Emollients for skin conditions

This information sheet from Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH) describes how this medicine is given and some of its possible side effects. Each person reacts differently to medicines so your child will not necessarily experience every side effect mentioned. If you have any questions or concerns, please ask your doctor, nurse or pharmacist or telephone one of the contact numbers of this information sheet.

What is it for?

Emollients are creams, ointments or lotions that are applied to the skin to keep it moist. 

They soften the skin and form a barrier against sources of irritation. They are often prescribed for skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis.

How is it given?

There are many different types of emollient in use at Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH).

Ointments are greasy and form the best barrier against water and irritants. Creams are a mixture of oil and water and are thinner than ointments. Lotions are thinner still and easier to apply to hairy areas. Gels have a high water content so are easier to apply to the scalp.

The type your child is prescribed depends on his or her skin problem.

Emollients should be spread evenly on the skin. Your clinical nurse specialist may also draw up a schedule so that you know which cream should be applied at which time of day.

Emollients may come in a pump dispenser, tube or tub. If the emollient comes in a tub, to avoid spreading germs when you dip your fingers in, we advise that you put the amount of emollient needed for each application into a separate bowl using a spoon. Apply the emollient from the bowl, washing it and the spoon afterwards in warm soapy water ready for the next application.

After you have applied emollient to your child’s skin, wash your hands thoroughly with soap to remove any excess oiliness.

As well as applying emollient directly to your child’s skin, the doctor may prescribe emollient bath products, such as bath oil or shower cream. These should be used instead of your child’s regular washing products, such as soap or bubble bath. They will lock in moisture from the bath or shower, reducing dryness further. Some need to be diluted in the bath water but others can be applied directly to the skin like a liquid soap.

The effects of emollients do not last long so you will need to apply them to your child’s skin frequently, sometimes several times a day, according to the instructions on the label.

What are the side effects of skin emollients?

Side effects are uncommon, but ingredients in some emollients can cause a rash.

If this occurs, tell your doctor. Your child may need to try other types of emollient to find one that suits.

The moisturising effect of emollients can make the bath or shower tray very slippery. We advise you to use a non-slip bath mat and clean it and the bath thoroughly after each use. Your child’s skin and your hands will also be very slippery after using an emollient so take care when picking them up. Wash your hands thoroughly before handling anything hot or sharp.

Emollients and other medications

Always check with your doctor or pharmacist before giving your child any other medicines, including herbal or complementary medicines.

Emollients are safe to use with other medicines, however if you're using a steroid cream or another treatment for your skin condition, wait at least 30 minutes after putting on your emollient to apply it. This avoids diluting the effect of the treatment and spreading it to areas of skin that do not need it.

Important information

  • Some emollients, particular those containing white soft paraffin or petroleum jelly can catch fire if used near a naked flame. Never apply emollients to your child by candlelight, near an open fire or while smoking a cigarette. Once the emollients have been applied to your child’s skin, he or she should also avoid naked flames, such as candles or open fires. Store the emollients in a cool, dry place away from any naked flames or heat sources such as radiators.
  • Use the emollient only as you have been instructed.
  • When your child stops treatment, please return the medicine to your pharmacist for disposal. Do not flush it down the toilet or throw it away.
  • Keep all medicines in a safe place, out of the reach of children.
  • Keep medicines in a cool, dry place out of direct sunlight and away from heat.
  • Your family doctor (GP) will need to give you a repeat prescription for emollients.
  • Some medicines will need to be ordered by your local pharmacist - ask your GP for another prescription with enough time (when you have about 2 weeks of your medicine left) to ensure you don't run out.

For further information please contact:

Medicines Information: 020 7829 8608 or via the Medications page on the MyGOSH app (available Monday - Friday, 9am - 5pm)

Dermatology team via GOSH switchboard: 020 7405 9200 or via the MyGOSH app

Clinical Nurse Specialist for Dermatology: via switchboard (ext. 0400 or bleep 0359)

Compiled by:
The Dermatology and Pharmacy departments in collaboration with the Child and Family Information Group
Last review date:
July 2022