What is aqueous cream?

Aqueous cream, also known as sorbolene, is a light, non-greasy emollient or moisturiser, used to relieve dry skin conditions such as eczema.  

Also called oil in water emulsion, It is made from a mixture of emulsifying ointment and water. 

When used as a soap substitute or wash product, it works by providing a layer of oil on the surface of the skin, which traps water beneath it and prevents water evaporating from the skin surface. 

In this way, it helps to retain moisture on the skin and reduce dryness. 

It is used as a topical, external medicine, emollient moisturiser, and general-purpose substitute for toiletries such as soap, shower gel, shaving cream, and lip salve.

What are the types of aqueous cream?

Not all brands of aqueous cream have the same formulation. There are 2 types of aqueous cream – one that contains the ingredient called sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS) and the SLS-free formulation. SLS irritates the skin when it is left on for a long time. This can cause skin reactions, such as burning, stinging, itching and redness.

These reactions were noticed when aqueous cream was used as a leave-on emollient but not when used as a wash product or soap substitute, that is rinsed off.

Aqueous cream that contains SLS must be rinsed off after use. 

Do NOT use it as a leave-on emollient or moisturiser. SLS-free aqueous cream can be used both as a leave-on emollient and a soap substitute.British researchers found evidence that using the cream to moisturize areas affected by eczema may actually aggravate the condition.

They suggested this was due to skin-thinning effects of a detergent sodium lauryl sulfate.

How to use aqueous cream (instead of soap)

Aqueous cream is recommended as a soap substitute, to be used instead of soap.

 Soaps (including shower gels and bubble baths) can irritate and dry out the skin. 

This can make eczema worse. 

Although aqueous cream does not lather or foam like regular soap, it cleanses the skin well. It can be used before or during bathing, showering or washing.

If your aqueous cream contains sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS), it must be washed off, and not left on the skin for prolonged periods.

If your aqueous cream does not contain SLS, it does not need to be washed off and can be left on the skin.

Be careful: when using aqueous cream in the bath or shower, the floor can become slippery so use a bath mat or shower mat to avoid accidents. If you are using it on a baby, take extra care so they don’t slip while bathing.

What are Soap Substitutes?

These are also called wash-off emollients. Regular soap can be irritating to dry, inflamed or sensitive skin so soap substitutes are a good alternative. Two common soap substitutes are aqueous cream and emulsifying ointment.

Some of them contain sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) which can irritate skin if left on for prolonged periods. This is fine if in contact with your skin for a short time, but if it contains SLS, it must be washed off. There are some products that are SLS-free and these may be left on the skin as a moisturiser.

Soap substitutes should be gently rubbed onto your skin before rinsing off completely, or you can add them to bath water and soak in the bath for 10–20 minutes, then rinse them off.

Take care when using soap substitutes – these can make the floor or surface slippery and increase the risk of falls. If you are using them for a baby, take care when you are holding the baby in the bath.

What are the side effects of aqueous cream?

Side effects with aqueous cream are rare. Some people can get signs of sensitivity or an allergic reaction such as red, itchy skin. This may be confused with a flare-up of eczema or dermatitis. If you get these symptoms, tell your doctor or pharmacist.

Can I use aqueous cream everyday?

You can use Aqueous cream as an all-day normal moisturising cream or even a substitute for soap and you can use this when washing your hands or your body in the bath.

Aqueous cream works by cleaning your skin while not allowing it to dry out, this will also work by restoring the skin to help it maintain its moisture.

Can you use aqueous cream as face cream?

If you’re using aqueous cream as a moisturiser you can apply it as often as needed to relieve dry skin. It can be applied to any part of the body but avoid getting it in your eyes.

Aqueous creams provide a barrier to prevent water seeping into the skin. It is a breathable product which does not clog the skin’s pores and soothes skin rashes.

Which emollient is best?

Emollients are available in different formulations such as lotions, cream and ointments.

Lotions have a higher water content than creams or ointment, and can evaporate faster. They need to be applied more often. They may not be suitable for eczema, where the skin needs to be kept hydrated at all times.

Creams are better than lotions because they retain moisture for longer. They are preferred to ointments because they are absorbed faster into the skin. Some creams have additives such as glycerol and urea that attract and hold water. Creams are preferred to ointments if your skin is weeping or oozing.

Ointments form a covering layer that prevents evaporation of water from the skin. Ointments are greasier and thicker and may be less cosmetically acceptable, but are better at preventing evaporation. They are more difficult to wash off, with the exception of emulsifying ointment, which can be used as a soap substitute. Ointments may be more suitable than creams for people with more severe symptoms, such as dry, scaly areas of skin. They are not suitable if your skin is weeping or oozing.

There is no best emollient. The best type to use will depend on the dryness of your skin, the area of skin involved and what is comfortable and acceptable to you.

You may need different emollients for different body areas, and some areas of skin may need treatment with different emollients during flare-ups. For example, creams can help to ease inflammation, as the evaporation of water cools the skin, whereas greasy ointments are more suitable for dry skin.

More than one emollient may be required for use at different times of the day, and emollient products may also need to be changed depending on the season, eg, if you experience drier skin during winter, you may benefit from temporarily using a more greasy emollient.

Try different products until you find one you like and will use throughout the day.

If an emollient irritates your skin, try a different product. In very young children, watch for signs of discomfort or increased skin irritation when using a new emollient.


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