What are Keratolytics?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 27 February 2020
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Keratolytics are compounds that act to soften keratin, a key component of skin cells. These compounds can be used in the treatment of a wide variety of conditions involving overgrowth of skin. Some are available over the counter either as standalone preparations or blended into topical creams, and others are available by prescription only because they are strong or dangerous. Some common keratolytics include urea, salicylic acid, sulfur, and lactic acid.

Conditions like ichthyosis, psoriasis, warts, dandruff, seborrheic dermatitis, and acne can all involve overgrowths of skin. Keratolytics can be used in the direct treatment of such conditions to soften the excess skin so that it will flake away and leave healthy underlying skin behind. They can also be combined with other medications. These drugs may be used to soften the skin so it can more readily absorb moisturizers, steroids, and other topical treatments designed to treat the skin condition.

When a patient has a condition involving overgrowth of skin, a dermatologist is usually involved in the treatment plan. The dermatologist can examine the skin, take a scraping if necessary, and recommend a course of action for addressing the problem. If a keratolytic is recommended, the patient will be given clear directions on its use, including how many times a day it should be applied, whether the wound needs to be bandaged, and any special precautions to take.


Sometimes these medications are applied with a swab. A clean swap is dipped into the container or a small amount of medication is squeezed out onto the swab and it is rubbed across the area of skin involved to allow the medication to penetrate. This can be more hygienic and will reduce the risk of irritating the skin on the hands by exposing it to keratolytics. In other instances, people need to massage the medication in and the hands should be thoroughly washed afterward or gloves should be worn while applying the medication.

Over-the-counter preparations designed for the treatment of warts and calluses commonly contain keratolytics to help break up excess skin so they can penetrate more deeply. If people use an over-the-counter cream for a condition like warts and they notice redness, irritation, swelling, or tenderness, they should discontinue use and consult a doctor. It is advisable to bring in the packaging for the medication so a doctor knows what it has been used for and has information about the directions provided on the packaging.


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Post 4

My daily skin care routine involves a lotion with the keratolytic urea in it. My cousin uses a lotion with a higher concentration of urea to prepare his skin for his ichthyosis medication, so I know that it is what makes my own lotion so hydrating.

I get very dry skin in the winter, and if I use a harsh exfoliant, it can get even dryer and more irritated. That's why I think it's best to use a soothing, moisturizing lotion to deal with the problem instead.

My cousin told me that urea can attract and hold water, so it keeps skin moisturized. I believe that it is the active ingredient that makes my lotion do such a good job.

Post 3

@cloudel – I also suffer from moderate acne, but the keratolytic I have found most helpful is sulfur. It motivates my skin to slough off the dead stuff, and it seems to be working to prevent any new pimples and blackheads from forming.

Many people think of an awful smell when they think of sulfur, but this smell only occurs when it is mixed with certain other ingredients. So, my acne cream does not smell like sulfur, even though it does contain it.

The one drawback to sulfur is that it does make my skin peel a lot. So, I have found a hypoallergenic moisturizer that I can use after a treatment. It softens my skin without causing any breakouts.

Post 2

I use a lotion with a keratolytic in it to prep my skin for my psoriasis medication. I have unsightly, itchy scales all over my arms that are actually a buildup of dead skin, and the keratolytic lotion softens them a bit so they can soak up my medicated cream.

The cream is a corticosteroid, and it works wonders. However, I know that it probably wouldn't be able to penetrate the scales without the help of the lotion. That's why I apply the lotion about twenty minutes beforehand.

My psoriasis is under control now. This combination seems to have done the trick.

Post 1

I use an acne cream that contains salicylic acid. The label says that it is supposed to unclog my pores.

I have moderate acne, so the low concentration of salicylic acid works just fine. My friend had to have a stronger dose of it, which her dermatologist prescribed for her.

I know that it is working, because I can feel it tingling. It's nice to know that this cream is getting rid of my dead skin that has collected in my pores, and all I have to do is remember to apply it daily.

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