What's the Difference Between Lotion and Moisturizer?

It’s the new year, people, which means it’s time for green tea and grain bowls and Meditation and Self Care. It’s time to treat ourselves to feeling good; it’s time to mask our faces with indigenous soils and lather up our bodies like we’re in some sort of commercial and luxuriate in the warmth of our collective internal glow. But before we spend our first week’s paycheck on the season’s buzziest new product, or raid the drugstore aisle for another promised cure-all, we should probably know—what exactly are we rubbing all over ourselves, anyways? It’s time to learn the difference between lotion and moisturizer. 

First, let’s talk about moisture. It’s easy to think of moisture as water; when something is moist, it’s kind of wet, right? But when it comes to skin, water is a horrible moisturizer; it evaporates too quickly to soak in.

Lotion has a higher water content than moisturizer, and therefore does its work on top of the skin to cause some sort of effect, like preventing sunburn. Lotions certainly can carry vitamins and minerals, but ones that have a topical use; they’re doing something on the surface on the skin, rather than penetrating it. 

Moisturizer, on the other hand, is a cream that’s designed to bring moisture or vitamins or minerals into the skin, not just on top of it. This means that many moisturizers have sealing agents, like mineral oils or petroleum jelly, to help lock in that moisture. Moisturizers are therefore thicker than lotions, and are more effective for treating dry skin—especially in the winter.

Another thing about water? The more water that a product has, the more likely it is to attract bacteria—which is where preservatives and fragrances come in. Because lotions are more water-based than moisturizers, they’re more likely to have extra added ingredients, and therefore are more prone to irritate your skin. So when you’re shopping, be aware—those cucumber/coconut/cantaloupe scents might seem great, but they have a purpose other than making you smell like a spa. 

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