Beauty Health

Moisturizer Formulations and Why They Matter

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This is the second section of a five-part series dedicated to moisturizers. 

I, by no means, am claiming to be an expert in dermatology. I’ve done my best to be as thorough as possible during my research. If you’re an expert and find an inaccuracy, please let me know and I’d be happy to investigate. This is a learning experience for me too.

Now that we’ve discussed some skin basics in the first post of this five-part series, and hopefully you’ve determined whether you have dry skin, dehydrated skin, or both, let’s talk moisturizer formulations.

Moisturizer formulation refers to how the moisturizer is made and the appearance of the final product.

Knowing and understanding moisturizer formulations is important as the formulation, in part, dictates appropriate usage of a particular moisturizer.

So, understanding moisturizer formulations will allow you to select a moisturizer with a formulation suitable for your skin’s needs!


You may have noticed, or maybe you didn’t before but now you will 😉, moisturizer names tend to contain the words “lotion”, “cream”, “gel”, or “ointment”.

These aren’t just thrown in for fun; they actually describe the formulation of that moisturizer. I didn’t notice this either until I went looking to see if I could identify the formulation of moisturizers based on their ingredients, but found out I didn’t need to go that far; I needed only to look to the name.

But I thought, what the heck do these words mean? What’s the difference between a lotion and a cream, etc?

Psst, before I delve into specific formulations, here are some common terms routinely used to describe formulations:

Oil-in-water: This means that there are oil droplets dispersed in water. (a.k.a. mainly water)

Water-in-oil: This means that there are water droplets dispersed in oil. (a.k.a. mainly oil)

Basically, there’s two “phases” (oil and water) mixed together. Since oil and water are not alike in chemical structure, they tend to separate (think vinaigrette dressing, ever notice how two layers form if you let it sit too long? That’s the oil and water components separating).

There’s quite a few different moisturizer formulations, however I’ll just be going through the more common ones.

Formulation Types


Lotions are oil-in-water preparations. They are relatively thin and lightweight compared to other formulations due to their high water content. In addition, lotions are non-greasy, and can easily cover large areas.

Due to their lightweight and non-greasy nature, they’re typically used as daytime moisturizers.

  • Features: Lightweight, non-greasy, easily covers large areas.
  • Usage: Daytime moisturizer.


Creams can be either oil-in-water preparations or water-in-oil. Moreover, creams are thicker than lotions, and tend to feel stickier and greasier than lotions.

  • Features: Heavier than lotions, but lighter than ointments.
  • Usage: Typically as night time moisturizers.

A common misconception is that creams are more efficacious than lotions.

While it is true that creams are thicker than lotions, moisturizer efficacy is also based on active ingredients (which I will discuss in my next post!).

Thus, just because a moisturizer is a cream doesn’t mean it will be more effective than a lotion; we also need to consider active ingredients.


Ointments are not as common as lotions and creams.

In addition, ointments are mostly oil and thus they don’t contain enough water to separate into layers at room temperature.

Because of their thick, oily texture, they are typically greasy and effectively form a thick, protective barrier on skin.

  • Features: Greasy, heavier on skin.
  • Usage: Where high degree of occlusiveness is required. Especially beneficial in dry, low-humidity environments. Typically not necessary for daily use unless suffering from severely dry, cracked skin.


Gels have a unique composition compared to lotions, creams, and ointments.

As opposed to water-in-oil or oil-in-water preparations, gels are composed of a liquid phase within a special chemical matrix. This ultimately gives gels their unique texture.

  • Features: Smooth finish, non-oily, noncomedogenic, easily absorbed. Not as rich as lotions or creams due to lack of oil component.
  • Usage: Day time moisturizer. I love applying a gel moisturizer in the morning prior to makeup application, since they absorb quickly and form a smooth canvas for makeup application.


FeaturesCommon Usage
LotionLightweight, non-greasy, easily cover large areas.Daytime moisturizer.
CreamHeavier than lotions, but lighter than ointments.
Greasier than lotions.
Nighttime or daytime moisturizer.
OintmentGreasy, heavier on skin.Use when high degree of occlusiveness required.
In dry environments.
Typically not necessary unless skin severely dry.
GelSmooth finish, nonoily, noncomedogenic,
easily absorbed.

Not as rich as lotions or creams due to lack of oil component.
Daytime moisturizer.

The Verdict

When selecting a moisturizer, it’s important to consider formulation. Specifically, consider the features of the moisturizer’s formulation and whether its suitable for your skin type and condition.

Time of Use

Also, consider when during the day you plan to apply the moisturizer.

  • Daytime moisturizers are typically lotions or gels due to their fast absorption and lightweight texture.
  • Nighttime moisturizers are usually heavier creams to help prevent moisture loss during sleep.

However, there’s plenty of new moisturizers that are lightweight and lock in hydration just as well as thicker moisturizers!

So, you don’t necessarily need to use a thicker formulation at night, just make sure if it’s lighter-weight that it does its job well!

Severely Dry Skin

If you’ve read my previous skin basics post, you’ll know that dry skin lacks moisture (oil).

  • Creams or ointments are typically preferred since severely dry skin needs a moisturizer that supplements oil and forms an effective barrier on the skin.

However, as I said before, if you have a lighter-weight formula that’s just as effective, go for it!

Dry Environment

Also, if you live in a dry environment, heavier creams can be beneficial to help lock-in moisture.

Ultimately, while formulation is important when selecting a moisturizer, ingredients used in the moisturizer likely have a higher impact on efficacy and safety – which is what I’ll be discussing in the next segment of this series!

Thanks so much for reading, and I hope you found it helpful! ^-^

~ Hope

P.S. I didn’t recommend any skincare products in this post – yet. I’m waiting until I do some more research on ingredients before I can confidently recommend products to you!

Creams? Lotions? Gels? What's the difference?! These terms describe a moisturizer's formulation. Something you should consider when selecting the best moisturizer for your skin is moisturizer formulation! Moisturizer formulation can, in part, dictate the best usage for that particular moisturizer and whether it's suitable for your skin. To learn more about moisturizer formulations and how to select a formulation suitable for you, keep reading!
Ever noticed how moisturizer names often include words like "cream", "lotion", or "gel"? Did you know these words actually describe the formulation of the moisturizer? Formulation is important as it, in part, dictates best usage of that moisturizer and can help you determine whether it's suitable for your skin! Keep reading to learn more about moisturizer formulations and how to pick the best moisturizer for your skin!

(1) Comment

  1. Melody says:

    I’m wondering if by chance you can help us type 2 diabetic’s that have severe suffering from dry, cracked, uneven, rashy, nasty skin problems all rolled into one painful body?
    I have tried just about everything on the market including dermatologist-prescribed cream’s that help but do not by any means cure the problems.

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