Creams, ointments and gels are all effective at treating certain skin problems, but each is different in composition, absorption quality, and feel. Sometimes they have similar ingredients, but the formulation varies by product. Here's how to figure out which one is best for you and your skincare needs.
The main difference is that cream and gel are generally water-based, while ointment is oil-based. Some creams contain oil, but at a lower concentration than in ointment. The oils used in both cream and ointment are often lanolin or petrolatum. Made from water and a thickening agent, such as a polymer or polysaccharide, gels are usually oil-free but may sometimes contain a small amount of oil.
Ointments are occlusive, meaning when applied, they leave a layer of oil on the surface of the skin. This traps moisture in to prevent wounds from drying out. Creams are easily absorbed and leave behind a thin film from the oil and thickening agent to help retain moisture. Gels also absorb well and only leave behind a thin film from the thickening agent.
Texture and Appearance
Creams are usually thick and white, but sometimes tinted with natural or synthetic ingredients. They're usually invisible on the skin since they don't leave a heavy film. Gels are clear or semi-opaque but can also be tinted; they tend to disappear into the skin, too. Ointments are thick, clear and greasy and can look shiny when applied.
Ointments are better for dry skin but generally aren't used in products for the face because of the greasy feel. Creams and gels are good for oily skin; they also spread easily, so they're best for treating large areas.