Whether you’re dealing with diaper rash or treating a cut or scrape, there’s an ointment or cream formulated to help. Topical remedies create a barrier on the skin that prevents moisture loss, but whether you are better off using an ointment or a cream depends on the condition. What’s the difference?
An ointment generally consists of 80% oils and 20% water, and allows for slower delivery of active ingredients since there is less evaporation. Active ingredients may include medications or herbal infusions.
A cream is closer to 50% oils and 50% water. They are more often used to soften and smooth skin, but may also include medications.
Some natural products are labeled as a salve (short for “salvations”), which just means an ointment or cream with calming, healing effects that’s applied to wounds or sores.
Keep the following points in mind when selecting and using ointments and creams:
Make sure you read labels carefully and follow instructions.
Self-treatment is only for minor conditions. For more serious injuries or illnesses, get to the doctor, urgent care clinic, or emergency room as soon as possible.
Do not exceed recommended dosage amounts.
Regularly check expiration dates on the creams and ointments and restock your medicine cabinet as needed.
Antibiotic & Pain-Relieving Products
What they are: Antibiotic and pain-relieving ointments and creams are a combination of antibiotics and analgesics, or pain-relieving ingredients, easily applied to the skin.
Why to buy: To prevent infection and provide immediate topical pain relief for minor cuts, scrapes, and abrasions, antibiotic and pain-relieving ointments and creams are a good choice.
Things to consider: Use caution when applying ointments to skin that is close to clothing as they may stain, or find formulas that claim to be greaseless and non-staining. If over-the-counter aids don’t help and you suspect an infection, talk with your doctor. Many cuts, scrapes, mild sprains, and strains can be treated at home, but puncture wounds are a different story. These injuries introduce bacteria deep into body tissues and require professional medical care to avoid serious complications. Treat animal bites first at home, but follow up with your doctor, even if the bite seems minor. Animals in general, and cats in particular, may have dangerous bacteria and viruses in their mouths, which can lead to serious, and even life-threatening infections.
Anti-Inflammatory Ointments & Creams
What they are: Anti-inflammatory ointments and creams are low doses of anti-inflammatory medications, such as aspirin, trolamine salicylate, and menthol, which can be easily applied to the skin. Some also contain Aloe vera for added soothing.
Why to buy: Anti-inflammatory ointments and creams may reduce swelling and inflammation, offering relief from arthritis pain and minor muscle aches.
Things to consider: If you’re sensitive to smells, choose unscented ointments and creams. Do not use aspirin-containing ointments on children or teens with a fever, due to risk of Reye’s syndrome. Any injury that results in major swelling, misshapen joints or bones, or severe bruising requires medical attention.
Ointments for Dry, Cracked, or Irritated Skin
What they are: Ointments for dry, cracked or irritated skin contain petrolatum and other soothing ingredients to help restore smooth, healthy skin and temporarily protect minor cuts, scrapes, and burns.
Why to buy: These ointments offer effective healing, soothing, and moisturizing for eczema, chapped lips, and severely dry, cracked skin. They can also protect skin from the harsh, drying effects of wind and cold weather.
Things to consider: Talk with your doctor if conditions worsen or symptoms last more than a week, or clear up and occur again within a few days. Do not use on deep or puncture wounds, animal bites, or serious burns. For sensitive skin, look for fragrance-free options.
What they are: Eye ointments are sterile lubricating ointments that soothe and moisturize dry, irritated eyes, and relieve the burning, itching, and discomfort associated with a sty. For optimal results, most ointments are applied to the inside of the lower eyelid before bedtime and contain mineral oil and white petrolatum as active ingredients.
Why to buy: If you suffer from severe dry eyes, applying lubricating ointments at bedtime may soothe and moisturize. For relief from corneal edema—inflammation of the cornea due to infection, ocular diseases, surgery, or prolonged use of contact lenses—try sodium chloride hypertonicity ophthalmic ointments, available in various strengths.
Things to consider: Over-the-counter eye ointments are designed to treat symptoms and are not a cure for infection. If you think you have an eye infection, see your doctor.
Diaper Creams & Ointments
What they are: Diaper creams and ointments offer gentle, easy-to apply treatments for painful diaper rash and other minor skin irritations. Most contain zinc oxide and dimethicone, proven skin protectants. Some also contain petrolatum, lanolin, plus soothing ingredients like Aloe vera, lavender, and chamomile.
Why to buy: Diaper ointments and creams soothe and heal your baby’s delicate skin. Diaper rash ointments protect the skin from chafing and minor irritations, plus they seal out wetness to help prevent diaper rash.
Things to consider: If your baby has sensitive skin, look for fragrance-free creams. Many diaper rash ointments may also be used on other parts of the body, including chafed, chapped, or cracked skin and lips.
Antifungal Ointments & Creams
What they are: Antifungal ointments and creams contain a variety of medicated treatments for athlete’s foot and other fungal infections of the skin. Active ingredients include tolnaftate, undecylenic acid, and zinc undecylenate.
Why to buy: Antifungals can fight the fungus that causes athlete’s foot, ring worm, and jock itch and provide immediate relief for itchy, scaly skin. Daily use of the appropriate ointment or cream may also prevent recurrence of athlete's foot.
Things to consider: If you don’t see improvement in a few weeks with over-the-counter medications, call your doctor. As part of treating and preventing athlete's foot, clean and dry your feet thoroughly and wear clean socks every day. Unless specified, these products are not effective on the scalp or nails. Do not use on children under two years of age unless directed by a doctor.