Lotion vs. Cream—Here Are the Main Differences Between These Moisturizers

The question of lotion vs. cream is the beauty equivalent of deciding whether spinning or running is the better cardio workout for you. Sure, both products are known to hydrate and moisturize. But how do you know when it’s best to reach for one over the other?

To help you decide, it’s important to understand the differences between the two in order to utilize both in the most opportune ways. And because we want to provide you with science-backed intel (not just our personal preferences), we tapped two doctors for their hot takes—Ratika Gupta, MD, a board-certified allergist and immunologist and founder of bebaby moisturizing cream for tiny tots, and Annie Gonzalez, a board-certified dermatologist at Riverchase Dermatology.

Experts In This Article

Below both skin-care pros share some key details you should know about lotion vs. cream so you can keep your epidermis as healthy and hydrated as possible.

To start, what is lotion, exactly?

Simply put, lotion is a moisturizer comprised mainly of H2O, plus oils and other hydrating ingredients. “Because of their higher water content, lotions are lighter in feel and not as occlusive [meaning they don’t lock in hydration as well as creams]; however they are beneficial in the heat and in sweaty environments because of this,” says Dr. Gupta.

One major plus of its lightweight formulation is that lotion is quickly absorbed by the skin. “I always tell my patients to moisturize three minutes after they get out of the shower to really reap the benefits a lotion has to offer,” says Dr. Gonzalez.

In general, lotion is best for normal to slightly dry skin types.

Okay, so what is a cream then?

“Creams have a thicker consistency with less percentage of water—usually 50/50 water and oil,” says Dr. Gupta. “They’re more hydrating [than lotions], and they often come in tubs since the cream is too thick to be dispensed in a pump,” she adds.

As a result, creams are well suited for dry and sensitive skin types that need to strengthen their skin barriers by moisturizing in order to repair and protect the top layer of the epidermis from damage caused by bacteria and environmental stressors. “Creams are great for dry skin, those with eczema and its various forms, and in the winter when most people experience skin itchiness due to drier conditions,” says Dr. Gupta.

While picking out a cream, keep this pro tip from Dr. Gonzalez in mind: “When recommending a cream to my patients, I often tell them to look for products that are infused with moisturizing omega-3s and lipids, as well as vitamin E and pro-vitamin B5, for added moisturization benefits,” she says.

In terms of when to apply creams, you can slather them on anytime, but they’re especially great to incorporate into your before-bed beauty routine. “Some people may prefer to use it at night when it could be more comfortable to apply,” Dr. Gupta says, as they’re more likely to help with decreasing TEWL (aka trans-epidermal water-loss), which essentially means your skin drying out. And since you’re more likely to get dehydrated while sleeping because you’re not drinking fluids for an extended period of time, opting for a thicker moisturizer in the p.m. can help in this department. “Creams should be used all over the body, and if your face is very dry, they can be applied—but look for non-comedogenic ingredients [so they won’t clog your pores],” says Dr. Gupta.

Cream vs. lotion: when to use which

Dr. Gupta recommends using lotions for your face during the daytime, as opposed to a cream, especially during warmer months when you’re likely to sweat, and your skin is probably more moist and hydrated anyways. Opt for a lotion that boasts hydrating ingredients, such as shea butter, cocoa butter, hyaluronic acid, or coconut oil. If you skin tends to be drier year-round, you can incorporate a cream into your nighttime skin-care routine. Use it either all over or on thicker areas of skin like elbows, knees, and heels depending on your needs.

Alternatively, Dr. Gonzalez suggests switching between lotions and creams according to season. “In the hotter summer months, lotions are lighter and can still provide enough hydration, but in the winter months, I often recommend my patients—even those who do not suffer from dry skin—try a cream,” she says, adding that all skin types will benefit from a seasonal switch up.

Are creams better than lotions?

While both have a place in your skin-care routine, creams will have more advantages when used regularly, as opposed to lotions because they lock in moisture better and for longer. “As an allergist I usually always recommend creams to keep skin hydrated,” says Dr. Gupta. And Dr. Gonzalez adds that she advises her clients to look for products that can keep skin moisturized for 24 hours.

When it comes to brands for both lotions and creams, Dr. Gupta recommends Cerave. “It has ceramides which are a key ingredient in strengthening the skin barrier,” she says. For extra dry skin, Dr. Gonzalez likes Lubriderm’s line of advanced therapy care. “Recently I’ve been enjoying and recommending the new fragrance-free Lubriderm Advanced Therapy Moisturizing Cream and Advanced Therapy Lotion, as these products are free of parabens, phthalates, fragrances, and dyes and help transform extra-dry skin into healthy, more resilient skin,” she says. Both cream and lotion have 24-hour long-lasting power, great moisturizing benefits and fast-acting absorption rates.

The bottom line both docs agree on, though, is that using something to keep your skin hydrating is better than nothing.

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