Ointments are oil-based (80% oil and 20% water) and preservative free. They are the most absorbent and provide an occlusive barrier on the skin that prevents moisture loss, allowing the greatest benefit. The greasier the better, especially with dry, cracked skin. They are also good for allergic skin, sensitive skin and for skin that is not going to easily absorb, like psoriasis. To improve efficacy, you can even use a covering over the area. For example, if you have dry and cracked knuckles, apply the ointment and put on gloves.
Creams (50% oil and 50% water) are non-greasy and disappear when rubbed in. Typically a patient favorite, creams are useful when it might not be cosmetically appealing or realistic to use an ointment, such as on the face or under clothes, which might cause them to get ruined. However, they wash off easily and contain both preservatives and alcohol with can burn on allergic or cracked skin.
Lotions are similar to creams, but they are lighter and less thick. Their absorption is very fast. Most over-the-counter body moisturizers are lotions but they are terrible because they absorb quickly and evaporate just as quickly. The skin is then left just as dry as before. They do not form the emollient barrier that makes an ointment so effective.
So, what treatment is right for you? It depends on the skin condition, but as a general rule choose something in a tub, not a pump.
Written by: Gina Coons, PA Student, GWU