Thick ointments, balms and butters are designed for ultra-dry skin. Powerful ones come loaded with occlusive ingredients (such as petrolatum) that form a physical barrier over the skin, locking in moisture. They can be greasy, so they're often reserved for small areas (such as rough heels), hard-to-treat skin conditions (such as severe eczema) and severely dry skin that shrugs off thinner lotions and creams.
The runaway favorite, Aquaphor Healing Ointment (Est. $14 for 14 oz.), rules this category year after year. Doctors recommend it for healing scrapes, chapped lips, preventing diaper rash and more. Users rave about it at MakeupAlley.com, saying it's not just glorified Vaseline -- it really does work better.
Aquaphor looks like clear Vaseline (it's 41 percent petroleum jelly), but the rest of the short ingredient list makes it different. It includes humectants and emollients to hydrate and smooth the skin, and bisabolol, a soothing chamomile derivative. Aquaphor says this formula "enables the flow of water and oxygen" -- in other words, it allows skin to "breathe" -- unlike pure petroleum jelly.
"There isn't much to this classic ointment, but without question it's a gentle formula that does a formidable job of protecting skin that is dry, cracked, or irritated," says cosmetic critic Paula Begoun at Beautypedia.com, awarding Aquaphor her highest rating. "It is a dermatologist favorite for good reason!"
It's a favorite of About.com beauty guide Julyne Derrick, too. "In the winter, nothing works like this to keep my legs from shriveling up in the New York wind," she says. "It works by keeping the moisture in, while blocking wind, heat and cold from sapping your skin of moisture.
"Put some on your feet and sleep in socks and your feet will be super soft. The only downside to Aquaphor is the texture. It can feel like you're slathering your body in Vaseline. A little goes a long way."
Ointments are generally heavier-duty than creams. But if you want something less greasy, two outstanding creams come highly recommended for desperately dry skin: CeraVe Moisturizing Cream (Est. $17 for 16 oz.) (covered in our discussion of everyday body lotions) and Vanicream Moisturizing Skin Cream with Pump Dispenser (Est. $12 for 16 oz.). Like Aquaphor, both are fragrance-free and gentle on even the most sensitive skin, and you can easily find them at drugstores.
CeraVe Moisturizing Cream is our Best Reviewed everyday body lotion. Even though it's light and greaseless enough for total-body moisturizing, reviews say it's powerful enough to deeply hydrate very dry skin. Rather than Aquaphor's Vaseline-like feel, CeraVe absorbs quickly. It also contains special ingredients you won't find in Aquaphor: ceramides, cholesterol and hyaluronic acid, which attract moisture and repair the skin barrier.
Vanicream Moisturizing Skin Cream with Pump Dispenser also earns some kudos as a baby lotion. It isn't marketed specifically for babies, but doctors recommend it because it's tailored to be as irritant-free and non-allergenic as possible. We cover baby lotion choices in more detail in their own section of this report.
Texture-wise, Vanicream falls between the Vaseline-like Aquaphor ointment and the fast-absorbing CeraVe cream. Vanicream is thick, and it takes a while to spread and absorb into the skin, but most users say it doesn't feel greasy like Aquaphor can. Still, Vanicream is pretty petrolatum-rich (it's the number-one ingredient in Aquaphor, number two in Vanicream), so it creates more of a barrier on the skin than CeraVe cream, where petrolatum ranks 13th on the ingredient list.
Aquaphor ointment, CeraVe cream, and Vanicream are all available in various sizes, from big jars to little tubes. CeraVe and Vanicream both offer their big jars with pump tops, which keep bacteria out and can be more convenient to use. Dipping fingers into a jar "tends to be messy and is unsanitary," Begoun says, so she recommends buying Aquaphor in the tube.