Urea in Blood, Urine, Skin Creams, and Fertilizer
An Important Compound
Urea is a small but important compound in the living world. It’s found naturally in our body and can also be made artificially. The liver produces urea as a waste substance when it breaks down amino acids from proteins. The urea then travels through the bloodstream to the kidneys. These remove the chemical from the blood and send it to the urinary bladder. Doctors measure the concentration of urea in the blood to help them determine how well someone's kidneys are working.
Urea is added to skin creams to remove thickened or scaly areas and to moisturize the skin. It's helpful in the treatment of certain skin disorders. It's also a useful soil fertilizer because it's a good source of nitrogen, an important nutrient for plants. Since human urine contains urea, some people fertilize soil with urine to improve plant growth.
Urea contains only four elements—carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen, and oxygen. The lines in the diagram above represent chemical bonds. A double line represents a double bond.
Urea (Carbamide) Facts
In its solid form, urea exists as white or colorless crystals which have no odor and are highly soluble in water. The chemical is also known as carbamide when it's made in laboratories and has very low toxicity.
Some people may be familiar with carbamide peroxide, which is a mixture of artificially-made urea and hydrogen peroxide. It's used to whiten teeth, to disinfect, and to remove earwax. In each of these cases, carbamide peroxide breaks down to release hydrogen peroxide, which is the active ingredient.
The use of carbamide peroxide has a historical basis. The chemical is formulated as a solid while hydrogen peroxide on its own is formulated as a liquid. The solid was once preferred because it could be packed into wounds. (People shouldn't try this process today.)
Urea was the first organic chemical made from inorganic ones. The reaction was carried out by Friedrich Wöhler in 1828. The discovery impressed scientists because it was thought that a mysterious "vital force" was needed to make the substances found in the human body.
In the illustration above, the carbon atom is black, the oxygen atom is red, the nitrogen atoms are blue, and the hydrogen atoms are grey.
Production in the Body
Urea production is related to the proteins that we ingest. A protein consists of chains of amino acids. The amino acids are separated from each other when protein from food is digested in the gastrointestinal tract. They are then absorbed through the lining of the digestive tract and are used to build the specific proteins needed by our body.
Excess amino acids are broken down in a process called deamination. In this process, the amino group of an amino acid (NH2) is removed and converted to an ammonia molecule (NH3). Deamination takes place mainly in the liver.
Ammonia is very toxic to cells. Ammonia molecules react with carbon dioxide in the body to make urea, which is a much safer chemical. The conversion of ammonia to urea takes place in the liver in a process known as the urea cycle. Blood vessels transport the urea to the kidneys, which remove it from the blood and send it into the urine. The urine is stored in the urinary bladder and released into the environment when we urinate. The overall process is known as excretion. A small amount of urea is released from our body in perspiration.
Concentration in the Blood
A BUN test (or Blood Urea Nitrogen test) detects the concentration of urea in the blood. If the kidneys aren’t doing their job of removing the chemical from the body, the amount of urea in the blood will increase. A BUN test can show how well the kidneys are functioning.
There are other possible reasons for an increase in the blood urea level besides kidney problems. Eating a lot of foods that are rich in protein will cause the liver to produce a large amount of urea. Dehydration will also increase the blood's urea concentration, since this depends on the amount of water in the blood. If there is less water than normal in the blood but the same amount of urea, the urea concentration will be higher than usual.
It’s also possible to have a lower than normal urea concentration in the blood. This can be caused by drinking too much water and diluting the blood, not eating much protein, or being unable to absorb enough amino acids through the wall of the small intestine due to a health problem.
One health problem that can produce a low urea concentration is celiac disease. Villi are tiny projections on the lining of the small intestine which absorb digested food. In celiac disease, the ingestion of gluten damages or destroys the villi. This greatly reduces the absorption of nutrients, including protein. Gluten is a protein complex found in certain grains, including wheat, rye, and barley. While most people eat gluten with no problem, some people are gluten intolerant.
Medicinal Creams and Skin Conditions
In the body, urea is a waste substance that needs to removed. Outside the body, it's often a useful substance. For example, urea is added to some medicinal skin creams, where it often has health benefits. Urea creams can be useful in the treatment of conditions such as corns, calluses, eczema, psoriasis, and ichthyosis, which are described below. Depending on its concentration, urea either removes thickened or scaly areas of skin or makes the skin soft and supple.
- A corn is a thick and hardened area on the skin that may be painful. It often has a central core that looks different from the surroundings. It forms as a result of pressure or friction and is thought to be a protective structure. Corns often form on toes.
- A callus is also a thickened area that is formed in response to pressure. It's larger than a corn and looks the same throughout instead of having a central core. It's generally painless.
- In eczema, the skin is dry and has inflamed and itchy patches. In severe cases, the patches may also be scaly or crusty and may weep. Eczema is also known as dermatitis. The skin barrier is believed to be defective in people with the disorder, making the skin susceptible to irritation. Someone with eczema may experiences flare-ups when the symptoms are present or worse than normal.
- In the most common form of psoriasis (plaque psoriasis), the skin has red patches that are itchy and develop white scales. The skin is generally thicker than in eczema. As in eczema, however, there are often flare-ups. Psoriasis is an autoimmune condition.
- In ichthyosis, the skin is dry, thickened, scaly, and sometimes flaky. In this condition, either old skin cells are shed too slowly or new ones are made too slowly. In addition, the skin barrier is defective.
Potential Benefits of Urea for Skin Problems
Anyone who suspects that they have eczema, psoriasis, or ichthyosis should visit a doctor for a diagnosis and treatment recommendations. In addition, anyone with a corn or callus that causes serious problems or becomes infected should visit a doctor.
With respect to eczema, DermNet New Zealand (a website run by dermatologists) says that a urea cream is "very helpful for dryness but may sting active eczema". The National Psoriasis Foundation says that a urea product can be used as a scale lifter in psoriasis. The Royal Melbourne Children's Hospital says that a urea cream can be used to loosen scales in ichthyosis. They also say that if a cream causes irritation, one with a lower concentration of urea should be tried.
Urea creams have different effects depending on the concentration of the chemical. It's important that the right concentration is chosen for a skin problem. A doctor or pharmacist should be consulted for help.
A Keratolytic Substance and a Humectant
The tough outermost layer of the skin is called the stratum corneum. This layer is made of dead cells and contains a fibrous protein called keratin. When a cream containing a high concentration of urea is applied to a thickened area on the skin, the urea weakens the attachment between the cells of the stratum corneum and dissolves keratin, allowing the area to be shed. Under these conditions, urea is said to be a "keratolytic" substance—one that causes the stratum corneum to soften and peel. The removal of the thickened skin surface is called debridement.
Urea is also hygroscopic, which means that it absorbs water from the air. Skin creams containing low concentrations of urea act as emollients. The softened skin can absorb substances better, which helps medications such as corticosteroids enter the skin. At concentrations of 2% to under 20%, urea is used as a humectant, which is a substance that retains moisture in the skin. At a concentration of 20% or higher, urea is keratolytic.
Fertilizing Soil With Urine
Urea contains forty-six percent nitrogen by weight and can be an excellent fertilizer. It’s cheaper and safer to transport and store than other nitrogen-containing products. Bacteria in soil produce an enzyme called urease. This enzyme causes urea that is added to the soil to react with water. This reaction produces ammonia and carbon dioxide. The ammonia then reacts with water to make ammonium ions, which are absorbed by plant roots.
Urine contains urea, so it could be used as a natural fertilizer. In fact, some scientists in Finland have found that urine is a very good fertilizer for soil in which beets and other vegetables are planted. In a controlled experiment they found that the beets grown in urine-fertilized soil grew significantly bigger than the beets grown in soil treated with a mineral fertilizer while still looking attractive and tasting good.
Other scientists evaluated the growth of sweet peppers in soil fertilized by urine, urea, and compost. They found that the combination of urine and compost resulted in the best growth. Other chemicals in urine besides urea might be useful for crops or might be helpful when combined with compost. It's also possible that urea is beneficial for some plants but not so helpful for others. Another factor that may affect experimental results is the concentration of a urea fertilizer and its application method.
Unlike feces, which may contain dangerous bacteria, urine is virtually sterile (unless someone has an infection of the urinary tract). It's rich in nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus, which are elements that plants need.
Practitioners of urine fertilization say that the liquid must be diluted before use. The chemicals in undiluted urine are far too concentrated for the health of most plants and may injure them. Anywhere from a 1:3 to a 1:10 mixture of urine and water is suggested. In addition, the urine should be applied to the soil and not placed directly on plants. If these precautions are followed, the liquid might be a very helpful fertilizer.
Instead of diluting urine, some commercial fertilizer companies collect the liquid, sterilize it, and then extract useful components from it. Urine is reportedly a good compost activator as well as a good fertilizer.
Although it may sound strange and even repulsive, I think that the idea of recycling urine is an excellent one. The liquid contains important chemicals. It seems a shame to waste them. One of these beneficial chemicals is urea. Although it's a relatively simple molecule, urea is a very useful substance.
Using a Urine Fertilizer
Would you use urine as a soil fertilizer?
Urea production in humans from the Royal Society of Chemistry
Tooth whitening and the historical use of carbamide peroxide from the American Chemical Society
BUN test information from the Mayo Clinic
Treating corns and calluses from the American Academy of Dermatology.
Treatment for eczema (atopic dermatitis) from DermNet New Zealand
Over-the-counter topical medicines for psoriasis from the National Psoriasis Association
Facts about ichthyosis from the Royal Melbourne Children's Hospital.
Information about "peecycling" and its benefits from National Geographic
A discussion about urine-fertilized soil from Scientific American
Urea fertilizer information from the University of Minnesota Extension
Questions & Answers
© 2012 Linda Crampton