Finding the right body lotion for you
Wander the body lotion aisle at any drugstore, and you'll see an overwhelming array of body lotions -- most with equally overwhelming ingredient lists, and all promising to be the ultimate moisturizer. But getting down to basics, body lotion isn't really all that complicated. "All moisturizers help with dry skin for a pretty simple reason: they supply a little bit of water to the skin and contain a greasy substance that holds it in," says Harvard Medical School's Family Health Guide. "In fact, if greasiness weren't a problem, we might all go back to using the solution for dry skin that our grandparents used: 100% white petrolatum, which most of us know as Vaseline."
A body lotion usually consists of three main components that all work together:
- Humectants (such as glycerin and hyaluronic acid) to draw water into the outer layer of skin.
- Emollients (such as silicones and jojoba oil) to fill the gaps between cell clusters in the skin's top layer, making it feel smooth and supple.
- Occlusives (such as petrolatum and waxes) to seal moisture into the skin.
Different body lotions combine these components in different ways. As a result, you'll find three main types of body moisturizers:
- Ointments are the most heavily moisturizing. Petrolatum is often a main ingredient, so ointments can have a greasy look and feel. Moisturizing ointments can be used all over for super-dry skin, or on small areas such as cracked heels or a baby's diaper area.
- Creams aren't quite as heavy-duty as ointments, but they do moisturize deeply -- and they absorb quickly and greaselessly, making them a great choice for all-over moisturizing.
- Lotions are thinner and less moisturizing than creams. If your skin isn't very dry, or you prefer a lighter-feeling moisturizer, a body lotion may suffice.
The good news? Our research revealed that some of the very best body lotions, creams and ointments are relatively affordable. Our Best Reviewed picks range from $6 to $16 for a good-sized bottle or jar, and they're all easy to find at drugstores.
To find the best body lotions, we first studied professional tests. Beautypedia.com rates body lotions based on their ingredient lists and formulations. Editors at Allure and InStyle magazines go a step further and test the lotions on their own skin. ConsumerReports.org actually measures the moisture level on its lotion-testers' legs in a humidity-controlled lab. Often, the lotions that ace these tests are already favorite standbys of dermatologists (as revealed in articles at Parents.com and Oprah.com) and real-life users (who write reviews at sites like TotalBeauty.com, MakeupAlley.com and Amazon.com).
Everyday body lotions that really, really work
For a do-it-all body moisturizer, reviews say you simply can't beat CeraVe Moisturizing Cream (Est. $17 for 16 oz.). Dermatologists love it, and so do legions of well-moisturized fans at Amazon.com, Drugstore.com and MakeupAlley.com.
"I first learned of CeraVe a few years ago when my father had a bad rash on his skin and his dermatologist recommended CeraVe to soothe it," says Julyne Derrick, About.com's guide to beauty. "It was thick and creamy and I tried it on my super parched legs. Wow. It was incredibly moisturizing, unlike anything I'd ever tried before ... Love this stuff."
This unassuming drugstore cream has somehow struck the perfect balance, reviewers say: It's incredibly moisturizing, yet light and greaseless. It's packed with effective ingredients, yet inexpensive. It's fragrance-free and so gentle, dermatologists recommend it for their most sensitive-skinned patients -- even newborns with severe eczema.
It's "basic but thoughtfully formulated," says Paula Begoun, the exacting cosmetics critic and author of "Don't Go to the Cosmetics Counter Without Me." CeraVe cream contains ingredients that the skin naturally produces -- including ceramides, cholesterol and hyaluronic acid -- that attract moisture and repair the skin barrier. The moisturizing results last and last, through repeated hand washings and even showers, reviews say. "It won't wear off in 20 minutes," dermatologist Ellen Marmur tells InStyle magazine, where CeraVe cream is a perennial "Best Beauty Buys" award winner.
CeraVe cream typically comes in a jar, but in fall 2015, the company started selling a version of the jar with a convenient pump top (we found it at Amazon.com and Walmart.com). CeraVe also sells a thinner lotion in a pump bottle, but users say it's not as effective as the cream.
At first glance, Cetaphil Moisturizing Cream (Est. $18 for 16 oz.) looks like CeraVe's near-twin. Both come in clinical-looking, white plastic jars. Both are fragrance-free. Both have a reputation for being gentle on sensitive skin. Both earn equally stellar marks from users at Amazon.com, and About.com's Derrick recommends them both.
"Cetaphil Moisturizing Cream is a beauty editor favorite," Derrick says. "It's not too thick and leaves skin perfectly moisturized."
But Cetaphil cream doesn't contain any of the special ingredients -- ceramides, cholesterol and hyaluronic acid -- that make Begoun so impressed with CeraVe. Unlike CeraVe, Cetaphil doesn't offer its jar with a pump, although you can buy small 3-ounce tubes of Cetaphil cream if you don't like digging your fingers into a jar.
Gold Bond Ultimate Healing Skin Therapy Lotion Aloe (Est. $13 for 14 oz.) and Aveeno Active Naturals Daily Moisturizing Lotion (Est. $8 for 18 oz.) are two more drugstore favorites that users at MakeupAlley.com and retail websites swear by. They're both lotions, so they're thinner than the CeraVe and Cetaphil creams. But like Cetaphil cream, both the Gold Bond and Aveeno lotions moisturize better than most in a leading consumer test (though CeraVe wasn't included in that test).
However, although Begoun says Aveeno Active Naturals Daily Moisturizing Lotion is "an OK option for dry, sensitive skin" due to its basic, fragrance-free formula, it's "a bit too bare bones to deserve a higher rating." Similarly, Begoun calls Gold Bond Ultimate Healing Skin Therapy Lotion Aloe a "good, fairly standard" lotion, but she says it lacks sophisticated ingredients such as ceramides. It also contains fragrance, unlike the CeraVe and Cetaphil creams and the Aveeno lotion.
Exfoliating lotions smooth bumpy, flaky skin
If you have flaky, rough skin, you may want to consider an exfoliating lotion. These lotions use ingredients such as alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) to remove dead skin cells and attract moisture to the skin. Dermatologists and podiatrists often recommend exfoliating lotions to treat thickened, cracked skin on the feet, as well as keratosis pilaris ("chicken skin"), patches of tiny bumps that appear especially on the backs of the upper arms and thighs.
AmLactin Moisturizing Body Lotion (Est. $16 for 7.9 oz.) uses 12 percent lactic acid to exfoliate and moisturize dry, flaky skin. Dermatologists often recommend this fragrance-free lotion, and it earns outstanding marks from users at Drugstore.com, Amazon.com and MakeupAlley.com. Some users hate AmLactin's smell (we've seen it described as glue-like or faintly fermented) and the sticky feel it leaves on their skin -- but they use it anyway, because AmLactin really smooths their "chicken skin" and rough spots. Some users see results after using AmLactin once a day for a couple of weeks, while others have to use it twice a day as directed to see a difference.
AmLactin is pH-balanced so that the high level of lactic acid won't irritate skin (users say it can sting broken or freshly shaved skin, though). But Begoun contends that the pH balancing prevents the lactic acid from exfoliating effectively. Begoun's conclusions are not based on actual testing; they are based on the science that has been reported about the product's ingredient list.