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What's The Difference Between Body Cream & Lotion? What You Need To Know

Jamie Schneider
mbg Associate Editor By Jamie Schneider
mbg Associate Editor
Jamie Schneider is the Associate Editor at mindbodygreen, covering beauty and health. She has a B.A. in Organizational Studies and English from the University of Michigan, and her work has appeared in Coveteur, The Chill Times, and Wyld Skincare.
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Call me dramatic, but there's nothing more sensorially satisfying than covering yourself with body lotion post-shower. Frosting your skin with a delicious formula is downright luxurious, and, not to mention, replenishing necessary lipids is key for supporting a healthy skin barrier. All that to say: If I emerge from the bathroom with the glass-like skin of a slippery seal, I know I've done something right. 

Selecting a hydrator, though, is a bit of a journey—while I'd argue the search for the dreamiest product is half the fun, it can also be confusing to wade through various ingredient lists and marketing claims. For example, many shoppers are left scratching their heads when browsing body creams versus lotions: Are these two products actually different, or is it merely semantics? 

Wonder no more: Here's what you need to know about using them both. 

Body cream vs. lotion: What's the difference?

In a nutshell: Body creams are thicker than lotions. "Lotions have a higher water content compared to creams," says board-certified dermatologist Hadley King, M.D., which makes the consistency thinner and more spreadable, with a non-greasy feel. Creams, on the other hand, typically call on heavier ingredients (like shea butter and coconut oil) to create a fortress of moisture. 

Because of their higher concentration of oils and butters, "Body creams take longer to rub in, and body lotions tend to not be as sticky," adds board-certified dermatologist Jeanine Downie, M.D., co-host of The GIST Show

At the end of the day, though, ​​there are no stringent rules for what's considered a body cream versus a lotion (you may even discover a lightweight product that calls itself a body cream or a butter-thick formula sold as a lotion). Ultimately, we can chalk the difference up to marketing, but overall most experts agree on this textural distinction. 

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When to use body cream. 

Have a decadent cream you're dying to try? Keep these factors in mind before slathering on: 

1. If you have a drier skin type. 

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"Creams are thicker in consistency and tend to feel greasy," says King. "They will usually have more occlusive properties." That said, body creams are typically fit for drier skin types that may need more help keeping hydration locked inside—those with dry or sensitive skin conditions (like eczema) may also find a dense cream suitable for laying the moisture on thick, adds Downie. 

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2. During colder months or at night. 

Even if you don't have dry skin, you may find it helpful to fold in a body cream during chillier months: "This will be particularly important during the winter to prevent and treat dry skin, supporting the skin barrier and locking in moisture," King adds. 

The timing matters, too, as the skin is more permeable at night (here's a 2016 study explaining why), which means your skin can lose significant hydration as you sleep. That's why experts recommend applying a heavier, more occlusive moisturizer before bed to help your skin deal with transepidermal water loss

3. On your hands, knees, and elbows.

Finally, you can massage a rich cream into drier portions of your body—like the hands, feet, elbows, knees, etc. Pay special attention to those paws: "They tend to be drier with constant washing," says Downie. 

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When to use lotion. 

On the flip side, here's what to know about opting for a thinner lotion:

1. If you have an oilier skin type. 

Lotions, generally, are best for skin types that need some hydration—just not an extra-thick layer. For example, those with combination, oily, or acne-prone skin still need to hydrate (dehydrated skin just leads to more oil and breakouts, in case you need a reminder), but a lightweight water-based moisturizer will do the trick. 

Those with acne-prone skin might fare better with a lotion, as these typically aren't as occlusive as their body cream counterparts—meaning, they don't include heavier ingredients (the shea butter, the coconut oil) that can be comedogenic for those prone to breakouts.  

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2. During humid months or during the day. 

When moisture is practically hanging from the humid air, you may find you don't need a thick-as-butter cream to help your skin stay hydrated. That said, you may reach for a lighter body product, like lotion. Again, hydrating your skin is important no matter the weather, but you may have a little wiggle room when the air is already sticky with humidity. 

A thinner lotion is also best for daytime use, says King: "It's more readily absorbed by the skin and it leaves a less greasy residue." Lotions also tend to have a quicker dry-down time and an easier slip, which makes them more wearable for daytime hours (read: It won't stick to your clothes).  

3. On your chest, back, and shoulders. 

"Lotions are often preferred for oilier areas," says King, or areas prone to clogged pores. Think your chest, back, shoulders, etc. 

See here for our list of body lotion recommendations, make a vat of your own DIY version, or select one of the lightweight confections below. 

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Other expert tips to keep in mind. 

If you have easily congested skin, you'll want to make sure whichever product you use is noncomedogenic. While body creams tend to be more occlusive (which can trap oil and bacteria and potentially lead to breakouts), don't think that lotions are an immediate safe bet. See, there is no set definition for this skin care term—so you have to peek at the individual ingredients and point out any red flags. So a lotion, while technically thinner, may wind up comedogenic, whereas a body cream may work just fine for your skin. 

No matter your product, you'll also want to pay attention to fragrance: "If the body lotion or the body cream is scented, it could be more irritating," says Downie, especially if you have sensitive skin. Artificial fragrance is "one of the most common ingredients to cause sensitivity, puffiness, itch, and rash," board-certified dermatologist Loretta Ciraldo, M.D., FAAD, once told us, but even natural fragrances (essential oils and the like) can sneak into the formula and trigger irritation for some. If your skin feels itchy or irritated after you slather on a cream or lotion, you may want to opt for a fragrance-free number (these options will make your skin feel like butter). 

The takeaway. 

Not all body creams and lotions are the exact same, but generally, creams tend to be richer and denser than lotions. To determine which product you should use, there are a few factors to mind (skin type, time of year, and select parts of the body), but as we discussed above: Finding the best body product is a personal journey, so you may have to test some formulas before you find one you adore. Happy hunting.

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