Due to the harshness of winter, many people get dry skin and may need a cream or an ointment for relief. But what is the difference between a cream and an ointment? When is it best to use a cream or an ointment? Which one should you choose?
A cream is a preparation of a medication for topical use that contains a water base. It is a preparation of oil in water. An ointment is a preparation of a medication for topical use that contains an oil base. It is a preparation of water in oil. While ointments have a higher concentration of oil, creams have a higher concentration of water. You can see the difference between creams and oils when you open the tube. The more oil there is the greasier and stickier the product.
Creams work better on larger areas of the skin because of their “spreadability” factor, compared to ointments. If you have a rash over the whole back, a cream might be easier and less messy to apply than an ointment. Creams work better on skin conditions such as eczema or poison ivy that is oozing or wet because they evaporate much quickly than ointments. They also work better on skin that often touches other skin, such as an armpit or groin.
Most people use creams on dry skin because they spread easier and tend to feel soothing. However, creams can leave the skin feeling drier than before. Ointments work better on dry skin conditions, such as psoriasis. They are occlusive, trapping moisture and absorbing much more slowly into the skin over time. They tend to stay on the skin much longer than creams for this reason.
If you need to moisturize the skin, an ointment is a better choice. If you need a medication to penetrate deep into the skin, an ointment is a better choice as well, because they tend to stay on the skin much longer and creams will dry out before getting fully absorbed into the skin tissue.
So, the next time you are at the store trying to decide on a cream or ointment, take a look at the skin you are trying to heal. Is it cracked and dry, or is it moist and oozing? Is the skin in a large area, or do you only need a small amount? Do you need the medication to go below the skin surface? These questions will help you decide the best cream or ointment to use.
– Min Ko, PharmD