Ointments are preparations applied to the skin, eyes, and mucus membranes used as medicines, moisturizers, or cosmetics. Ointments are best used on dry skin because they trap moisture and are not well absorbed into the skin.
When used for medical purposes, ointments are used for a variety of conditions, such as:
- Cuts and scrapes
Ointments are also used to promote more complete absorption of the active ingredient or medication.
What Are Ointments?
Ointments (also called salves or unguents) are semisolid preparations applied to the skin, eyes, and mucus membranes that usually have an oily or greasy consistency and can feel “stiff” when applied to the skin.
Ointments used for medical purposes contain medications that can either act on the skin or be absorbed through the skin for systemic action.
Common bases for ointments include:
- Petroleum jelly
- Anhydrous lanolin
- Vegetable oils
Ointments may also contain preservatives and fragrance.
There are four general classes of ointments:
- Hydrocarbon bases (oleaginous ointment bases) which keep medications in contact with the skin and can act as a moisturizer
- Absorption bases, which incorporate water-based solutions that allow better absorption of some medicines and can also be used to moisturize
- Water-removable bases are oil-in-water emulsions containing petrolatum, anhydrous lanolin, or waxes are more easily washed from the skin with water and are used more often for cosmetic reasons
- Water-soluble bases (greaseless ointment bases) which contain only water-soluble substances
What Are Some Examples of Ointments?
Many types of medications are available in ointment form. Some common preparations include:
- Topical steroids
- Used to treat inflammatory skin conditions, such as poison ivy or eczema
- Over-the-counter: Cortaid, 1% hydrocortisone, Cortizone 10:
- Prescription: 0.5% triamcinolone, Kenalog, Diprosone,
- Examples include Eucerin, Aquaphor, and Vaseline
- Examples include neomycin sulfate, polymixin B sulfate and bacitracin (Neosporin) and bacitracin and polymixin B sulfate (Polysporin)
Should I Use an Ointment or a Cream?
Ointments are preferred:
- When treating dry skin conditions, such as psoriasis
- If greater penetration of the active ingredient in the topical medication is needed
- For better moisturizing
- For sensitive skin, since many creams have preservatives
Creams are preferred:
- When large areas of skin need to be covered
- When you want to avoid greasiness associated with ointments
- If you have wet or “weeping” skin lesions, such as eczema or poison ivy
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