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Lotions, Creams and Ointments – Which One to Use When and Why

beauty cream
lotions, creams and ointments

Let’s face it- we are always trying to find that perfect lotion, cream or ointment for our skin. We enjoy trying different skincare products to soothe our skin and to make us feel better. Some of us are self-admitted product junkies.  As for our baby’s skin, we look for products that are safe, hypoallergenic and non-irritating. The media and market are cluttered with tons of choices.  Read on for a better sense of when to choose lotions, baby skin creams and ointments for yourself and your baby and why.

What makes a lotion, cream, and ointment different from each other? There is some basic chemistry to understanding the makeup of these different product formulations. Technically speaking, lotions, creams and ointments are all classified as emulsions, which simply means a mixture of oil in water.  A good way to think of it is the classic oil and vinegar salad dressing. Think of the vinegar in the salad dressing as the water in a skincare product.  To combine the different ingredients in a salad dressing, you mix it by shaking it up. This isn’t practical for skincare products, so there are ingredients in them called emulsifiers that keep the oil and water mixture stable, or “mixed.”  What makes lotions, creams, and ointments different is their composition of that oil and water mixture. Ointments have more oils and lotions have more water. Lotions are 70% water; creams are 70% oil; and ointments are greater than 80% oil.

Before jumping in to which product to use, let’s make sure we understand basic skin biology. The skin is the largest organ in our body and our first defense and protector from the elements. The skin is made up of a complex network of cells that produce our natural oils (called natural moisturizing factor), immune cells, nerves, blood vessels, oil glands, and collagen. It is amazing all of the action that happens in the thin layer of skin!

One of the important functions of our skin is to protect, including protection from water loss. Things that cause our skin to lose water include increased water exposure and reduction of our natural skin oils (natural moisturizing factor). Contrary to what many may believe, sitting in a warm bubble bath does not hydrate your skin but instead dries it out. To minimize water loss from your skin, try avoiding long and repeated showers or baths. After your shower or bath, immediately apply a lotion, cream or ointment to form a protective seal to lock in the water moisture and moisturize your skin.

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A baby’s skin is thinner, more sensitive, more prone to irritation, and more prone to losing water.  Because of those factors, creams and ointments are better skincare products to use on babies.  Lotions simply have more water that can potentially dehydrate the skin.  If your baby has normal skin, a cream would be a good choice.  If your baby has sensitive skin that is more prone to eczema, then an ointment would be better. Ointments do the best job to protect the skin from water loss. A trick to make ointment application less greasy is to apply the ointment on skin that is damp or has some water droplets on it.  Regardless of whether your baby needs a cream or ointment, apply it each day after bath time and as often as needed in between baths.

Here are some final thoughts on lotions, creams, and ointments…

There are some ingredients that we should avoid in all of our skincare products.  They include parabens, phthalates, sulfates, formaldehyde-releasers, sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), dyes, GMOs, and bisphenol-A. These ingredients are not necessary for healthy skin and all have controversy around them.   In addition, fragrance should always be avoided for babies since fragrance is becoming the most common cause of contact allergy.

We hope that this new knowledge of lotions, creams and ointments will help you to make the best choice for protecting and hydrating your baby’s skin (and yours)!

All the best,

The Baby Pibu™ Team




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