If you suffer from dry and cracked skin you will already know that slapping on lots of moisturiser is not the answer to your dry skin woes. Finding a solution is a bit more complicated than that.
As winter starts to bite and the central heating is cranked up, many of us start to have problems with dehydrated skin. You may well find that this is the season when you have more dull, rough, flaky patches and more inflammation.
There is one ‘beauty secret’ that not too many people know about which has been shown to work wonders on dry, cracked skin: skin creams containing urea.
In this article we look at some of the causes of dry skin, the skin’s natural mechanism for keeping moist and the role of urea; a humble but super powerful ingredient that has been shown to be successful at treating very dry skin conditions.
What is Dry Skin?
Essentially, dry skin doesn’t produce enough oil or sebum. Your skin relies on these oils to hold moisture in the outer layer of skin, called the stratum corneum.
Without the necessary oil and water in this outer layer, your complexion can appear rough, scaly, cracked, and itchy. Fine lines can also appear more pronounced.
A growing body of research has found that looking after your stratum corneum is the key to skin health. This outermost layer of your skin is made up of the dead skin cells (corneocytes) held together by ‘biological cement’. These cells contain the skin’s natural mechanism for keeping itself moist, called the natural moisturising factor (NMF).
In essence, the NMF acts like a protective coat. It is made up of a number of natural ‘water-holding’ molecules known as humectants which attract and lock in water and protect the skin’s lipid barrier.
The composition of the NMF is complex, but the key elements are:
- Amino acids (40 %)
- Pyrrolidone carboxylic Acid (12%)
- Glycerol and hyaluronic acid (9%)
- Urea (8.5%)
In summary, your NMF needs lots of TLC. Supporting this part of the skin is the key to treating dry skin conditions.
What Causes Dry and Cracked Skin?
There are many triggers that can change the production or composition of your NMF, preventing it from regulating the moisture levels of the skin.
Research has shown that for some people, having extremely dry and cracked skin conditions such as eczema is linked to the genes they have inherited. These people produce too little filaggrin; an important protein found in the top layers of the skin which helps the NMF keep the skin’s moisture levels balanced.
Lifestyle choices such as smoking and overexposure to sun can also have a negative impact on the NMF, affecting its ability to regulate moisture levels and increasing dryness and the appearance of fine lines.
For women, hormonal changes during pregnancy and reductions in oestrogen levels after the menopause are a common cause of dry skin.
During the winter months exposing our skin to constant fluctuations in temperature and humidity will dehydrate your skin.
The soaps and cleansing agents you use can also have a dramatic effect. If you have a dry skin condition you should try to steer clear of soaps with fragrances and preservatives, particularly parabens.
The production and composition of NMF also declines with age.
How does urea help dry skin conditions?
Urea is often referred to as Carbamide, the primary organic compound found in urine. Just to reassure you, the urea used in the cosmetic industry is made from synthetic sources and is not animal-derived.
If you are checking out labels the ingredient you are looking for will appear as hydroxyethyl urea or carbamide.
As we discussed earlier, urea is a natural component of our skin and makes up 8.5% of our natural moisturising factor. It is a humectant with an amazing ability to hold onto water molecules, essential for maintaining the hydration of the outer layer of the skin.
Unfortunately the concentration of urea in the NMF decreases with age, as a result of hormonal changes and with extended use of harsh chemicals in soaps and cleansers. This makes the skin more susceptible to dryness.
Skincare products containing urea give your NMF a natural boost, offering quick relief to dry skin conditions. Evidence suggests that urea also helps to treat extreme dry skin conditions such as ichthyosis, dermatitis, psoriasis and xerosis.
An added bonus is that it also acts as a natural chemical exfoliator. It slowly dissolves the cement that holds dead cells removing those that may be clogging the skin. Combined, these two effects increase cell turnover and dramatically improve the water-binding ability of the skin.
Urea can also produce a local anaesthetic effect on the skin, giving it anti-itch properties. This is really useful in helping to reduce cycles of inflammation and flare-ups in extremely dry skin conditions such as eczema.
All in all, fantastic news for dry and cracked skin!
Choosing a Skin Care Products Containing Urea.
The percentage of urea in skin care products varies significantly, It is important to choose one suited to your particular needs.
Creams containing 5-10%: This level of urea can help with water retention in the skin and so is a good choice for effective moisturising of dry skin.
Creams containing over 10%: This level of urea will moisturise and exfoliate, making it a good choice for very dry, flaky, itchy skin that requires an extra boost. At this percentage level it’s ideal for use on the body, but can be an irritant if used on the face.
Creams containing 20-40%: This level of urea has a very strong exfoliating effect, making it great for calloused skin on hands and feet.
To Sum Up
- urea is naturally produced by the skin and an essential component of our Natural Moisturising Factor (NMF)
- urea is a humectant with an amazing ability to hold onto water molecules in to the outermost layer of our skin
- it is the perfect treatment for dry skin, it has moisturising and anti-itch properties
- it acts as a very effective chemical exfoliator at higher percentages making it great at removing very dry, cracked skin on hands and feet.