The Difference Between Gel, Cream, and Ointment

Updated November 21, 2016

Products like cream, ointment and gel are all effective at treating skin problems. Although they sometimes have similar ingredients, the amount of each ingredient varies by product. Cream, gel and ointment also produce different results when applied to the skin. Knowing what sets them apart can help you decide which one is best for you and your skin care needs.


Cream and gel are water-based, while ointment is oil-based. Some creams are oil-free, but other creams and ointment contain a mixture of oil, water and thickening agents. The oils used in both cream and ointment are often lanolin or petrolatum, but ointment contains a higher concentration of oil. Gels are made from water and a thickening agent, such as a polymer or polysaccharide. Gels are usually oil-free but can sometimes have a small amount of oil.


Ointments are referred to as "occlusive" because when they are applied they leave a layer of oil on the surface of the skin. This traps moisture in the skin to prevent it from drying out. Creams are easily absorbed and leave behind a thin film from the oil and thickening agent to help retain moisture. Gels are also absorbed by the skin easily and only leave behind a thin film from the thickening agent.

Texture and Appearance

Creams are usually thick and white in colour, although they can be tinted with natural or synthetic ingredients. They are usually not detected on the skin because they don't leave a heavy film. Ointments are usually thick, clear and greasy and can look shiny when applied to the skin. Gels are usually clear or semi-opaque, but they can also be tinted. Gels are usually not visible on the skin because they absorb well.


Ointments are usually better for dry skin because they are greasy and oily, but they generally aren't used in products for the face because of those qualities. Creams and gels are better for oily skin because they don't contain a lot of oil and absorb into the skin easily. They also spread easily, so they are better for treating large areas.

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