It happens so often, that when the barrier function is out of whack, your skin isn’t comfortable. It’s dry, rough, even cracked. Anyone in such a state has likely tried out countless creams. But glycerin or lanolin don’t do the job. And no matter how thick you apply the cream, it still doesn’t cut it.
Let me introduce you to an old, but much overlooked ingredient for soothing your dry skin: Urea. Just hearing the word conjures up bad images. Yes, it’s found in urine. But more importantly, it occurs naturally in the outer horny layer of your skin.
In more detail, it’s one of the natural moisturising factors (NMF) produced by the skin. And dry skin has significantly lower levels of urea. On a side note, the other 2 natural moisturising factors are lactic acid and amino acids.
Dry skin connection
The top layer of our skin is the protective layer of your skin. It’s called stratum corneum and its task is to form a barrier that defends your skin against bacteria, pollutants, UV, and other environmental irritants. That’s why it’s also called the skin barrier.
In the skin barrier, you find natural moisturising factors (NMF). These help to regulate and retain moisture in your skin. They also sustain and protect the stratum corneum. Low levels of NMF mean that your skin becomes tight, dry, and rough. It can even get flaky and scaly.
Dry skin is fragile and loses its elasticity. It becomes prone to getting cracks. You want to avoid cracks in your skin since it means your skin loses its barrier function and bacteria or other irritants can enter.
What is urea?
Urea is also called carbamide. It’s an organic, crystalline, and colourless compound. When your body uses protein, the main breakdown product is urea. In other words, it’s a waste byproduct of protein metabolism.
Your body gets rid of urea with the help of the kidneys through urine. The other way to get rid of it is through sweat. Don’t be grossed out though, urea used in cosmetics is produced in the lab.
Much like hyaluronic acid, your skin produces urea. Healthy skin with a functioning barrier contains around 7% urea as compared to about 0.5% hyaluronic acid.
Urea is a humectant, a powerful substance that draws water from the environment to your skin. Urea is one of the elements of components of the NMF. Urea is also emollient. This means it softens and smooths the skin. In higher dosage, it’s exfoliating.
How does it work?
In skin care, urea is appreciated that it’s a moisturiser and an exfoliator wrapped into one. This doesn’t mean it exfoliates mechanically – you know scrubbing away dead skin cells. It works by breaking down keratin, the glue that binds skin cells together. It’s a keratolytic.
Essentially, it can get rid of dry skin (particularly thicker buildups) while allowing moisture to reach deeper layers. But wait, there’s more: Urea increases the permeability of other ingredients that you apply to your skin. Read: when you apply a product with urea, it makes the other ingredients and any serums you apply alongside it more effective. And, it helps regulate your cell cycle so dead skin cells are shed when they’re supposed to. Encouraging the cell cycle turnover needs higher concentrations.
However, as with many other naturally occurring compounds of your skin, urea decreases with age and trauma from harsh ingredients and environmental pollutants. Lower levels make your skin more prone to dryness and wrinkles.
What about oily skin?
It’s most evident that people with dry skin can get great results using a product with this ingredient. Still, it’s worth saying that urea can also be effective and valuable for people with oily skin.
It’s not that people with oily don’t get dehydrated skin. In such a situation, your skin thinks it’s not making enough sebum and goes into overdrive. This makes your skin even shinier. Moreover, all the excess sebum can jam up your pores.
This is where the keratolytic property of urea can help. It gently exfoliates getting rid of dead skin cells and other debris blocking your pores.
Can you get a glow?
Usually, we link radiant skin to healthy skin. And so, yes, using urea can give you glowing skin. First of all, instead of just sitting on top of your skin, it goes deep into your skin. There it draws water from the environment and holds it in the skin cells. This is especially important in cases where the skin is thick, almost like a crust.
At the same time, urea’s gentle exfoliation helps to dissolve the layer of keratin. It gets rid of dead skin cells and other debris that sit on your skin, leaving it super smooth.
The right concentration depends entirely on what you want to tackle and on your skin type.
If you want to have a basic moisturiser go with a product that has a less than 10%. At this concentration, it can help with water retention in your skin. 10% or less is fine for all skin types. It’s going to be helpful for painting a healthy skin barrier.
If you have dry, flaky, rough skin go with something with 10% and higher. At this level, you get the hydration and the exfoliation action. But mind, it can be irritating, so patch test first.
Higher concentrations of 20-40% are for when you’re looking to treat thick skin, calluses, cracked heels, or other especially rough areas of your body. At this concentration, it becomes a powerful keratolytic (exfoliator). At this concentration, it’s wise to patch test first to figure out how you’ll react.
What products contain urea?
You can readily find over-the-counter cream, creams, lotions, and cleansers with different concentrations. Anything over 10% is considered to be on the stronger side.
You might be surprised to find it also in
- Nail polishes
- Lip balm/treatments
- Cuticle treatments
- Hair care products such as shampoo and styling mousse
- Self-tanning products
How to use
Just as with the right concentration, how to use it depends on the area of application, concentration, and formulation. As a rule of thumb, you can use urea facial products weekly and body products daily.
ILayering it with other ingredients can be tricky. That’s why it’s better to use it alone than to combine it with other ingredients, because it may become irritating.
But you can combine it with other moisturising and reparative ingredients. It works well with the classical humectant glycerine. Pairing it with niacinamide and ceramides makes a killer combo to support your skin’s barrier function.
Urea is really a powerful ingredient with many benefits. So let’s recap
- Your skin makes urea
- With age, your skin makes less and less
- It’s an element of your NMF and so regulates your skin’s moisture levels
- It’s a humectant and binds moisture to the outermost layer of your skin
- It works wonders on dry skin but is also suited for most skin types, providing you find the right skin care products suited for your needs
- At a higher percentage, it’s a keratolic, breaking down the glue between dead skin cells
When you use active ingredients in your skin care products that are naturally occurring in the NMF, you can reinforce effectively your skin’s innate defence.