When looking for a skin moisturizer or treatment, you will likely come across four types of products: ointments, creams, lotions, and gels. Each serves a different purpose due to its substances, as well as the ratios of water and oil.
Choosing between an ointment, cream, lotion, or gel depends on what you’re trying to treat. Another consideration is your overall skin type, as some products are heavier than others. While finding a favorite may take some trial and error, here’s the essential information you need to know.
Creams and ointments can be either medicinal or cosmetic. The primary difference between the two is the ratio between oil and water. While a cream has equal parts oil and water, ointments have about 80 percent oil.
Due to their water content, creams are easily absorbed in the skin. This can make them ideal for widespread treatment areas. At the same time, the oil content is desirable if you have dry skin, rashes, or skin lesions because the product stays on the surface of your skin for protection against moisture loss.
As daily moisturizers, creams are typically sold in jars. Treatment creams, such as hydrocortisone for bug bites and rashes, may come in tubes for more precise application.
Of all skin products, ointments contain the highest oil content. Their purpose is to have an occlusive effect, which means they stay on top of the skin, rather than being absorbed right away. This offers more protection against moisture loss and elements like dry air. Common ingredients found in ointments include mineral oil and petroleum.
Topical medications, such as antibiotics for infections or corticosteroids for psoriasis, may be ideal in ointment form because they don’t evaporate off the skin, ensuring maximum product absorption. Extremely dry skin may also benefit from moisturizers in ointment form due to the same benefits.
Creams and lotions are often regarded as the same products, but they have completely different make-ups. While creams have half water and half oil, lotions contain mostly water and very little oil. Some lotions might also contain alcohol.
This means that lotions have a much thinner consistency compared to cream-based products. Some lotions are even oil-free, making them ideal for combination, oily, or acne-prone skin types.
Lotions are ideal for everyday wear, especially if you have typical to oily skin. These products absorb quickly into the skin without any residue. If you have both oily and sensitive skin, be sure to choose a lotion that doesn’t have any alcohol, fragrances, or preservatives that might irritate your skin.
Gel products are made from a combination of cellulose, water, and alcohol. These oil-free products are best suited for extremely oily skin types because you will still get the hydration you need without any residue that will leave excess oil on your skin. You might also find gels to be preferable as face moisturizers during the hot and humid summer months.
If you’ve ever had a sunburn, you may have used aloe vera gel. This does not typically contain alcohol, but some versions do contain fragrances. Like other types of gel products,
It’s also possible to find gel-lotion combination products. These go on the skin just like a lotion.
People with dry skin may not benefit as much from gels because gels are absorbed too quickly without creating a moisture barrier on the skin. Read product labels carefully if you have sensitive skin, and avoid any gel product with alcohol or fragrances.
For a prescription topical medication, a doctor will determine whether it’s best that you use an ointment or cream. When selecting an over-the-counter (OTC) product for non-medical use, you have several choices. Here are the main benefits and differences to consider:
An ointment may be best for extremely dry skin because its oil-based formula keeps moisture trapped in the skin. Some OTC products like Aquaphor and Eucerin offer superior protection for dry, chapped, or cracked skin. These can also protect eczema and psoriasis patches.
Ointments may also be helpful for use after frequent handwashing. This helps to prevent your hands from drying out. It’s not uncommon to use an ointment for your hands and feet and to use a cream or lotion for a facial and body moisturizer.
Creams are also ideal for dry skin, and they may be a better alternative if you don’t want the greasy feel that many oil-based products leave behind. Also, while ointments work best for patches of skin, the water contained in creams makes the latter better for widespread use.
If you have normal, dry, or sensitive skin, you may find that cream-based moisturizers provide the right hydration. Lotions may still be a better fit during the hot summer months.
Lotions may work best for combination or typical skin types that don’t need the oil content found in either creams or ointments. A higher water content makes lotions easier to apply all over the body and face.
One way to tell a cream apart from a lotion is to see whether the product is labeled either “oil-free” or “light-weight.” If this is the case, you are looking at a lotion and not a cream. If you have acne-prone skin, look for a lotion that’s non-comedogenic — this means the product won’t clog your pores.
Another sign of an actual lotion? Most lotions bottles have pumps, while creams are in jars. This is because most creams are too thick to dispense with pumps.
For oily skin or burns, consider using a gel-based product. The high absorption rate leaves your skin feeling less oily (and breakout prone) overall. Sunburn also responds well to aloe vera gel because of the product’s rapid absorption rate.
Avoid using gel as your regular moisturizer if you have sensitive or dry skin. Such products may cause irritation and excess dryness.
Choosing the right topical product depends on your skin type, as well as how much water and oil the product contains. Ointments contain the most oil, making them the best choice for extremely dry, cracked skin. Creams have some oil, while lotions and gels contain more water.
It may take a bit of trial and error until you have found the right product for your skin type. If you’re still not satisfied with the results, see a dermatologist for advice.