Cream or Lotion? Then There’s The Serum…

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If you’ve ever wondered whether you should be using a cream or lotion – or perhaps a serum – you’re not alone!

Cosmetics companies are free to use whatever descriptors they like for their products as there isn’t an absolute definition for any of these terms. Broadly speaking, however, there are some differences:

  1. Creams are made by mixing oil with water. They tend to be moisturizing by nature. In addition to hydrating and emollient ingredients, creams may contain a range of additional actives including antioxidants, skin lighteners, cell-communicating ingredients, etc. Think of creams as thicker based products, most often suited to normal or dry skin types.
  2. Sometimes called fluids, lotions are similar to creams in that they contain both oil and water. They too, can contain emollients and hydrating ingredients, but they are lighter in consistency than creams. Lotions may be used by all skin types but those with oilier skin may find them too heavy. Lotions, like creams, may be moisturizing and can contain a range of active ingredients.
  3. Serums are thick liquids, which are often, but not always, clear. They are sometimes referred to as gels. Serums are water based, making them lightweight and suitable for all skin types. Serums are an excellent delivery system for all manner of active ingredients, including antioxidants, AHAs, peptides and retinoids. Because they are so light, they are ideal for layering under creams and lotions, without interfering with their activity.

If you think you’ve got it all figured out – cream or lotion or serum – hold on a minute! Now, there’s also the ‘essence’. Popular throughout Asia, many brands now offer essences in addition to these three treatments.



My research reveals that essences are a way to deliver targeted actives to skin – much like serums. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be much difference between the two. Essences may sound exotic but they are essentially serums; two names for the same product. Whether you opt for a cream or lotion, or a serum or essence, is irrelevant.

What’s most important is that it suits your skin type, it contains ingredients that deliver and that it fits your budget.