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What’s the Difference Between Creams, Lotions, and Ointments?

What’s the Difference Between Creams, Lotions, and Ointments?

Everything affects our skin. From harsh winter weather to excessive hand washing, environmental factors, and the products we use, our routines can really take a toll. While smooth, soft, and hydrated skin is likely on the top of everyone’s wish list, finding the best product to address our specific needs may be far easier said than done. And one stroll down the skincare aisle quickly reveals why. When you’re trying to figure out how to moisturize and heal your dry skin, the throng of creams, lotions, and ointments before you can be mind-boggling. We’ll demystify one aspect of moisturizers so you can get on with the business of finding the best product for your skincare needs.

What’s the Difference?

The primary difference between these three product types, in short, is water content. Generally speaking, creams have equal parts oil and water (50% water), lotions are mostly water with very little oil, and ointments have the highest oil content of the lot, usually somewhere around 80%. Ultimately, the oil and water content of these products dictates how effective they are in the fight against dry skin. Let’s take a closer look at how these products differ.


Typically, creams have a 50:50 oil to water ratio. They are easily absorbed into the skin due to their water content, and they’re not very greasy. Moreover, the higher water content (in comparison to ointments, for example) also makes creams more “spreadable,” so they’re much easier to use on larger swaths of your body. Visually speaking, creams don’t sit on the surface of the skin, so they don’t damage clothing and they wash off relatively easily as well. Another notable difference is that creams tend to contain preservatives, so while they may last longer, those preservatives can irritate your skin.


Lotions and creams are frequently confused, and the terms are often used interchangeably even though there are considerable differences between the two. Perhaps the most important difference is in how they perform. Lotions are mostly water (with very little oil); they are lighter than creams and absorb into the skin quickly.

Essentially, because lotions can’t form an effective emollient skin barrier, they are too light and too thin to be completely effective in the fight against dry skin. While they’re not ideal for extremely dry skin, they might be better suited for spring and summer, when creams and ointments feel too heavy.


Typically consisting of 80% oil and 20% water, ointments contain the highest oil content of all skincare products. For that reason, they are not easily absorbed; instead, they sit on the surface of the skin, acting as an occlusive barrier. Ointments tend to be preservative-free, and common ingredients include mineral oil and petroleum. Topical medications (like antibiotics) are often in ointment form because of their propensity to form a protective, occlusive barrier and can therefore protect wounds and injuries for a longer period of time. For the same reasons, ointments are ideally suited for extremely dry, cracked skin.  

While creams, lotions, and ointments are all moisturizers, each one performs differently due to its water and oil content. For light, everyday coverage, lotions may be a good choice. If your skin is dry, however, you may want to opt for a moisturizer with a little more emollience. In this case, creams are a good bet as they can hydrate dry skin and provide an effective skin barrier. For extremely dry and cracked skin, an ointment may be in order.

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