The words "dry, cracked skin" are enough to make people reach for an ointment or lotion. And as the weather turns colder, dry skin becomes a common problem for most people. Of course, choosing a skin cream is a daunting task when faced with the multitude of products on the pharmacy shelf.
"There are plenty of choices in the market place," said Jeff Moore, an instructor of Pharmaceutics in the Pharmaceutical Sciences Department at University of the Sciences in Philadelphia. "Most of the time, it is just a question of personal preference."
Moore, a coordinator of laboratories which provide his students hands-on experience in compounding a variety of lotions and creams, believes a little background on the make-up of skin creams would make selecting the right cream easier.
Most lotions and creams contain one or both of the following agents−an oily agent and a watery agent. Most of the time, creams and lotions vary based on the amount of these two agents, or "phases" as they are commonly referred to by formulators.
Some creams or lotions can contain most of one phase and almost none of the other. Or, these agents can exist in equal amounts. "In many cases, the 'feel' of a lotion or cream may run from very oily to not oily at all. It all depends on the relationship of the two phases," Moore said. Variations lie anywhere in between.
Unless some unusual medical condition exists, such as Psoriasis, most skin damage occurs because of dryness. In the winter, the air lacks the same humidity as in the summer. The atmosphere contributes to dehydrating the skin at a faster rate during this time.
It is during this period that creams or lotions with an oily feel come to the rescue and provide a covering that slows the escape of moisture from the exposed surface allowing re-hydrating from below. "We say oil-based lotions and creams have an 'occlusive' function in that they cover the skin and allow healing like a band-aid," explained Moore.
These creams and lotions may also contain additives which have proven to provide softening and soothing properties to the skin. "These additives are commonly known by most people and appear on the label of over-the-counter preparations. But they are not considered medicinal agents and at a certain concentration, usually don't need to be prescribed by a dermatologist."