Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Lotions, Creams, and Ointments

When you become a parent you learn a lot of random stuff you never thought you would need or want to know. For example:

-What a cervix is and how it can be ripened.
-The length of time a human can go without a full night’s sleep before googling “putting your child up for adoption.”
-A belly button is not actually tied, but rather clamped.
-The best detergent to use to remove poop stains.
-The words to every nursery rhyme ever composed.

I picked up the most recent bit of trivia a couple weeks ago at the pediatrician’s office and I’m not afraid to say that it blew my mind.

The doctor was doing his normal examination of Olive and everything was looking normal. We pointed out that her skin was getting dry patches all over it. It was actually beginning to worry us a little. Once the winter started, dry, red patches started to appear on her chest, then her tummy, then her arms and legs and back. We had pretty much ruled out an allergic reaction and were now convinced that she had dry skin or borderline eczema.

“Yeah, it could be a little eczema,” said the doctor. “But more likely it is just plain dry skin that comes with the season. What are you using on it?”

“Well, we just use some moisturizer stuff.”

We had been lathering her up with this stuff for a while, and it really didn’t seem to be working. I was at the point where every time I went into a grocery store or pharmacy I would stand in front of the baby moisturizer section and stare blankly at packages and labels for 30 minutes. Eventually I would be overwhelmed by the choices, twitch a little bit, and walk away.

“Well, are you using a lotion, cream, or ointment,” the doctor asked.

Wait, what? Lotion, cream, or ointment? Isn’t that like asking someone if they are drinking soda, tonic, or pop? Aren’t they all the same stuff?

“Umm, I think it says moisturizing lotion on the label,” I responded.

“Well, there is your problem,” said the doctor, leaning forward in the stool, getting ready to learn me something. “Lotion is really not that much good. You can rub it rub it rub it and it never really absorbs into the skin. It just gets wiped off and then all the skin’s moisture can leave. Cream is a little better. But what you really need is an ointment. It will stay on top of the skin and really help to heal the dry skin and protect her. Lotion is all the way over here,” he said, holding out his left hand. “What you need to do is jump all the way over here,” he said, extending his right hand. “Go get yourself some ointment and just keep her a little greasy. It will help provide a good moisture barrier.”

After I got past the fact that I was going to keep my daughter “a little greasy” I got back to thinking about the difference between lotions, creams, and ointments. How did I go my entire life without knowing the difference? Have I been I wasting money on moisturizing lotions and hand creams? Have I been drinking Sanka all my life and just have someone introduce me to espresso? (And yes, this is the stuff I get excited about now. Really, I used to be an actual man.) What it all comes down to is viscosity. Great word. Lotions are low-medium viscosity, creams a bit higher, and ointments are high viscosity. Viscosity is basically a measure of thickness or density. Lotions have a high water to oil ratio, while ointments can be 80% oil. Therefore, ointments provide a protective layer on the skin, preventing it from drying out.

For those of you who, like me, did not know which products fit in which categories, here are a few illustrative examples.

Lotion: Your basic daily moisturizer like Aveeno and Curel. Maybe you have to use it “Daily” cause otherwise that shit don’t work.

Cream: Usually sold by the same brands, but often in tubs or tubes rather than large hand-pumped containers. Also, more expensive.

Ointment: Aquaphor is probably the best known one, and it is expensive. Also, lots of ointments are called “healing” – which makes me not want to buy them cause I don’t want to admit I have a problem that needs curing. Bad marketing.

The good news is that it has worked. The dryness has, for the most part, cleared up and we seem to be keeping it at bay. The bad news is that Olive is now known as Greasy McGreasenfield at day care.


  1. Nice, thanks. Now I feel well prepared to moisturize my future little girl. Seriously, I've noticed other babies with dry skin too, they spend their whole day in warm or hot rooms in the winter, of course they have dry skin. My cousin also has a decent humidifier for the baby's room and that helps too.

  2. Ha ha!

    I'm a dermatologist and this made me smile =]

    Good blog.