- Urea is a skincare ingredient found in face creams, lotions, and serums.
- Urea has two main skincare benefits: exfoliation and hydration.
- Before, a dermatologist answers common questions about urea and its use.
Anyone who has ever tried to read the ingredient list on the packaging of skin care products knows how confusing the task can be. Some ingredients are more common and therefore easier to recognize – like hyaluronic acid, salicylic acid and ceramides – but there are also ingredients like urea that may make you scratch your head and wonder: what is urea?
If you’re confused by this ingredient, allow us to explain what urea is, its benefits for the skin and how to use it in your routine. Ahead, a dermatologist answers all your questions.
What is urea?
To begin, let’s establish what urea is in the context of beauty. “Your skin has a natural moisturizing factor (NMF), which helps skin retain water and stay plump and hydrated,” says Shereene Idriss, MD, board-certified dermatologist and founder of Idriss Dermatology in New York City. . “Urea makes up seven percent of your NMF.” The rest of your natural moisturizing factor is made up of amino acids, lactic acid and pyrrolidone carboxylic acid.
The skin isn’t the only place to find it. “[It] can be found naturally in pee,” says Dr. Idriss. But fear not, it’s not the same type of urea as in your beauty products. “In commercial cosmetics, urea is synthetically made in the laboratory and is usually added even in pastries and wine that we consume with pleasure.”
What are the benefits of urea?
Each ingredient has a purpose and reason for being included in a product. Urea has two main advantages:[It] acts as an agent that helps break down dead skin cells,” says Dr. Idriss. “It also has a moisturizing action. This means you’ll find urea in moisturizers and exfoliators.
Urea is a humectant, just like hyaluronic acid, and attracts moisture from the environment (like air) and the skin itself to hydrate. It is also a keratolytic agent, hence its exfoliating properties. It works by breaking down the protein keratin in the skin, effectively removing scales and dry patches.
Dr. Idriss recommends that if you hope to benefit from urea exfoliation, you should look for products with a urea concentration above 10%.
How Urea is Used in Skin Care
You will find urea in skincare products from a concentration of just 2% and up to 40%. “If it’s less than 10%, it’s mostly used as a moisturizer,” she says. “If it is above 10% and up to 20%, it can be used to treat skin conditions such as rough patches of skin, calluses, cracked heels and keratosis pilaris.” This makes it ideal for use on the body where the skin is thicker and can tolerate heavier exfoliation, such as on the hands and feet.
Potential side effects of urea
The list of potential side effects of urea is short. “As with everything, it can cause very mild skin irritation,” says Dr. Idriss. “If you develop symptoms like tingling, itching, [and] hot, you may have an allergic reaction.”
On the bright side, urea can also help increase the absorption of other skincare ingredients in your routine. This can make them even more effective, but it can also make them more irritating.
Ingredients that should not be mixed with urea
Some ingredients go well together, some don’t. In general, urea is fairly easy to incorporate into your routine – you just have to be careful when combining it with other exfoliating ingredients, like salicylic acid, glycolic acid, lactic acid and retinoids, as this may “make it more potent”. and lead to irritation, according to Dr. Idriss. It’s best to stick to one exfoliant at a time.