When it comes to keeping your body soft and supple, there is no shortage of options. The drugstores and boutiques carry all kinds of products, from delicate lotions to rich oils. It can really make your head spin!
What all of these products have in common is that they moisturize the skin on the body, although they do so in slightly different ways. If you’d like to take better care of your skin, it’ll be helpful to know exactly how body creams, lotions, butters, and oils differ from one another, which we’ll explain in this article.
The main difference between body creams, lotions, and other body moisturizers is the texture. Some are lighter, while others are thicker and oilier, which informs how they feel as well as how they nourish the skin.
Body lotions are the lightest of the bunch. They’re usually white, with a creamy texture that’s a little runnier and more fluid. The reason for this is that lotions are made with a very high percentage of water, some humectants (i.e., moisture-attracting ingredients like glycerin or hyaluronic acid), and a very small amount of emollients (i.e., creamy or oily ingredients that soften or lock moisture into the skin).
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Body lotions are very hydrating, which means that they load the skin up with a lot of water. However, when it comes to dryness that’s caused by a lack of protective oils over the skin, lotions are often too light to help. They simply don’t contain enough barrier-forming oils that can actually seal moisture into the skin.
Because of that, lotions are best for those with oily skin since they sink in quickly and never feel greasy or heavy. They’re also a great choice for anyone with normal skin who doesn’t like thick textures. Those with dry skin can still use lotions, but they probably won’t be enough as your only body moisturizer.
It’s worth mentioning that in some countries, like Japan and Russia, the word “lotion” often refers to liquid skincare products like toners or essences. If you’re shopping outside America, don’t let the mix-up in terminology confuse you.
The next step up from body lotions is body creams. Body creams, like lotions, are also white creams, although they’re a little thicker and less runny. Compared to lotions, creams contain less water, but they have more emollient substances.
Because of that, they’re better at creating a protective, moisture-binding seal over the skin, especially when it’s stripped of its natural oils. Both lotions and body creams usually contain a similar amount of humectants, so they’re both able to counter dehydration in the skin.
Body creams can be used by all skin types! Some oily-skinned folks may find them to be a little heavy, but for others, they might be just right, especially in winter. For those with normal and dry skin, they usually offer the right level of moisturization without feeling greasy.
Brands aren’t always consistent when naming their products, so occasionally, you’ll see very light lotions marketed as “creams” or heavier moisturizers marketed as “lotions.” That’s why it’s always good to try a product out or read reviews before buying since names can be a little deceiving.
Body butters are the richest of the bunch, and they’re truly unique. Unlike creams and lotions, body butters often don’t contain water at all. They’re usually made of a blend of plant butters like cocoa butter or shea butter and plant oils like jojoba oil, almond oil, and more.
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The rich blend of butters and oils helps to create a protective seal over the skin that prevents some moisture evaporation (although it’s worth noting that natural oils and butters are usually not as moisture-sealing as other popular occlusives like dimethicone, lanolin, or petrolatum).
Because the oils are liquid at room temperature while the butters are solid, mixing them together creates a more cream-like texture. They can even be whipped up in a blender, which results in a light, airy texture that doesn’t reduce the butter’s moisturizing abilities.
However, it’s important to remember that while body butters do moisturize the skin, they do so by creating that protective layer. If they’re made without any water or humectants, they can’t hydrate the skin on their own, so they’re best used immediately after a shower when the skin is already saturated with water.
In some cases, there are famous body butters that are more like thick creams. They contain a bit of water or hydrosol and humectants, but the bulk of their formula is plant butters and oils that give a very thick, rich texture. These are more hydrating than typical body butters, while still being quite rich and moisture-sealing. Since they contain a mixture of water and oil, they require a strong preservation system, which is not the case for waterless body butters.
Body butters are best for those with dry skin because they’re so rich, and they replenish exactly the oils that dry skin lacks. They’re also fantastic for spot-treating more severe dry spots in the skin, like on the elbows or knees. If your body butter is made without any water or humectants, you can layer it over a lighter lotion or cream for really comprehensive moisturization.
Of all of the body moisturizers we’ve listed so far, body oils are by far the most unique. They’re oils, so they have a slippery, fluid texture that’s seen by some as very luxurious and by others as unpleasant.
Body oils are usually made of blends of different plant oils, but they can also include emollient ingredients with a similar slippery texture, like squalane or caprylic triglycerides. You can buy all kinds of body oils, or you can make your own by mixing your favorite plant oils. Some body oils can actually have a bit of a dry feeling because they rely on non-greasy oils like grape seed oil, or they’re enhanced with velvety silicones.
Some body oils are infused with shimmer, so they can be used during the day to give the skin a glow. Others are made with emulsifiers that allow the oil to get rinsed off of the skin, like an oil cleanser but for the body.
Body oils are always waterless, so like most body butters, they can look moisture into the skin, but they can’t hydrate on their own. Some people like to use body oil while they’re in the shower, while others use it immediately afterwards.
Body oils can be used by all skin types, but those with dry skin tend to like them the most. If you have oily skin, look for a body oil that also includes other non-oil emollients and that has a dry, silky skin feel.
Photos via @anajohnson, @kateclementine_beauty, Instagram