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urea in skincare

Urea in Skincare

Urea, a component naturally present in the skin, is an integral part of the natural moisturizing factor (NMF). It supports the skin barrier function and enhances water binding capacity. At present, urea is widely used in dermatology to improve skin barrier function and as one of the most common moisturizers and keratolytic agents. It is categorized as a humectant, an emollient and/or as an exfoliant depending on percentage of use and format. This versatile ingredient is effective in treating dry, rough, and scaly conditions to achieve softer, smoother, and more hydrated skin.

Urea Description

Urea is a hygroscopic molecule (capable of absorbing water) naturally present in the skin that helps support skin barrier function and enhance water binding capacity. For skincare, urea is synthesized in labs to be effective in treating dry, rough, and scaly skin conditions. It can act as a humectant, emollient and/or exfoliant depending on percentage of use and format. a low-molecular-weight organic molecule composed of a carbonyl group attached to two amine residues.

What Does Urea Do to the Skin?

Below 10%, urea acts primarily as a humectant to moisturize the skin and optimize skin barrier function. It works by retaining water in the outermost layer of the skin, helping to keep the skin hydrated.


At 10% and above, it also acts as a mild exfoliant (keratolytic agent) to smooth scaly, dry, and flaky skin. As a keratolytic, it breaks down the outer layers of skin to shed dead skin. For individuals with psoriasis-prone skin, a 10% concentration of urea can provide significant relief. Higher concentrations of 20-30% help reduce itching, break down keratin, and decrease the thickness of the outermost layer of skin.


Products with 40% urea content have a proteolytic nature, breaking down proteins. This level is effective when used on foot calluses to provide more intense exfoliation to smooth rough, thick skin.

Benefits of Urea:

The benefits of urea in skincare are significant:


  • Intense Hydration: Urea is a superb emollient that attracts and retains moisture in the skin.

  • Gentle Exfoliation: By helping to dissolve the protein holding dead skin cells together, urea gently exfoliates to smooth and soften the skin surface.

  • Skin Barrier Repair: Urea aids in restoring the skin's natural barrier function, preventing water loss and protecting against harmful external elements.

  • Enhanced Penetration: It has the ability to aid in the skin absorption of other skincare ingredients in a formula.

How Does Urea Work?

Urea is a hygroscopic molecule present in the epidermis as a component of the natural moisturizing factor (NMF) and is essential for the adequate hydration and integrity of the stratum corneum. Urea improves skin barrier function including antimicrobial defense by regulating gene expression in keratinocytes relevant for their differentiation and antimicrobial peptide production. It also plays a fundamental role in regulating keratinocyte proliferation. It breaks down proteins in the outermost layer of the skin, to help skin look and feel smoother. Urea can also enhance the penetration of other ingredients, by facilitating their transport through the skin and nails. This effect seems to be secondary to increased water absorption by keratinocytes and to its keratolytic action.

Concentration Levels & Recommended Usage for Urea:

Urea is typically found in concentrations of 10% to 40% in skincare products. It's often found in creams, lotions (like Prequel's Urea Lotion for the face and body) and in targeted nail/foot care products. For best results, it's recommended to use urea products consistently over a period of several weeks.

Is it Okay to Use Urea Daily?

Yes, it is generally safe to use urea daily. Urea-based products are well tolerated; their side effects are mild and are more frequent at high concentration so these higher percent products should be used under the guidance of a healthcare professional and usage should be adjusted based on the skin's response.

Who Should Use Urea?

Urea can be beneficial for anyone dealing with dry, rough, or scaly skin conditions, such as eczema or psoriasis. It's also suitable for those looking to enhance the effectiveness of other skincare ingredients. As always, it's best to consult with a skincare professional or dermatologist to determine if urea is right for your specific skin concerns.





DISCLAIMER: All skin care articles are intended to help educate on specific ingredients and skin care topics. Our articles are written to be informative and informational. Any reference to a specific patient experience is not a medical suggestion for treatment. Please note that any Prequel products with referenced ingredients are formulated for Cosmetic Use Only and NOT intended as replacements for physician advice and/or pharmaceutical product recommendations.

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