Updated: Jul 17, 2020
Here in the Northeast the weather is turning colder outside, while inside we have cranked the heat, which can mean trouble for our skin. Dry, tight, cracked or sore, we reach for relief but what to choose - a balm, a salve, a butter, a lotion, or a cream? Just what is the difference anyway?
While these terms seem to be used interchangeably, there are in fact specific differences which are based on their core ingredients: beeswax, fatty oil, or water & oil. The choice of which base method to use will also determine the texture and firmness of the finished product.
Balms and Salves
Balm - "Aromatic resins exuded from certain plants"
Salve - "Ointment used to promote healing or protection"
There are two critical components to the creation of a balm or salve:
Beeswax - used to form a protective barrier on skin and be anti-inflammatory and soothing and as a setting agent.
Infused oil - steeping herbs, flowers, or plants into an oil will imbue it (and the finished product) with the properties of the chosen plant.
In my experience balms tend to be harder than salves due to the higher ratio of beeswax to oil and some salves might not have beeswax in them at all (soy based wax is used instead). If you have broken skin a salve may be a better option for comfort and healing as it is gentler to put on, while a balm is a good choice for lips or hands to protect them while exposured to the elements.
Butter- "fatty oils remaining nearly solid at ordinary temperatures"
The trusty body butter has been a skincare staple for many years. In most cases, the base material is a fatty oil derived from a plant or vegetable, the big three in skincare being: Cocoa, Shea, and Coconut.
The base of body butters are the oils themselves which have a variety of melting points making the product's softness or hardness dependent on the base oil used and the ratio of that oil to others used in the mixture.
Body butter benefits (try saying that 10 times fast) are that they melt on contact with the skin, are absorbed quickly and are therefore best used for hydrating the skin. They are great for all over body use (hence the name), but some more specialized base oils can make the price vary.
Lotions and Creams
Lotion - "a thick, smooth liquid preparation applied to the skin for medicinal or cosmetic purposes"
Cream - "a thick liquid or semisolid cosmetic or medical preparation applied to the skin"
Our final skincare option is the trusty lotion or cream. These both tend to be thinner in texture than body butters, balms and salves, and will include an emulsifying wax (rather than beeswax) to promote the mixing of the oil and water to form the finished product. As with anything involving water, which is the chief cause of bacteria growth in skincare products, it will also mean either a short shelf life (with refrigeration) or an added preservative.
Lotions and creams are great for delicate skin areas, such as around the eyes, as they can be applied more easily. They are best used daily on the whole body to seal in moisture and help keep skin supple.
This concludes my whirlwind tour of the ointment and moisturizing product world. Wherever you land, my advice is to pick something fortified with natural goodness, with as few ingredients as possible, that brings you relief, and joy of course.