Compared to other moisturizers, lotion (even gobs of it) doesn’t guarantee hydrated skin—here’s why (and what to use instead), according to derms.

By Claudia Fisher
Updated December 11, 2019
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There's a bigger difference between lotion and other moisturizers than you might think. Slathering lotion all over your body has probably become second nature if you're worried about drying out your skin, especially after showers when you're supposed to try to trap as much moisture in your skin as possible. Unfortunately, winding up with enough lotion on your body for a DIY Slip 'N Slide isn't necessarily the same as moisturizing.

You're right to be be applying moisturizer immediately after showering, but you could be wrong about the type of moisturizer you're using. According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), a group of over 20,000 practicing dermatologists, you should be using an ointment or cream, rather than a lotion, to get the most hydration benefits after bathing. If you have dry skin, the differences between lotions, ointments, and creams are particularly crucial.

Kenneth Mark, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and Mohs skin cancer surgeon, says that while ointments can be less appealing to some people because they're oil-based, and therefore feel greasier, "they have the greatest emollient effect." (Emollients are substances that help soothe skin and increase moisture levels.) "They also can create a barrier between the skin and the environment to help seal moisture into the skin," he adds. Dr. Mark recommends Aquaphor Healing Ointment ($13; amazon.com) for severely dry skin.

After ointments, creams offer the next best moisturizing benefits. Dr. Mark explains, "Creams are water soluble and more hydrating than a lotion, but less so than an ointment." Many people find creams preferable to ointments because of the texture and consistency. As Dr. Mark puts it, "A cream even implies a certain texture to it, by definition."

The National Eczema Society's page on emollients also points out that creams have the added benefit of feeling light and cool on dry or irritated skin. Try Cerave Moisturizing Cream ($17; amazon.com), a longtime drugstore staple and dermatologist-recommended brand.

That brings us to lotions. The AAD and the National Eczema Society both say lotion is more irritating and less effective than creams and ointments for moisturizing dry skin. Dr. Mark adds that you can think of a lotion as similar to "a powder in a liquid" because its emulsion properties are more diluted than those of creams and ointments. The one time a lotion might come in handy is to moisturize hairy areas of your body where products of a thinner consistency would be easier to spread and rub in. Other than that, ointments and creams are your best bet to soothe dry, sensitive skin (especially in cold, dry weather).