Lotion vs Moisturizer: How Can You Tell The Difference?

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In our day-to-day life, we are exposed to environmental irritants and stressors that can wreak havoc on our skin. 

female confused in choosing between lotion and cream products

Did you know that dehydrated skin can lead to dullness, dryness, irritation, fine lines, and even acne breakouts?

If you want to bring back or maintain your soft and supple complexion, it’s important to keep your skin hydrated. And that’s where lotions and moisturizers come in.

To start with, what is lotion, exactly?

And how is it different from moisturizers?

Many people are confused about lotion vs moisturizer and may even use them interchangeably.

Well, we’re here to set the record straight.

What Is the Difference Between Moisturizer and Lotion?

The truth is lotion and moisturizer are not completely different products. But does that mean that lotion and moisturizer are the same things?

Put it this way, lotion and moisturizer fall under one spectrum. Both fall into the moisturizer category but may differ in ingredients, formulation, and consistency.

To differentiate between face lotion vs moisturizer, here’s what you need to know about the moisturizing spectrum.

Lowest Moisturizing Effect <————————–> Highest Moisturizing Effect

WaterGelLotionCreamOintmentPetroleum Jelly
Lowest viscosityVery low viscosityLow viscosityMedium viscosityHigh viscosityHighest viscosity
Thinnest consistencyThin consistencySlightly thin  consistencyMedium to thick consistencyThicker consistencyVery thick Consistency
Fastest absorptionQuick absorptionQuick to moderate absorptionModerate absorptionSlow absorptionSlowest absorption


At the lowest end of the spectrum, we have water.

Water is the best hydrator for our bodies, but as skin moisturizers, they are the weakest. That’s because water evaporates quickly and thus cannot provide enough protection to our skin.


Gels come in next. Gels are transparent like water and are mostly water-based. They disappear quickly once applied, providing quick hydration without leaving residue.

Gels have a significantly thinner consistency than lotions and don’t feel greasy or sticky, making them perfect for people with oily skin.

They could also be formulated with some nourishing ingredients like vitamin C, niacinamide, salicylic acid, hyaluronic acid, or plant extracts to offer certain skincare boosts.


In terms of composition, lotions can also be watery in texture. That’s because lotions still contain relatively high water content.

Lotions are lightweight to moderate moisturizers, but because of the water content of some lotions, they may only hydrate the superficial layers of the skin before evaporating.

Lotions also typically contain preservatives such as parabens and benzyl alcohol. These ingredients are necessary to prevent bacteria growth and rotting. 

In addition, many lotions have added fragrances to mask the smell of these preservative ingredients.

While lotion is safe for all skin types, the preservative content may explain why people — especially those with sensitive skin — may react to lotion or even feel a stinging or burning sensation.


On the other hand, a cream falls right in the middle of the spectrum.

Creams have less water content than lotions. Thus, they usually have a thicker, richer consistency. This helps seal moisture in the skin and prevent transepidermal water loss.

Creams also do a better job of hydrating the deeper layers of the skin due to the presence of emulsifiers such as mineral oil and petroleum jelly.

The oil content of creams means that they are not as susceptible to bacteria growth or rotting. 

Thus, they may not contain as many preservatives — making them suitable for those with sensitive or dry skin.


Ointments have an even thicker consistency than creams. They are transparent but contain mostly oil-based ingredients. 

As such, it takes time for the skin to fully absorb ointments. This explains that greasy or sticky feeling.

Ointments are usually formulated to address skin conditions like psoriasis or eczema. Slow absorption times are necessary to allow optimal absorption of topical steroids and other medications in the formula.   

Petroleum Jelly

On the farthest side of the spectrum is pure petroleum jelly. Among all the moisturizers, petroleum has very little to no water content. 

It also doesn’t rot or spoil so there is no need for preservatives or fragrances.

Petroleum jelly has a thick consistency and does the best job locking in moisture.

Moisturizer vs Lotion: Which One Do I Need?

white-facial-product containers arranged in peach background

Lotion vs Moisturizer: Understanding The Key Differences

By discussing lotions in the context of the moisturizer spectrum, you can clearly where lotion lies as a moisturizer.

First, is lotion a moisturizer? Yes, we can say now that all lotions are moisturizers.

Next, is moisturizer the same as lotion? No, not all moisturizers are lotions. There are other types of moisturizers, such as gels, creams, ointments, and petroleum-based products.

All skin types can benefit from lotion and moisturizers. However, the best moisturizer for you depends on your skin type and concerns.

Types of Moisturizers

To know the best moisturizer for your skin, we have to discuss the three types of moisturizers.

Most moisturizers contain these more than one type in their formulation but may differ in their concentration level to combine the benefits of these different types in one product.

Some moisturizers can contain both emollients and occlusives, for example. Others may contain both humectants and emollients too.

1. Humectants

Humectants keep your skin moisturized by extracting water from the environment and drawing them into your skin.

Common humectant ingredients include hyaluronic acid, sodium hyaluronate, peptides, panthenol, glycerin, lactic acid, glycolic acid, salicylic acid, sorbitol, urea.

Humectants can be found in gels, lightweight creams, toners, watery serums, essences, chemical exfoliators (AHAs, BHAs, PHAs), mists, face masks.

Best for all skin types.

2. Emollients

Emollients help hydrate, soothe, and soften the skin. They also have a smoothening effect, which helps improve skin texture and appearance.

Common emollients ingredients include shea butter, cocoa butter, ceramides, collagen, tocopherol, squalene, castor oil, jojoba oil, linoleic acid, lauric acid, oleic acid, stearic acid, and any fatty acid.

Emollients can be found in plant-based oils, body butter, body lotions, creams, ointments, oil-based serums.

Best for dry, itchy, flaky skin; eczema, psoriasis.

3. Occlusives

Occlusives keep your skin moisturized by preventing water loss. Since occlusives have a thicker, heavier consistency, they act as a physical barrier between your skin and the environment.

Occlusive moisturizers are usually the last step in a skincare routine. This is to lock in all the wonderful ingredients you have applied and help you maximize their skincare benefits.  

Common occlusive ingredients include petrolatum, paraffin, dimethicone, wax, mineral oil, silicone, cetearyl (cetyl) alcohol, and lanolin.

Occlusives can be found in petroleum jelly, body butters, balms, thick plant oils (olive oil, avocado oil, castor oil), squalane oil, thick ointments.

Best for extremely dry, dehydrated, and mature skin.

How to Find the Best Moisturizer for Your Skin Type

You can also choose a lotion or cream-based moisturizer for your skin type and concerns. Here are essential points to consider:

Oily Skin

Gels and facial lotions with higher water content suit those with oily, acne-prone skin. If you need more moisture than a lotion, you can opt for a moisturizing cream with a lightweight texture.

It’s also vital to choose moisturizers that have non-comedogenic and oil-free formulations. This is to prevent clogged pores and reduce acne breakouts.

Dry Skin

Thick creams are best for those with dry skin. You also want to look for formulations with high oils and water content. This is to provide your skin with the intense moisture it needs.

For those with skin conditions such as eczema, you can try the highly-rated Cerave Moisturizing Cream.


You have normal skin if you have a generally even texture and complexion. Your skin is also not too oily and not too dry. But that doesn’t mean that you don’t need moisturizer.

Maintain soft, supple, and healthy skin by using moisturizing lotions like the Cerave Facial Moisturizing Lotion, which contains ceramides, hyaluronic acid, and niacinamide.   


If you have combination skin, you can use non-comedogenic lotions for your oily T-zone and then apply a heavier cream to any dry spots. 

You can also opt for moisturizing products targeting your skin such as hyperpigmentation or fine lines.

Sensitive Skin

Those with sensitive skin may want to avoid lotions and creams with fragrances and preservative ingredients. 

Look for moisturizers that contain natural ingredients and are free from parabens and irritants.

K-beauty is known for its gentle products, so you should consider trying one of its top night creams.

Mature Skin

Mature skin can benefit from anti-aging creams. Not only do they moisturize the skin, but they also address common skin concerns such as fine lines and wrinkles.

Anti-aging creams may contain ingredients such as retinol, vitamin C, and resveratrol that prevent collagen loss, promote cell turnover, and strengthen the skin barrier.

Frequently Asked Questions

lady applying dotted amount of facial product with hand posed in a fashionable way

Are Lotion and Moisturizer the Same Thing?

A moisturizer in skin care is any product used to add, restore, or retain moisture or lubrication in your skin to protect your skin barrier.

Meanwhile, a lotion is a specific type of moisturizer.

Can I Use Lotion Instead of Moisturizer?

Depending on your skin type, you can get away with using a lotion instead of a moisturizing cream. Those with oily to normal skin are suited for lotions with a lightweight consistency.

However, if you have dry or dehydrated skin, we recommend using a thicker moisturizer.

Are Creams Better Than Lotions?

No, both creams and lotions are fantastic for the skin! But sometimes, one product may be better than the other. 

For instance, lotions can be more comfortable when dry and humid weather. Then in the wintertime, a cream can provide you with the additional hydration that your skin needs.

How Are Face and Body Moisturizers Different?

The skin on our face is thinner than the skin on the rest of our bodies. Face lotions and moisturizers have gentler ingredients and may feature fewer preservatives. This reduces the risk of irritating or damaging the skin.  

You might also notice that many body moisturizers are scented while most face lotions are not. This is because fragrance can also irritate the skin on our faces. 

Should I Put lotion on My Face Before Bed?

Whether following a simple skincare routine or the 10-step Korean beauty regimen, we always recommend applying lotion or moisturizer as the last step. 

This is to lock in all the moisture in your skin. You’ll want those active ingredients to work and rejuvenate your skin while you sleep!

Should I Moisturize My Body Every Day?

Yes, the skin on your body is just as important as your face and neck! So, don’t forget to moisturize your body every day. 

Dermatologists recommend that you apply body lotion or moisturizer to damp skin within 1 to 3 minutes of getting out of the shower. 

This time is crucial because most of the water will be lost during this period. So lock in that moisture before your skin dries!

Should You Wash Off Moisturizer in the Morning?

Even as we sleep, bacteria and other impurities can still get into our skin. That is why it’s important to wash your face in the morning. 

You must also cleanse your skin if you’ve applied heavy creams or occlusives the night before. These are not easily absorbed, so you may still have some residue upon waking up.

When to Use a Lotion or Moisturizer?

If you have both products in your beauty arsenal, you can use lotion or moisturizer depending on personal preferences and skin concerns. 

If you’re amid an acne breakout, you can temporarily retire your cream and use lotion in the meantime. 

You can also opt to use a lotion in the daytime. It’s lightweight and may serve as a good base for sunscreen and makeup. Then, give your skin the pampering it needs at night by slathering a thicker cream. 

Are There Seasonal Uses of Lotion vs. Cream?

It’s possible that our skin type can also change depending on the season. 

So in the summer, you might feel more oily, and there is an accumulation of dead skin cells. A vitamin C lotion can help address your skin concerns.

In colder seasons, there is a decrease in moisture in the air. This is why we tend to have dry, flaky, or dehydrated skin. 

So a heavy-duty cream might be better suited to hydrate our skin and strengthen our skin barrier. 

 Moisturizing Cream and Lotion Defined and Differentiated

At this point, you have more than enough information about lotions and moisturizers in general. You can now confidently tell the difference and the similarities between these two.

We also included additional information to help you find the best moisturizer for your skin type. Whether you end up choosing a lotion or a cream (or even both!), we’re confident that this will give you hydrated, soft, and supple skin!

an infographic about lotion vs moisturizer

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  • Ashley Pena

    Ashley Pena brings over 13 years of seasoned writing and editing expertise, fortified by her Bachelor of Science in Management. Esteemed in the beauty domain, her content captivates readers with its depth and authenticity. While she navigates a broad spectrum of beauty trends, Ashley shines particularly as our resident K-beauty guru. Her articles are a harmonious blend of passion and profound knowledge, inspiring readers on their unique beauty journeys.

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