So, What’s The Difference Between Creams, Lotions, And Moisturizers?

Shopping for skincare and body care can be confusing. Here’s what you need to know about these go-to hydrating products.
Expert Opinion
Written by Samantha Stone
01.27.2021
So, What’s The Difference Between Creams, Lotions, And Moisturizers?ANNELEVEN IMAGES/Shutterstock

It goes without saying that the skincare market is a crowded one. There are a lot of products that promise to nourish and hydrate the skin, and it can be confusing to figure out what type of formulation is best for your needs. Here, we’re going straight to the experts — a cosmetic chemist and dermatologist, to be exact — to better understand the difference between moisturizers, lotions, creams, balms, and salves.

Hydration vs. Moisture

You’re probably not surprised to hear that the difference between these types of products is subtle. There can be a lot of gray space amongst the categories, and marketing intent and consumer expectations play a role in how products are classified. With that said, there are some meaningful distinctions to keep in mind the next time you head to the skincare aisle.

For starters, let’s talk about the terms ‘hydration’ and ‘moisture’ (i.e. two beauty buzzwords that seem to be everywhere these days). “Skin hydration is a measurement of water content of skin, and it can be achieved through moisturization,” explains Valerie George, a cosmetic chemist and co-host of The Beauty Brains. “I think confusion between ‘hydration’ and ‘moisturization’ really comes down to marketing language and consumer perception, and these words technically can be used interchangeably.”

From a consumer perspective, George says hydrators are often perceived to be more lightweight (think: gels, gel creams, and sprays or mists), while moisturizers come in more traditional formats (like lotions or creams) and can be more substantive or occlusive than hydrators.

The Catch-All ‘Moisturizer’

So, what is a moisturizer? “Moisturizer is an umbrella term for skincare products that are used to slow water loss from the skin and maintain a normal skin barrier,” explains Amanda Doyle, MD, a board certified dermatologist at Russak Dermatology Clinic in New York City. Their primary benefit? Maintaining moisture. “They are used to increase the hydration state of the top layer of the skin (stratum corneum), smooth out the rough surface with an emollient (substances added to cosmetics to soften the skin), and restore the integrity of the skin,” she says.

While they are often associated with creams and lotions, ‘moisturizers’ can range from lightweight serums to rich balms. When it comes to selecting a moisturizer, George recommends considering your skin type and the benefit you’re after. “Select a moisturizer based on whether your skin is dry, normal, or oily,” George explains. “And also choose based on what benefit you are looking for — sun protection, anti-aging, brightening, etc.” Similarly, Dr. Doyle has these suggestions for choosing a formula by skin type:

  • For Oily Skin: Pick an oil-free, non-comedogenic moisturizer
  • For Normal Skin: Opt for lighter moisturizing agents like serums and lotions
  • For Dry Skin: Try a richer, oil-based cream or ointment

Within the cream-like moisturizing umbrella, there are several product types. We’re breaking them down from lightest to heaviest: lotions, cream, salves, and balms.

Lotion

Of all of the cream-like moisturizers, lotion is among the lightest. It has a higher water content compared to creams, salves, and balms. “Lotion can be glycerin-rich and is a lighter moisturizer,” Dr. Doyle says. Depending on your skin type, it can have different uses. “It’s great all year round for those who don’t have extremely dry skin,” she notes. If your skin is on the drier side, you might be able to switch to a lotion in the warmer (read: more humid) months.

Cream

Next up on the moisture scale? Cream, which is heavier than a lotion. Face and body creams have a lower water content and higher oil content, giving them a heavier weight and viscosity relative to lotions or serums. Dr. Doyle recommends using body cream when you want extra hydration without feeling overly greasy. “Cream is an oil-in-water emulsion and a great product to help keep the skin hydrated, especially in the winter,” she says.

Salve

Oil-based salves are not formulated with water, which makes them more occlusive than creams and lotions. “A salve is an ointment-based moisturizer that stays on the top of the skin but also penetrates more deeply into the skin,” Dr. Doyle says. As such, they are great for very dry skin types or for treating specific patches of skin. “Salves are perfect for when you need barrier repair for a targeted area, like the backs of your knuckles in the winter,” George notes.

Balm

Like salve, balms are oil-based and do not contain water. “A balm is a type of ointment with a thicker consistency that sits on top of the skin — think lip balms, beard balms, hair balms,” Dr. Doyle explains. “These feel much thicker and can add in hydration, but they are best for very dry skin and those who are not acne prone.”

The Takeaway

All of the skincare products we identified here fall under the ‘moisturizer’ umbrella term. Whether they are for the face or body, lotions, creams, balms, and salves are all moisturizers, and they have the similar goal of slowing transepidermal water loss. When choosing a product, remember to consider your skin type and goals. After all, these formulas often contain additional active ingredients that can brighten, soothe, and smooth the skin.

All products featured are independently selected by our editors, however, AEDIT may receive a commission on items purchased through our links.

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SAMANTHA STONEis a freelance writer for AEDIT.

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