Learn the difference between lotion, cream, body butter, balms, and salves, plus tips on making your own easy and effective DIY moisturizers at home.
You’re excited to start making your own DIY lotion at home… or at least you were excited. Now? You feeling confused, overwhelmed, and are ready to forget the whole handmade lotion idea entirely.
Because, after scouring the internet for a good homemade lotion recipe, holy smokes!
There are so many options: lotion or lotion bars? Whipped body butter or cream? Is there any difference between them, and how do you know which is right for you?
And… what about preservatives? Do you need to use one or not?
If you’re wondering about the difference between lotion and cream, body butter, balms (and more) and your head is spinning trying to figure it all out, take a deep breath, my friend.
I’m here to explain the differences in DIY moisturizing products, how they work on the skin, and how to choose the right handmade moisturizer recipe for your skin. Plus, I’ll share links to my favorite beginner-friendly recipes to get you confidently making your own lotion, cream, body butter, and more.
How Moisturizers Work on the Skin
Have you ever used a moisturizing product (whether store-bought or handmade) and it just. didn’t. work?
- It was too greasy, heavy, and didn’t absorb.
- It felt too light, like nothing was there—and your skin felt just as dry as before.
- Or, the product left your skin feeling greasy-slick and still parched and dry.
There’s a lot of confusion about how moisturizers work.
Healthy skin contains both oil and water. Water keeps the skin cells hydrated, plump, and smooth. Your skin’s natural oil, called sebum, acts as an occlusive agent. It seals water into the skin, preventing water from evaporating away.
Imagine how oil floats on top of water, and you have a pretty good (albeit simplistic) visual of how healthy skin keeps itself moisturized.
Of course, that’s ideal. Skin often has a mind of its own and doesn’t always work optimally.
If your skin doesn’t produce enough sebum (oil), you have a dry skin type. Without adequate oil to lock hydration in, water quickly evaporates away, leaving your skin feeling rough and dry. This process is called trans-epidermal water loss, or TEWL.
On the flip side, your skin may produce ample amount of oil, but is lacking in water. In this case, you have dehydrated skin. Dehydrated skin is caused by not drinking enough water, living in a dry environment, excess sun or wind exposure, swimming in chlorinated pools, hormones, aging, and more.
Dry skin = lacking in oil. Dehydrated skin = lacking in water.
Whether your skin is oil dry or dehydrated, the end result is the same: your skin feels tight and dry. And, because oil and water in the skin go hand-in-hand, it’s very common to have both oil dry and dehydrated skin.
Choosing a DIY Moisturizer for Your Skin
To keep your skin moist, hydrated, and supple, a good moisturizer delivers what your skin is lacking: oil, water, or both. When you’re crafting your own DIY moisturizers, keep in mind your own skin’s needs.
If a product feels too heavy or greasy, it’s too oily for your skin (you probably knew that though). If a product feels too light, you need one with more oil.
But, if the product feels too greasy and also not moisturizing enough, you need a product that contains more water in the product.
Depending on what your skin needs, certain DIY moisturizers will work better for you than others. Let’s check out your options!
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Body Butter/Whipped Body Butter
Most DIY “lotion” recipes you’ll find online are actually body butters. Body butters are semi-soft, oil-based products, that melt on contact with the skin.
To achieve this texture, body butters are made with solid at room temperature butters and oils (cocoa butter, shea butter, mango butter, coconut oil, etc.) and liquid oils (sunflower, sweet almond, apricot, etc.)
Melt these oils and butters together, let them cool, and voila… body butter!
For a fluffy, light-as-air texture, you can use a hand mixer to whip the body butter as it cools. The end result is a whipped frosting-like consistency that is beautiful.
Body butters do leave your skin feeling soft and supple. But, because they contain no water, they often are not hydrating enough (meaning your skin still feels dry after application).
To boost the effectiveness of your body butter, apply it immediately after your bath or shower while your skin is still damp. This seals in the water that is on your skin, helping your skin feel more hydrated.
- Body butters are incredibly simple to make, so they’re perfect for beginners.
- You only need a few, easy-to-find ingredients.
- Body butters have a long shelf life, and need no preservatives.
- Body butters can feel greasy.
- Body butters themselves won’t hydrate the skin, because they don’t contain water. So, if your skin is dehydrated, these products may not be the most effective option for you.
- Whipped body butters melt easily in warm temperatures. You can still use them, but the fluffy, whipped texture isn’t there.
If you want to a DIY moisturizing product with a professional, “store-bought” feel, you’ll want to learn how to make emulsified lotion.
True lotion is an emulsification, or blend, of oil and water.
Because lotion contains both water and oil, they address both oil-dry and dehydrated skin types. You get hydration plus an oil to help lock in moisture.
Hang on, Angela, you’re saying now. Oil and water don’t mix. And you’re right, they don’t.
That’s why, to make DIY lotion, you must use an emulsifier.
An emulsifier is a specialty ingredient that allows to immiscible substances, in this case oil and water, to mix without separating out. For home crafters, the easiest and most cost-effective emulsifier is emulsifying wax. It can be bought from any cosmetic supply company.
While emulsifying wax isn’t natural, strictly speaking, you can get emulsifying wax that is created from naturally-sourced ingredients, like this emulsifying wax from Mountain Rose Herbs. (This is my favorite e-wax, and they one I personally use in all the lotions and creams I craft.)
You’ll need one more specialty ingredient before you start whipping up lotion: a preservative.
Water is a breeding ground for nasty bacteria, mold, and yeast. So, anytime you craft a skin care product that contains water you must use a preservative. Unpreserved lotion is simply not safe, regardless of what some DIY crafters may tell you.
My go-to preservative for handmade lotion and creams is liquid Germall Plus. It’s paraben-free and incredibly easy to use (even for lotion-making newbies!)
- Lotion is both hydrating and moisturizing, so it’s perfect for protecting against, and relieving, dry skin.
- Emulsified lotion gives you a professional, store-bought end result.
- Lotion isn’t greasy or heavy, and quickly absorbs into the skin.
- In order to create a safe, stable product, you must use emulsifying wax and a preservative.
- The lotion-making process, while not overly complicated, is more involved than body butters and balms.
- Emulsifying wax and preservatives are not natural, so you can’t make a 100% natural product. But you can get these ingredients that are derived from natural sources, giving you a finished product that is about 93% to 97% natural (depending on the e-wax and preservative used).
Lotion bars are immensely popular among DIY skin care crafters. Despite the name, lotion bars are more like solid body butters than emulsified lotions.
The mixture is melted together and poured into a soap mold, or silicon muffin tray. Once it’s cool, pop it out of the mold. What you’ve got is a solid product that looks nearly like a bar of soap.
Massage that bar directly onto your skin and it melts slightly, leaving a smooth, emollient layer behind.
I think lotion bars are totes adorbs. But, for my taste, they’re a bit messy to use. I prefer dipping a dollop of whipped body butter from a tin rather than using a bar. Try them out for yourself, though, to see which you like best.
- No need to use a preservative.
- Quick and simple to make, plus they look super cute!
- If you make lip balm, you already have all the ingredients you need to make lotion bars (and vice versa.)
- Some people (like me!) feel lotion bars are a bit messy to use compared to other moisturizing products.
- Lotion bars are slow to absorb, and can leave the skin feeling greasy.
- Lotion bars won’t hydrate the skin (remember, they contain no water) so they don’t feel as moisturizing as “regular” lotion.
Creams are very similar to lotions. They are emulsified moisturizers, made with a blend of oils, water, an emulsifier, and a preservative.
The biggest difference between lotion and cream is in the final texture. While lotions are light and absorb quickly, creams are thicker and richer. They contain a higher percentage of oils and butters than lotions do.
- Like lotions, emulsified creams give a professional end result.
- Creams deeply hydrate and moisturize, and offer excellent protection and relief from dry skin.
- Creams are perfect for dry skin types, and are wonderful for the face too.
- You must use emulsifying wax and preservatives to make a safe and stable product.
- The process of making cream is a bit more involved than making a simple balm or butter.
- Your finished cream won’t be 100% natural.
Think of lip balm for the body, and that’s exactly what body balms are. Thicker and stiffer than body butters, balms typically contain a wax (beeswax, candelilla wax, etc.) along with butters and oils.
And, yes, you can get extra large push-up tubes, that work just like lip balm tubes for the body! This makes your body balms super easy to use. But, if you don’t have these tubes, a small tin or container works lovely too.
Balms do not absorb readily into the skin, and they’re not designed to. Instead, they create an occlusive layer over the skin to offer protection against moisture loss. This makes balms perfect for ultra dry, cracked skin, and to prevent chapping.
During our cold Idaho winters, I slather balm over my little one’s cheeks to keep her face from getting kissed by those icy winds. I use balms regularly on my cuticles, year-round, to keep them from getting rough and ragged. It helps!
- Balms offer great protection against rough, dry, cracked, or chapped skin.
- They’re simple to make, and require no preservatives.
- Because they contain wax, balms don’t melt as easily as body butters do.
- Balms don’t absorb easily into the skin, so they will leave your skin feeling greasy.
- Because they contain no water, they will not hydrate dehydrated skin.
Make it: Peppermint Orange Body Balm Stick
A salve is a type of balm that has medicinal or therapeutic qualities. DIY salves are typically made with herbal infused oils or essential oils.
Salves are not meant to be used as all-over moisturizers, but instead to help certain topical issues. For example, many herbalists and home crafters make plantain-infused salves for bug bites. Arnica salves are used for stiff muscles. Chamomile or calendula make great multipurpose salves for a variety of minor skin irritations.
- Salves need no preservatives.
- Salves have therapeutic qualities.
- Making herbal infused oils for your salve takes time, and straining them is messy.
- Salves are not meant to be used as all-over moisturizers. Instead, just dab a bit where needed.