Lotion Serum Cream – What do they mean

Formulating cosmetics can be challenging, but convincing people to buy products can be even harder. The biggest challenge in getting consumers to pick your product is the fact that from a technology standpoint, it’s very difficult to stand out. If you have the right cosmetic formulator, any company can make a product just as good as any other cosmetic company. That’s not to say all the products are the same, but from a consumer’s standpoint, they can’t tell much difference. 

Since it’s hard to differentiate based on technology, product marketers try other ways to differentiate their products. This includes brand name, colors, packaging, and even product name.  This post will focus on the product name. Specifically, “what do you call your product?”

Types of formulas

From a formulator’s standpoint there are really only a limited number of types of cosmetic formulas.  See that post for more details but the main ones you find in skin care include

  • Solutions
  • Creams
  • Lotions
  • Ointments
  • Gels
  • Powders
  • Sticks

This means that nearly every product on the market could be called one of these things.  However, they aren’t. That is because cosmetic marketers use the description of their products as a way to differentiate themselves on the marketplace.

That’s why terms like Lotion, Cream, Serum, Pomade, etc. don’t have a single meaning. Often, the meaning of those words is whatever the marketer wants it to mean or whatever consumers expect it to mean.

Definition of products

But let me give you a rough guideline of what these terms mean. These won’t always be true for all products, but they will be good enough for a cosmetic formulator.

Cream – An opaque, thick product, typically white or light yellow in appearance unless some color is added. Thickness varies but they are almost always thick enough that the product won’t move on its own once put on a surface. Most commonly used when making skin moisturizers.

Lotion – An opaque, thin product, which is just like a cream but thinner. However, it can range in thickness from that of a runny liquid to an unmoving paste. Popular for hair conditioners, skin moisturizers, sunscreens, etc.

Serum – These are thickened liquids that are often clear. They are delivered from a small pump bottle or even an eye dropper package. They are very similar to lotions and can even be opaque. They are used for applications for both skin care and hair care.

Gel – These are thick, clear products. They have a different rheology than creams and often have thixotropic behavior which means they require a force on them to make them thin out. While they are most often clear, sometimes a gel will be translucent.

Ointment – These products are generally anhydrous and are thick and opaque. They can feel like creams but are usually heavier and greasier. They also will usually have a darker yellow color. You find ointments for injuries or extremely dry skin.

Balm – Balms are similar to ointments but are so thick that they are solid. They are opaque and delivered in stick form or from a tub package. Balms are also similar to body butters which come in larger containers.

Paste – A paste is like an ointment in texture. But it typically has a polymer in it which provides some hold to hair in styling products.

Pomade – A pomade is like a paste but is a bit thinner in consistency and easier to spread. A pomade is like a thicker lotion. Usually found in styling products.

Wax – This is very similar to a balm or a butter. Typically, it will have a polymer in the formula which will give the hair some hold.

Putty – Just a different name for a wax. These products are usually white in color but they vary a lot.

Oil – A thinner liquid that is often yellow or orange in color. These can be actual oils (like argan oil) or pseudo oils like thickened water solutions or silicones.

Hopefully, you find these guidelines helpful. But the bottom line to remember is that there are no specific definitions for any of these types of products. What might seem like a serum to you could be a lotion, gel, or putty to someone else. It really just depends on your marketing.

4 thoughts on “Lotion Serum Cream – What do they mean

  1. Avatar
    Ali says:

    Hi Perry
    Your article is so useful for me. We are manufacturer of skin care and hir care products. We have formulated a product which is a powder dispersed in an elastomer base. What should we call it? The final products is similar to a opaque elastomer gel.
    If we call it gel, in the market people think that it is a water based normal gel like hair gels.
    What’s your idea?

    • Avatar
      Perry Romanowski says:

      You can call it whatever you like. There are gels out there that are not water based and still called gels. What you call it depends on what will work best for marketing & what the consumers think it is. You can call it a serum, a gel, a pomade…it’s really up to you.

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