Urea at a glance

  • Humectant found in skin’s Natural Moisturizing Factor
  • Significantly improves signs of dry to very dry, scaly skin
  • Amounts above 5% have mild to significant exfoliating properties
  • Higher amounts can present aesthetic and odor issues
  • Synthetic versions used in cosmetics

Urea description

Urea is a longstanding humectant that is a component of skin’s natural moisturizing factor (NMF), a group of substances that ensure moisture balance within skin. Topical use can play an important role in helping to shore up skin’s barrier and reduce several triggers of dry skin. Although also a component of urine, synthetiUrea can enhance the absorption of other cosmetic ingredients such as retinoids. It can also impact the pH of water-based solutions, so is sometimes use to help stabilize a formula’s ideal pH range. Although also a component of urine, synthetic versions are used in cosmetics. In amounts between 3–5%, urea has beneficial water-binding properties proven to moisturize and soften skin. Amounts of 10% or more have mild to significant exfoliating properties proven to reduce dry, scaly skin and help prevent water loss. Larger concentrations (such as 40%) of urea can cause sensitivity, though such large amounts can also thoroughly exfoliate skin and have also been shown to markedly reduce severe dryness and rough, thickened texture. Higher amounts of urea are sometimes combined with salicylic acid in products meant for spot use on callused feet. Note that high concentrations of urea aren’t the most aesthetically pleasing, potentially being difficult to spread and leaving a notably tacky finish, not to mention an unpleasant, ammonia-like odor. On the other hand, the odor isn’t likely to be much of an issue if you’re applying to lower extremities instead of your face or neck. It’s long history of use in dermatology and scientific reviews over the years have consistently shown urea to be safe and generally well tolerated as used in skin care.

Urea references

  • Skin Pharmacology and Physiology, October 2021, pages 102–111
  • Dermatologic Therapy, November 2018, ePublication
  • Journal of Drugs in Dermatology, May 2016, pages 633–639
  • Dermatology Online Journal, November 2013, ePublication
  • The Art and Science of Moisturizers, Springer Berlin Heidelberg, 2012, pages 481-492
  • International Journal of Toxicology, 2005, pages 1-56
  • American Journal of Clinical Dermatology, March 2002, pages 217-222

Peer-reviewed, substantiated scientific research is used to assess ingredients in this dictionary. Regulations regarding constraints, permitted concentration levels and availability vary by country and region.

Ingredient ratings


Proven and supported by independent studies. Outstanding active ingredient for most skin types or concerns.


Necessary to improve a formula's texture, stability, or penetration.


Generally non-irritating but may have aesthetic, stability, or other issues that limit its usefulness.


There is a likelihood of irritation. Risk increases when combined with other problematic ingredients.


May cause irritation, inflammation, dryness, etc. May offer benefit in some capability but overall, proven to do more harm than good.


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Not rated