its natural exfoliating process. In other words, it makes sure dead cells slough off when they’re supposed to.
That doesn’t just make your skin smoother and brighter. It strengthens the skin’s protective barrier, too, so that moisture stays in and germs and other skin’s enemies stay out. Plus, as Engelman shares, “Urea can penetrate thick skin, such as foot calluses, and is excellent for cracked feet.
Related: Physical Vs Chemical Exfoliation: Which One Should You Choose?
3. Urea Has Anti-Fungal Properties
Urea also has anti-fungal and anti-microbial properties. It boosts the activity of LL-37, an antimicrobial peptide that can kill acne bacteria. Plus, it inhibits malassezia, the fungus involved in fungal acne, psoriasis, eczema etc. You can use a thick layer on or around nails to combat fungus. But, for this to work, you need to use high concentration. Board-certified dermatologist Carl Thornfeldt, MD, explains: “Urea improve the delivery of other biologically active molecules in the skin such as anti-fungal/yeast medicines. It does this by being hydrophilic and a lipid barrier disruptor at concentrations above 12 percent.”
Related: How To Deal With Fungal Acne
How To Use It
Follow the instructions on the product. If it’s a moisturiser, use it as a moisturiser. If it’s a serum, use it as serum. Just make sure you pick a product that has enough urea to do what it needs. If your skin just need some extra hydration, skincare products with a high concentration will do. If you want help in removing tough calluses, then you need something with 10% or higher, ideally around 20%. If you’re using urea on cracked areas or feet, you can also apply socks or cloth to lock in moisture, so that it works better and faster.
Who Should Use It?
If your skin is in some kind of trouble – eczema, acne, psoriasis, Sahara-like dryness, you name it – urea may just be the thing it needs. I recommend it to anyone with the above skin conditions, and any kind of dryness and sensitivity. It’s also a great hydrator and moisturiser for people affected by fungal acne.
When To Use It?
You can use area both in the morning and at night. If it’s in a serum form, apply after anti-aging serums but before moisturiser.
How Often Should You Use It?
If you’re just using a moisturiser or serum with urea, you can apply it up to twice a day. If you’re using it as a treatment for more serious conditions, you can apply it up to 3 times a day.
PRO TIP: If you’re using a high concentration of urea, wash your hands well afterwards.
Side Effects Of Urea
At the small concentrations used in skincare products, urea is generally considered to be safe. But if you use high concentration, like 40%, Engelman shares you may experience “burning, itching, irritation, or skin break down in rare cases.” If that happens to you, consult a doctor immediately. It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, that such high concentrations should only be used for the driest of skin conditions, and even then only under medical supervision.
What Are The Best Skincare Products With Urea?
- Eucerin Dry Skin Replenshing Cream 5% Urea (£12.00): A lightweight moisturiser for dry skin that plumps it up and heals dryness and dehydration without leaving a grease residue on skin. Available at Boots, Look Fantastic, and Sephora.
- First Aid Beauty KP Smoothing Body Lotion with 10% AHA ($28.00): An exfoliating body lotion with hydrating urea to smooth out imperfection and remove bumps you may have in any area of your body. Available at Look Fantastic, Skin Store, Sephora and Ulta.
- The Ordinary Natural Moisturizing Factors + HA Daily Moisturizer ($13.50): A lightweight moisturiser infused with pretty much every natural component of your skin’s protective barrier, from urea to amino acids and hyaluronic acid, to strengthen the skin’s protective barrier and make every skin type soft and smooth without adding more oil to it. Available at Beauty Bay, Boots, Cult Beauty, Look Fantastic, SpaceNK, The Ordinary, and Ulta.
The Bottom Line
Forget about all those fancy skincare ingredients. If you’re dealing with super dry skin, psoriasis, eczema, fungal acne or some other serious skincare trouble, go back to basics and get yourself a tube of urea. It has hydrating, exfoliating and anti-microbial properties that’ll nurse your skin back to health in no time.