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Lotions, creams and butters. Often these are all categorized as one and the same product. Any product used to soften or moisturize very frequently gets called a lotion, a cream or a butter interchangeably.  But did you know these are not all one and the same and there a difference? That’s right. A lotion is not a cream. A cream is not a lotion. A lotion is not a butter. A butter is not a lotion. A cream is not a butter. A butter is not a cream.  Wait. WHAT?  Yeah, imagine my confusion when I read something referencing “a lotion” or am asked about a cream but in actuality, the person isn’t talking about what is technically a lotion or a cream, but rather a butter.

Why does it matter? Well, it actually matters a great deal in terms of skin care needs. Each has its own purpose, suitability and use in skin care. It also matters in terms of formulation expertise and proficiency. Each has its own protocols, standards and requirements for formulating. Professional formulators and chemists realize this…at least they should. But the average consumer may not. While it may seem like semantics, if you use these products or are venturing into DIY’ing or attempting to share info with or teach others in any form as many are doing on social media and in blogs, this is info you really need to know. 

So what’s the difference between a lotion, a cream and a butter? Which one is best? How do I choose the one that’s right for me?  Which one is suited for this need? Or that need?  

Have you ever asked any of these questions? I know I did before I started learning about, formulating and hand-producing skin care products.  I knew lotions normally came in a bottle while creams usually came in a jar.  Obviously creams were thicker and they always seemed much more oily. I knew butters seemed quiet heavy and oily on the skin but I didn’t know why. Beyond that, I didn’t know the real differences or the reason for the differences.

From things I see around the internet and in Facebook group forums, many are confused about these products, how they are different and when one is a better choice over the other or why.  Today, I want to share with you a few things that may help you better understand the differences between these product types and assist you with making the right choices for your skin.  It may even clear up some wide-spread confusion about moisturizing in general. So let’s start with the root, the reason we need moisturizers to begin with, and work our way through, shall we? 

What is the root?  Dry skin. Let me ask you something. Do you know what dry skin is? Sure you know what it looks and feels like, but do you know what it is and what causes it?  Are you among those who think dry skin is the result of the lack of oil and more oil will hydrate your thirsty skin? Are you of the same mindset as the customer I once had who, when testing my lotions and creams at a venue, began telling me she knew a lotion or cream was really good if it left an oily shine and feel on her skin?  Would you be surprised if I told you neither of these are true?

Dry skin is the lack of moisture or hydration (water) in the skin. Oils cannot provide that moisture or hydrate the skin. What they can do, however is to seal in and help retain the moisture (water) already in the skin.  They can make dry skin feel more comfortable because they soften and lubricate. But oils such as olive or avocado and butters such as shea butter or cocoa butter do not “moisturize” or hydrate skin. Think about it. Would you drink oil to quench your thirst and hydrate the body? Of course not. So why do so many think oils hydrate the skin?

As you will see before you finish reading this article, this info will be a good nugget to know when choosing the product that is right for you. Now, on to the differences between a lotion, a cream and a butter. I pondered how to present this and in the end, decided to just talk about how they are alike and then cover how they are different in a format describing what each product is. I trust my readers are savvy and smart so you can make the comparisons to see how each is different. 

Here’s a few ways lotions, creams and butters are alike.

  • Contain vegetable oils and/or butters
  • May contain a wax such as beeswax, soy wax or carnauba wax to boost the protective barrier
  • Softens and conditions skin
  • Can replenish oil in the skin that can get stripped away by cleansers, etc. 
  • Lubricates the skin
  • Helps protect skin from environmental impurities and elements
  • Seals in and helps retain the moisture already in the skin
  • Helps restore and balance the skin’s acid mantle
  • Helps skin function, self-repair and regenerate normally
  • Improves skin appearance and comfortable feel
  • Other biological and aesthetic benefits

Now let’s break down some of the ways they are different.


  • Are hydrous – contain water or a water equivalent
  • Are multi-phase formulations consisting of a water phase, an oil phase, an emulsion phase, an additive phase and a cool down phase
  • Are fluid or semi-fluid with varying thicknesses depending on the formula and intended use
  • More readily absorbed into the skin because of the water content
  • Have a cooling effect on the skin because of this absorption
  • Will usually contain one or more humectants
  • Usually have multiple emollient ingredients in the formula
  • Require a preservative for efficacy and prevention of microbial growth
  • Usually contain 10% – 35% oils and/or butters but can be oil free
  • Good for areas with more hair (ex. a man’s chest or legs)
  • Lighter on the skin than a cream or butter
  • Is most often semi-occlusive (Helps prevent water loss from the skin while letting skin breathe)
  • Suitable for most skin types
  • Suitable for facial care
  • Should not be used on the lips


  • Are hydrous – contain water or a water equivalent
  • Are multi-phase formulations consisting of a water phase, an oil phase, an emulsion phase, an additive phase and a cool down phase
  • Is a thick or a loose semi-solid
  • Usually contain up to 50% oil and butters
  • Are thicker and heavier than a lotion
  • Absorbs well but may absorb less readily than a lotion
  • May be occlusive (blocks water loss from the skin and at the same time, doesn’t let anything penetrate the skin, and doesn’t let it breathe) or semi-occlusive 
  • Will usually contain one or more humectants
  • Usually contain at least one emollient ingredient
  • Require a preservative for efficacy and prevention of microbial growth
  • May contain a wax such as beeswax, carnauba, soy, etc. 
  • Suitable for all skin types but depending on formulation, may not be as well suited for oily skin
  • Should not be used on the face unless formulated for facial care or the face is extremely dry/damaged
  • Should not be used on the lips
  • Best suited to treat more severe dry skin or tough, dry skin patches


  • Are anhydrous, contain no water or water equivalent
  • Are thick semi solid or solid
  • 100% oil and/or butters
  • May not contain an actual butter such as shea or cocoa
  • Very heavy on the skin and usually very oily
  • Occlusive
  • Normally not well suited for oily skin
  • Suited best for extremely dry/damaged skin or hardened, calloused and tough skin (knees, elbows, feet, hands)
  • Can lead to breakouts because the occlusive nature can block pores, creating a fertile ground for bacteria and the skin’s natural oils to accumulate
  • Shouldn’t be used on the face
  • Can be used on the lips if it contains a lip safe fragrance or flavor  


So what should I choose to use?  

There is not really an all for one and one for all standard for caring for YOUR skin. There are no hard and fast rules about what you use or when you use it. What works for me may not work for you. What works best on your feet is not usually what works well for your arms or legs. What your body likes and responds well to, your face and neck usually will not respond to in the same way. What I may need to use in the colder months may be too much in the summer. There are general guidelines we can look at and implement but your personal needs and skin type, which is actually not the same from one part of the body to another, should determine what you use. 

The one rule of thumb that I recommend everyone should follow is to put a moisturizing product on clean skin, after your shower or bath for body and after washing and drying for face and hands. Preferably still slightly damp but not wet. Here’s why. When you bathe, your skin absorbs water. Applying your moisturizer immediately after towel drying will seal in that moisture and help keep your skin hydrated. Hydration = water. The prefixes “hydra, hydro, hydr” all mean “water”. See how that works?  That’s what moisturizers are designed to do….seal in, lock in or add water….hydration. For lotions and creams, because they contain waters and humectants, they actually add and draw moisture to your skin. This is why I recommend them for the best skin hydration solutions. Whereas butters do not add or draw moisture to the skin, so you need to make sure you hydrate the skin with moisture first, before applying a butter. There are multiple ways to do this but we won’t get into those in this article.

Alright, I think I’ve covered most of the points on this topic. Hopefully, this will help you determine what you need and why. Bookmark it and refer back to it. Share it if you can.  I want you to have healthy, hydrated and happy skin.

Any questions? Feel free to ask. I’m always here to help if I can.


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