Urea For Skin: Literally Everything You Need To Know!

by | Last Updated Nov 2, 2017 | Guides, Ingredients | 200 comments

Ah, urea. One of my all-time favorite skincare ingredients. This stud has made such sweet love to my face, that it’s only fair I try and do it justice with a long dedicated post. Ladies and gentlemen, today is that post!

I will be going over EVERYTHING you need to know about urea. But first, let’s start with an ode to Urea by the great Dr. Kligman, a.k.a. the dude who co-invented Retin-A (tretinoin)! Take it away, sir:

“It sometimes happens in the enthusiastic search for new therapeutic agents that some old stand-by has been overlooked, whose luster has worn off, but which none the less may have some useful application in moments when the miracle drugs falter. In the world of topical therapy, urea is such a drug.” (1)

Don’t old dead people have such a way with words? Can you believe he said that 70 years ago?! Like, wtf? How has urea flown under the radar for so long? We about to change that UP IN HERE!

What is Urea?

Hada Labo Skin Plumping Gel Cream (5% Urea)

See Reviews on Amazon!

Urea, a.k.a. carbamide, is an organic crystalline compound and the main nitrogenous breakdown product of protein metabolism. In other words, it’s a waste byproduct produced after the body uses protein.

What is it they say? “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” Well yeah, that! While our bodies are busy taking out the garbage, we’re over here trying to put that garbage on our faces! 😀

It is primarily excreted through sweat and urine, which is why such horrendous things like “urine therapy” exist. “Urine therapy” meaning you use your pee as a toner.

Yes, that’s a thing…. that actually gets good reviews online….

To put that into perspective, it has a waaaaay better track record than proactive (according to the Acne.org community).

  • Putting pee on your face = 4.2 / 5. Would recommend.
  • Proactive = 2.6 / 5. So horrendous you might as well put pee on your face!

And if you think this “peeing on your face” is some kind of recent millennial trend, think again!

“Aztecs and ancient Egyptians practiced urotherapy, using one’s own urine to maintain health, to treat illness or to enhance beauty. In the seventeenth century, aristocratic French women reportedly bathed in urine to beautify their skin, and Mexican farmers prepare poultices for broken bones by having a child urinate into a bowl of powdered charred corn; the mixture is made into a paste and applied to the skin.” (source)

And that’s all you need to know! Go pee in your moisturizer and say hello to nice skin. Hope you’ve enjoyed this blog post. Until next time….

Just kidding. Please don’t go urinate on your face. I can’t believe that’s even a sentence I have to write on this blog. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Luckily for us, the urea found in skincare products is synthetically produced in laboratories, so there’s no need to go about refrigerating pee-pee. Phew….

Urea Benefits for Skin: The Research And Science.

Urea is mainly known and used in dermatology for its keratolytic and hydrating properties. In other words, it hits the skin with a double whammy combo by both gently exfoliating and moisturizing at the same time. A rare feature of most therapeutic agents. Or as a pair of researchers put it…

“The observed decrease in TEWL after long-term treatment with urea was unexpected in view of the keratolytic, hydrating and permeability-increasing properties attributed to urea.” (2)

Translation = ingredients aren’t supposed to be this badass! Increased moisture AND exfoliation too?!? What is this sorcery??

Urea is part of the natural moisturizing factor (NMF) of skin, which is made up of 40% amino acids, 12% sodium PCA, 9% glycerol, and 8.5% urea (among other things). (3) These are all hygroscopic (water-holding) substances, that are essential for maintaining the health, function, and hydration of the stratum corneum. (4)

Like many other naturally occurring compounds of our skin, urea decreases with age making us more susceptible to dryness and wrinkles. Remember ladies and gents: proper hydration is the fountain of youth! 

And sunscreen…. use sunscreen too….

In healthy skin, the concentration of urea is 28 mg per square inch, whereas in xerotic (dry) skin conditions that number is dramatically reduced. For example, in psoriasis the concentration of urea is 40% less than in healthy controls, and in eczema it’s reduced by up to 85%! (4)

Given that it’s generally a good idea to replenish the skin with what it lacks, (5) it’s no wonder urea has both successfully treated psoriasis and eczema.

So what else does it do when applied to skin?

Apart from reducing transepidermal water loss (TEWL) and gently exfoliating, it basically turns skin into Rambo!

Why do I say this? Because it reduces the skin’s susceptibility to sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) after only three applications! (6)

For those that don’t know, SLS is a super harsh cleansing agent known to induce contact dermatitis. (7) If that’s an ingredient in your face wash, and you suffer from dry irritated skin, perhaps it’s time to switch that sucker out. :p

There’s also evidence that urea helps treat ichthyosis, xerosis, atopic dermatitis (eczema), contact dermatitis, radiation induced dermatitis, psoriasisseborrheic dermatitisonychomycosis (a.k.a nail fungus), tinea pedis, keratosis, and pruritus. (8)

Note: all the conditions in bold share a similar pathological cause — namely, a dumbass yeast called malassezia. If you wanna learn how to treat those skin conditions, or suffer from adult acne or pityrosporum folliculitis, check out this guide.

I’m not gonna go into detail about every study ever done on urea and all those skin conditions above because that would take waaaaay to long, but feel free to read more from this comprehensive overview of urea in the clinical literature. The PDF is downloadable and the paper itself summarizes 81 different studies.

How does Urea work? Additional Benefits.

Hada Labo Premium Lotion (3% Urea)

See on Amazon

The quick and dirty version….

“Although the mechanism of action of urea in skin is still unknown, studies suggest that the keratolytic and hydrating effects of topical urea is owing to breakage of hydrogen bonds in the stratum corneum, loosening epidermal keratin, and increasing water-binding sites.” (9)

But for the nerds out there, let’s go into more detail! ;D

What’s super awesome about urea is that it works on both an external and cellular level! In other words, when applied to skin is decreases TEWL like most other moisturizers and whatnot, but it has an extended effect on the inner workings of skin. 

Samantha Miller over at The Naked Chemist put it well by saying,

“Whilst applications of emollient and occlusive ingredients coat the skins surface creating instant moisturisation, it is only a temporary fix. It won’t improve the skin’s ability to create and hold water, like urea does…. When it is applied to the skin it penetrates the stratum corneum, where it readily absorbs and retains water, thus increasing the capacity of the skin to hold moisture and rehydrate.” (10)

How does it do this exactly? By stimulating epidermal gene expression, or essentially “activating” specific components of skin that keep it healthy.

For example, when urea is applied topically it increases the formation of filaggrin, which is a vital protein that keeps everything balanced (i.e. regulates epidermal homeostasis). Urea also helps build up your skin’s defense mechanism and creates a lipid barrier (among other things).

(SOURCE)

ISN’T THAT LIKE THE COOLEST FUCKING THING EVER!?!? You’re literally looking at photos of urea turning skin into a super saiyan (i.e. building up the protective barrier).

*~SCIENCE!~*

I mean, it’s pretty much like a senzu bean for your face….

“Urea appears to be a highly-active small molecule regulator of genes that impact keratinocyte differentiation, lipid synthesis and antimicrobial peptide production, together leading to improved permeability barrier function and likely antimicrobial defense as well.” (11)

In other words, it helps regulate the cell cycle so dead skin sloughs off when it’s supposed to, it enhances your barrier function, and helps regulate the good and bad bacteria on your skin.

Related reading: Probiotics For Skin: The Scientific Guide For Treating Your Skin Problems With Good Bacteria 

Speaking of regulating “good and bad bacteria,” there is no official research on the use of urea and acne. However, one of the antimicrobial peptides that urea enhances (LL-37) has been shown to kill acne-causing bacteria in vitro. (12)

And there are also two in vitro studies that have shown urea directly inhibits malassezia, or the yeast that causes fungal acne. (1314)

All in all, using urea won’t hurt if you’re trying to target either of those skin conditions.

The Case Studies: Urea Leads to Glowing Skin?

Now that we’ve discussed the science behind urea, let’s have a little fun by talking about 3 anecdotal experiences.

If you do a quick google search for urea, you’ll see that people primarily use it to treat the hard calloused skin on their feet. It’s very effective at doing so, but this generally requires higher concentrations (20% to 40%).

I always found this very reassuring though, cause if it works for the tough skin on feet, it’s bound to work on facial skin! Which leads me to how I found out about urea in the first place….

A couple years ago I was quite literally thinking of putting a “foot cream” on my face because I couldn’t for the life of me eliminate the dry flakey skin around my chin and nose, until I came across this post by u/AMElolzz that explained what urea is.

I’m gonna copy / paste the relevant bits here for everyone. Take it away sir:

Testimonial #1.

“When left to its own devices, my skin tends to go wild with moderate acne, dryness, loss of glow and rough texture. I’ve had this problem for about two years, and it’s made me extremely self-conscious about my skin.

It’s not that my acne was ever bad these last years, but my skin texture was so dull, grainy and leathery that I looked like I had tanned obsessively for years. There was literally this thick layer of CRUSTY skin on top of my normal skin. It was hard and very rough to the touch.

In hindsight, I reckon it was caused by my religious use of Benzoyl Peroxide. I was recommended by a dermatologist to use this in my battle against acne years ago, and while it did effectively erradicate my acne, it severely damaged my lipid barrier and made my skin texture look absolutely horrible.”

Quick side note: that’s why I recommend doing benzoyl peroxide contact therapy vs. leave on treatment! It prevents acne just the same without the nasty side effects like dry or dehydrated skin, long-lasting PIE (red acne marks), dullness etc.

Anyway, like the dude was saying….

“For years I went on with my life, clueless as to why my skin looked so strange. I’d google similar symptoms every night, but I couldn’t quite find anything of value. I had friends with severe acne who still had much better skin underneath. So what was going on with my skin?”

This guy must have been reading my dairy when he wrote this. I swear it’s like he was narrating my life back then. Hahaha

“A few months ago I came to this sub oblivious to the potency of moisturizers and proper skincare. I tried everything recommended here – AHAs, six different moisturizers, sunscreens, cleansers, BHAs. I bought a bulk of products for $300, and the only thing I still use from that first batch is the cheap vaseline.”

It’s official. He’s taking excerpts from my memoir. We all know how much money I’ve burned on skincare throughout the years. -_-

The tale continues…..

“No amount of moisturizing, vaseline and hyaluronic acid would repair my skin. It all just rested there on top of this crusty fucking layer of skin that’s been haunting me for years, but it didn’t actually moisturize my face.”

Indeed a problem with many moisturizers, since they don’t work on a cellular level like urea. ;D It’s no wonder the poor guy’s skin wasn’t improving with the regular stuff.

“I started reading up on the skin barrier, and one user here thought I had some mild form of hyper-keratinization, which basically means my dead skin cells don’t slough off like they should, forming a thick, crusty layer of skin that won’t come off no matter how much I exfoliate or moisturize. An excess of keratin, in other words.

How is this treated? Well, supposedly with a urea-containing cream – a potent keratolytic emollient. Urea dissolves the intercellular matrix of the cells of the stratum corneum, promoting desquamation of scaly skin, eventually resulting in softening of hyperkeratotic areas.

I bought Eucerin’s 5% facial Urea-cream, and fuck me sideways, it’s a magic potion (at least so far). I’ve been using it for ten days and have slowly seen my acne diminish to the point of vanishing (no active zits atm). I have literally seen and felt the rough, crusty patches of skin soften.

In just two days of usage one area of my skin lit up and felt smoother than it ever had. The cream just dissolved the layer of keratin. Some areas are still a bit crusty, but I hope they’ll soften with time. My routine is very simple and consists only of this Eucerin cream and vaseline at night.

This is by far the best product I have ever used, and I thought I’d make a post hoping someone with a similar condition will give it a try. Just trying to give back to the community.”

And then the guy disappeared forever. Never to be seen or post on skincare addiction again, which to me can only mean one thing: skin issues were no longer a concern for him. Why spend time on skincare forums when your skin is already fleeky AF?

Testimonial #2.

The quirky Dr. Dray who I may or may not have a little crush on. :p She’s a dermatologist who makes “a day in the life vlogs” on youtube. Link to her channel here.

She recently started getting into Asian skincare, and picked up none other than the Hada Labo Skin Plumping Gel Cream, which you might have seen recommended on malassezia treatment guide.

This is a basic urea moisturizer with 3 different types of hyaluronic acid and 5% urea. Here are some before and afters pictures of her skin after 2 weeks.

The top photo is when she started using the Hada Labo Skin Plumping Gel Cream, and the bottom photo is two weeks later. Granted she already had really nice skin beforehand, but I think I see a noticeable difference in brightening.

What do you guys and gals think?

She seems happy as well, stating recently “my skin feels fantastic you guys! I feel like I just came out of utero or something. I feel like I’ve just been born.” Lmao.

But it’s true, urea makes your skin incredibly soft with repeated use. A random person on Amazon said it best: “Amazing stuff. I had super dry skin and now I feel like a well oiled sausage.” :’D

And lastly, my favorite case study…..

Testimonial #3.

I call him “the dude with a baby’s ass on his face.” All credit goes to reddit user u/P3rkoz. Here are his before and after photos:

And just because we need a little close up of that after shot….

The guy has better skin than my 1 year old nephew. LIKE WTF?! I don’t even see a SINGLE blackhead on his nose! How is that possible?!

~*apparently urea*~

Guess what his skincare routine is? Literally just fucking moisturizes with a urea gel cream twice a day. I shit you not, that’s all he does! No cleanser, vitamin C serum, toner. Nada! Just a urea gel cream twice daily. For those wondering, this is the one he uses.

And here’s the COSDNA profile. Ingredient list copy / pasted for your convenience:

“Aqua, Caprylic/Capric Triglyceride, Urea, Glycerin, Methylpropanediol, Isocetyl Stearate, Sodium Hyaluronate, Betaine, Cetyl Alcohol, Squalane, Tocopheryl Acetate, Polyacrylamide, C13-14 Isoparaffin, Laureth-7, Acrylates/C10-30 alkyl acrylate crosspolymer, Triethanol amine, DMDM Hydantoin, Iodopropynyl Butylcarbamate, Parfum.”

As you can see it’s just a basic oil in water emulsion with urea, glycerin, hyaluronic acid, and a crosspolymer similar to the Hada Labo Skin Plumping Gel Cream. This is actually the urea moisturizer my homemade one has taken inspiration after.

My ultimate skincare goal might secretly be to only use it twice daily and do nothing else…. heh heh.

NOTE to Dr. Dray and u/P3rkoz: if either of you just so happen to be reading this and aren’t comfortable with me using your photos, please let me know and I will remove them. In the meantime… heh heh.

Product Recommendations.

Hada Labo Skin Plumping Gel CreamContains 5% urea, 3 different types of hyaluronic acid, and ceramides.
Hada Labo Premium Lotion This is a hydrating toner that contains 3% urea and has 5 different types of hyaluronic acid.
Eucerin Advanced Repair Dry Skin LotionHas esters which might aggravate malassezia-sensitive skin.
Eucerin Replenishing Face CremeContains 5% urea. Has esters which might aggravate malassezia-sensitive skin.
Excipial Urea Hydrating Healing LotionContains 10% urea. Contains oils and esters which might aggravate malassezia.
Sebamed Extreme Dry Skin Relief Face Cream Contains 5% urea. Has esters which might aggravate malassezia-sensitive skin.
Skinceuticals Retexturing ActivatorContains 25% urea. Safe for malassezia.

Welp…. I think that does it for urea, ladies and gentlemen. Hope you’ve enjoyed this article.

Warmly,

—f.c.

Share your experiences with urea below!

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