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What are the differences between creams, ointments and gels?

Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 3 minutes read
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Creams, ointments, and gels are all effective in treating skin conditions, but each one differs in its specific properties. Individually, they can treat a specific type of condition particularly effectively.

In this article, we will explain some of the properties each one has and why it can be beneficial in certain situations.

Creams

Creams contain one or more medicinal products dissolved in water or oil emulsion. Because of this, they are easily applied, removed, and absorbed through the skin. Their high-water content means the cream can evaporate and only leave some of the oil and any desired active ingredient on the skin surface, protecting it from moisture loss. Creams are ideal for frequent daily use, with some creams being marketed as “non-greasy”; this usually means they will have a higher water-to-oil ratio to enhance evaporation.

Some drugs dissolve better in water than in oil. Hence you may find that a certain medication may only come in the cream form. You may also come across “lotions”; these are similar to creams but contain a much higher water content and very little oil.

Ointments

Ointments contain high amounts of oil, ideal for extremely dry skin. Because of the high oil content, they are commonly referred to as “occlusive,” meaning they create a layer on the skin that reduces water's evaporation rate. Because of this property, they are greasy, and some people do not like this sensation for long periods. However, this property also means they are very well suited for drugs that need to remain on the skin surface for extended periods, such as topical antibiotics or for treatments where lubrication is needed, as well as for drugs that require oil to dissolve.

Gels

Gels are made of water, alcohol, and a gelling agent. Gels are usually oil-free and are best suited for oily skin as they do not increase the oil content of your skin while still providing moisture. They are not the best for moisturizing as they evaporate rapidly without creating an effective barrier on the skin. However, they are useful in the summer or hot climates because they do not trap water and sweat on the skin like ointments and, to some extent, creams.

Due to their high water content, they are ideal for medications that require water to dissolve, as well as for their rapid absorption properties. Hence you may find certain products most commonly available as a gel, such as acne or sun-protection products.

Which should I choose?

It is important to note, even though most formulations come as creams, it does not necessarily mean it is best for your skin. When choosing over the counter, it is important to consider what is best for you. Here are a few recommended articles which we recommend having a read-through if you are still confused:

  • Aveeno Cream - an oats-based formulation
  • Epaderm Line: cream & ointment
  • Epimax Line: cream, ointment, and gel
  • Benadryl Cream: effective relief for insect bites and stings

Choosing the right non-prescription topical product depends on your skin type, as well as how much water and oil the product contains. For prescriptions, your doctor or pharmacist will usually recommend a product that has characteristics to treat your condition in the best way.

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Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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