What's the Difference Between Ointment, Cream, Lotion, and Gel?
When you're on the lookout for skin moisturizer or treatment, you'll find four types of products: ointment, cream, lotion, and gel.
Each one serves a different purpose due to its substances and textures, as well as the ratios of water and oil.
Choosing between an ointment, cream, lotion, and gel depends on what you’re trying to treat, your overall skin type, and some personal preference.
Finding a favorite may take some trial and error, but in the meantime, A Sleepy Bee found some essential information you need to know!
What is the difference between cream and ointment?
Cream and ointment can be either medicinal or cosmetic, but the primary difference between the two is the ratio of oil and water. A cream has equal parts oil and water while ointments have about 80 percent oil.
Cream: Due to their high water content, creams are easily absorbed in the skin. This makes cream ideal for widespread treatment areas.
On the other hand, oil content is great if you have rashes, dry skin, or skin lesions because the oil helps the product stay on the surface of your skin for protection against moisture loss.
As daily moisturizers, creams are usually sold in jars. Treatment creams like hydrocortisone for rashes and bug bites may come in tubes for more precise application.
Ointment: Of all the skin products available, ointments contain the highest oil content. Their purpose is to stay on top of the skin rather than being absorbed right away, offering more protection against moisture loss and elements like dry air.
Common ingredients found in ointments include petroleum and mineral oil.
Topical medications such as corticosteroids and antibiotics for infections are more suited to an ointment form because they don’t evaporate off the skin, ensuring product absorption.
Extremely dry skin may also benefit from moisturizers in ointment form due to the same benefits.
What is a lotion?
Creams and lotions are often assumed to be pretty much the same product, but they have completely different makeups. While creams are a 50/50 mixture of water and oil, lotions contain very little oil and are mostly made of water. Some lotions might also contain alcohol.
This means that lotions are much thinner in consistency compared to cream-based products. Some lotions are oil-free, making them ideal for oily, combination, or acne-prone skin types.
Lotions are also ideal for everyday wear, especially if you have typical to oily skin. These products absorb quickly into skin without any residue. If you have both sensitive and oily skin, be sure to choose a lotion that doesn’t have alcohol, fragrances, or preservatives that might irritate your skin.
What is a gel?
Gel products are made from a combination of water, cellulose, and alcohol. These oil-free products are best for extremely oily skin types because you'll still get the hydration you need without any residue that can leave excess oil on your skin. You might also find gels to be preferable as facial moisturizers during the hot and humid summer months.
Aloe vera gel does not typically contain alcohol, but some versions do contain fragrances. Like other types of gel products, aloe vera contains natural salicylic acid and has a drying effect. The gel is also thin enough to be applied over facial and body hair.
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 from gels because gels are absorbed too quickly without creating a moisture barrier on the skin. Be sure to read product labels carefully if you have sensitive skin, and avoid gel products with alcohol or fragrances.
Should I use an ointment, cream, lotion, or gel?
For a prescription topical medication, a doctor will be able to determine whether it’s best that you use an ointment or cream.
When selecting over-the-counter products for non-medical use, you have several choices. Here are the main differences and benefits to consider:
An ointment may be best for very dry skin because its oil-based formula keeps moisture trapped in the skin. Some OTC products like Aquaphor and Eucerin offer the best protection for dry, chapped, or cracked skin. These can also protect eczema and psoriasis.
Ointments may be helpful for use after frequent handwashing, preventing your hands from drying out. It’s not uncommon to use an ointment for hands and feet and to use a cream or lotion for facial and body moisturizer.
Creams are also great for dry skin, and they may be a better alternative if you do not want the greasy feeling many oil-based products leave behind. Also, while ointments work best for patches of skin, water contained in creams makes the latter better for widespread use.
If you have sensitive, normal, or dry, you may find that cream-based moisturizers provide the right hydration. Lotions may still be a better fit during those hot summer months.
Lotions work best for combination or typical skin types that don’t need the oil content found in creams or ointments. A higher water content makes lotion 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 “oil-free” or “light-weight.” If this is the case, you're looking at a lotion and not a cream.
If you have acne-prone skin, look for a non-comedogenic lotion, which means the product won't clog your pores.
Another sign of an actual lotion is that most lotions bottles have pumps while creams are in jars. This is because most creams are simply too thick to dispense with pumps.
For burns or oily skin, consider using a gel-based product. The high absorption rate leaves your skin feeling less oily overall. Sunburn also responds well to gels such as aloe vera gel because of the product’s rapid absorption rate.
Avoid using gel as a regular moisturizer if you have sensitive or dry skin. These products may cause irritation and excess dryness.
Choosing the right topical product depends on how much water and oil the product contains as well as your skin type.
Ointments contain the most oil, which makes them the best choice for extremely dry, cracked skin. Creams do have some oil, while lotion and gel contains more water.
It will take a bit of trial and error until you find the right product for your skin type. If you’re still not satisfied with the results, see your dermatologist for advice.