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When looking for a skin moisturizer or treatment, you’ll typically come across four main types of products:

  • ointments
  • creams
  • lotions
  • gels

Different ratios of water and oil give these substances unique textures, which can have some effect on the product’s intended purpose.

To put it another way, the choice between an ointment, cream, lotion, or gel might depend on the skin concern you want to address. The same product may not be the best option for all of your skin care needs.

Plus, since some of these products have heavier textures than others, your overall skin type is another important consideration.

Below, you’ll find essential information that can help you narrow down your options and find a product that works well for your skin needs.

Both creams and ointments can have medicinal or cosmetic uses.

The primary difference between the two lies in the ratio between oil and water. While a cream has equal parts oil and water, ointments contain about 80 percent oil.

A few other differences include:

Absorption

  • Creams. Due to their high water content, creams are easily absorbed, so they can cover large areas of skin. Their oil content also means they stay on your skin’s surface to help protect against moisture loss, which makes them ideal for treating dry skin, rashes, or skin lesions.
  • Ointments. Of all skin products, ointments contain the most oil. They stay on top of your skin rather than being absorbed right away, which offers more protection against moisture loss and the elements, like cold or dry air. Common ingredients found in ointments include mineral oil and petroleum.

Consistency

  • Creams. These have a smooth texture with a thicker consistency than lotions, which tend to be runnier. They can be non-greasy to mildly greasy.
  • Ointments. These have a thicker consistency than creams, but may spread a little farther across your skin. They tend to have a greasy or even sticky feel.

Appearance

  • Creams. Because of their oil-to-water ratio, creams tend to be thick enough to maintain their shape whether squeezed from a tube or scooped from a jar. An older 2005 study that obtained scientifically based, systematic classifications for topical drugs described creams as opaque and viscous.
  • Ointments. Ointments can be opaque or translucent. Like creams, ointments hold their shape well.

Other features

  • Creams. Daily moisturizing creams are typically sold in jars. Treatment creams, such as hydrocortisone for bug bites and rashes, often come in tubes. The product’s container generally depends on the body surface area the product is intended for. Those intended for small areas, in other words, will likely come in a tube rather than a jar.
  • Ointments. You’ll typically find medications, such as antibiotics for infections or corticosteroids for psoriasis, in ointment form. They remain on your skin’s surface for a longer period of time, which helps ensure maximum product absorption. Extremely dry skin may also benefit from moisturizers in ointment form for the same reason.

Many people consider creams and lotions much the same product, but they have very different formulations.

Again, creams contain equal parts oil and water.

Lotions, on the other hand, contain much more water than oil, though some might also contain alcohol. You can also find oil-free lotions, which might be ideal for combination, oily, or acne-prone skin.

In either case, lotions have a much thinner consistency than cream-based products. They also absorb quickly into the skin and leave very little residue. That means they generally work well for everyday wear, especially if you have normal to oily skin.

If you have both oily and sensitive skin, opt for a lotion without any alcohol, fragrances, or preservatives that might irritate your skin.

Gel products typically contain a combination of cellulose, water, and alcohol. It’s also possible to find gel-lotion combination products, which go on much like a lotion.

Oil-free gels tend to work well for extremely oily skin, since they provide hydration without leaving residue and excess oil on your skin. You might also find that gels work well as facial moisturizers during the hot and humid summer months.

That said, you may not benefit as much from gels if you have dry skin, since your skin may absorb these products so quickly that no moisture barrier remains.

Make sure to read product labels carefully, especially if you have sensitive skin, and avoid any gel product with alcohol or fragrances.

In the world of skin care, balms are another common formulation. These products tend to be very thick, almost solid, and they may have a waxy texture. Balms contain base ingredients, like fatty oils and waxes, rather than the water used in creams and lotions.

Balms are highly concentrated, since they don’t contain the filler ingredients necessary for water-based products.

Like ointments, balms aren’t rapidly absorbed by your skin. Instead, they create a barrier to lock in moisture. That makes them a good option for areas prone to extreme dryness, like the knuckles and elbows.

ConsistencyIdeal uses
Lotionthin, non-greasyrapid absorption without residue
Creamholds shape, viscous, non-greasy to mildly greasydry skin, rashes, or skin lesions that need protection against moisture loss
Ointmentthick, viscous, greasytopical medications that need maximum product absorption
Gelthick, non-greasyextremely oily skin
Balmvery thick, waxydry skin in need of hydrating barrier and slow absorption

For a prescription topical medication, a healthcare professional will typically determine whether you might benefit most from an ointment or cream.

If you’re selecting an over-the-counter (OTC) product, consider the key benefits and differences of each type of product.

Ointment

Ointments may work well for extremely dry skin because their thick, oil-based formulas help trap moisture. You might, for example, use an ointment for your hands and feet and a thinner cream or lotion for your face and the rest of your body.

Using an ointment after frequent handwashing can also help protect skin and keep your hands from drying out.

  • Aquaphor and Eucerin are two examples of OTC ointments that offer soothing protection for dry, chapped, or cracked skin. These can also help relieve eczema and psoriasis patches.
  • Bacitracin, Neosporin, Polysporin, and other OTC topical antibiotics can help prevent infection if you have a minor wound, burn, or skin abrasion.

Cream

Creams, which can also work well for dry skin, may offer a better alternative if you don’t want the greasy feel that many oil-based products leave behind. That’s especially true with hand creams.

While ointments tend to work best for patches of skin, the water contained in creams makes them more useful for widespread use.

If you have typical, dry, or sensitive skin, you may find that cream-based moisturizers provide a good level of hydration — though you might prefer to use a lotion during the hot summer months.

Lotion

Lotions generally work well for combination or normal skin that doesn’t need the oil content found in either creams or ointments.

One way to tell a cream apart from a lotion? Check whether the label says “oil-free” or “lightweight.” This language typically refers to a lotion, not a cream.

Lotion bottles also often have pumps, while you’ll frequently find creams sold in jars. Most creams are too thick to dispense with pumps.

If you have acne-prone skin, opt for a lotion that’s noncomedogenic — this means the product is less likely to clog your pores.

Gel

You might consider using a gel-based product if you have oilier skin or if you want to treat a burn.

The high absorption rate of gels can leave your skin feeling less oily overall, and it could help make breakouts less likely.

It’s generally best to avoid using gel as your regular moisturizer if you have sensitive or dry skin. Gel products may cause irritation and excess dryness.

One gel product you’ve probably used before? Aloe vera gel, which can help treat sunburn. Sunburn responds well to aloe vera gel, in part because of the product’s rapid absorption rate. Plus, the natural salicylic acid content in aloe vera has an antibacterial, anti-inflammatory effect.

Choosing the right topical product can depend 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 to find the right product for your skin type and current needs. If you’ve tried a range of products and still don’t get the results you’re hoping for, a dermatologist can offer more personalized guidance.