Balms Vs. Creams⎯The Experts Weigh In, Part I


It seems I’m not the only one who’s hopping on the balm bandwagon. A trend is surfacing among skincare lines that’s placing these solid but creamy emollients center stage—for good reason! I started using balms this summer and saw a real turnaround in the condition of my skin, as in fewer breakouts, diminished scars, and an unbeatable natural glow.

So I had to find out from the experts what makes these balms tick? (Get it?)

Here’s the explosive info that has me questioning whether I’d ever reach for a cream again.

The ONE ingredient in creams that you won’t find in balms

Guess which ingredient is the culprit when it comes to requiring preservatives? That’s right. It’s aqua, eau, and other fancy terms for water! This seemingly innocuous liquid also necessitates the use of emulsifiers and other additives that don’t really do much to benefit the skin and may even wreak havoc. It’s also the main ingredient in most skin creams and lotions. Hmm… Kinda makes you wonder what you’re getting in those expensive jars. [Lookin’ at you La Mer.]

In fact, when Laurel Shaffer, founder of Laurel Whole Plant Organics, decided to reformulate Sequoia Beauty, she chose to discontinue the creams. Her reason may surprise you—she wouldn’t use them herself! Even though she incorporated the finest natural ingredients, the method of turning raw, whole elements into a cream meant that those ingredients had to be chemically manipulated—a process that she felt was highly unnatural.

As she explained in an email:

“Lotions or creams are [over] 70 percent water and [require] emulsifiers/thickeners and preservatives—yes, you are doing the math correctly, that leaves very little room for active or beneficial ingredients! Really a Balm is that remaining 10 to 15 percent active ingredients…Antioxidant rich oils, plant extracts, healing essential oils—nothing but the result-delivering good stuff.  That is also a huge selling point for me—getting what you pay for.”

The bottom line is that no water means no microbial preservatives and more active ingredients. That leaves a highly concentrated formula that does the job of protecting, soothing, and healing the skin efficiently. It is no wonder, then, that more companies are turning to balms than ever before.

photo credit: One Love Organics

Another über-popular skincare brand created a waterless balm as one of its original signature products. Suzanne LeRoux, founder of One Love Organics, listed four main reasons why she formulated Skin Savior as a balm.

In Suzanne’s words:

Preference of Texture.

I simply prefer an oil based balm. Most creams or lotions have a base of 70-90% water and a small correlating amount of oils and emollients. The emulsifiers that hold oil and water together can feel filmy and sticky and can aggravate some skin types, especially sensitive or breakout prone. Properly formulated balms on the other hand, if you use them correctly and sparingly, can feel really velvety and luxurious and soak right into the skin. Balms also have no water so they do not require an emulsifier or traditional preservatives so it is easy to keep the ingredients really simple and pure. Balms essentially were a solution for me because I do not like the way lotions and creams feel on my skin.


Skin Savior is perfect for all skin types but especially those who have oily skin or are prone to breakouts. Skin Savior doesn’t contain ingredients (water, preservatives and/or emulsifiers) that may aggravate the skin in favor of potent ingredients that do help the skin. For example, Skin Savior contains Vitamin B3 (niacin), zinc and lauric acid derived from the pure plant oils and extracts. Vitamin B3, a proven anti-inflammatory, may help to reduce the redness that often accompanies blemishes and can help to calm the skin. Topical zinc has been shown to help calm the skin. And lauric acid has strong anti-bacterial properties. In a balm formula, we do not dilute these potent ingredients in any way and have a formula that is 100% active.

Multi-tasking Benefits.

You can use a balm for so many purposes. Our balm for example can be used over 50 ways, whereas typically a cream or lotion can only be used for its intended purposes. We use our balm to cleanse, spot treat, moisturize, as a treatment masque, bath oil and so much more and it can go on our face, hair, lips and anywhere on the body. Creams or lotions are usually formulated just for one specific area.

Value + Environment.

Balms are highly concentrated and usually contain ingredients in only their purest form. This means that a little goes a long way, and most balms last an average of three times longer than a cream. High-concentration formulas also mean less consumption, packaging and transportation – so you can love the environment as much as you love your skin!

photo credit: Metta Skincare
Barrier protection + nutrient absorption.

The founder of Metta Skincare, Anca Grigoras, found that lotions were not keeping her hands hydrated enough. After extensive research, she learned about what the skin needs to hold moisture—and hand creams didn’t cut it. So she developed her impressive line of face, lip, and hand balms sans H2O. Here’s what she said.

A good quality oil-based moisturizer replenishes oil levels in the skin and helps restore the permeability barrier.

Anca explained that one of the skin’s most important functions is to act as a permeability barrier to prevent the loss of water and electrolytes. Factors like cold, wind, dry or polluted environments, diet, stress, hormones, age, harsh soaps, and detergents can deplete the skin’s naturally protective sebum levels that are designed to keep water and vital nutrients locked in. The result can lead to water loss and the skin looking dry, flaky, or even cracked.

Different absorption rates

It’s also important to remember that different oils and butters have different properties and absorption rates and a product that combines both quick and slower-absorbing oils will keep the skin feel supple and moisturized for longer.

On the other hand creams and lotions have a high water content making them very easily absorbed into the deeper layers of skin. However if the outer layer of skin is not in optimal condition, then a great proportion of that hydration will be lost anyway—which is why she couldn’t find a cream that worked for her dry hands.

Vicky Lyons, founder of Lyonsleaf concurs. “The trick to successful skin hydration is maintaining and repairing skin barrier function,” she said in an email. “The fatty acids in natural oils are the same as those your skin uses to create its lipid barrier, so we feel applying natural oils to repair damage caused by detergents, air conditioning, weather, etc. is the best way to go.”

A carrier for nutrients

Because both the outer layer of skin and cell membranes have a high lipid content, oils are needed to penetrate these and when applied on the skin they act as an excellent “carrier” for nutrients. Additionally certain fatty acids contained in vegetable oils (such as linoleic acid, alpha-linoleic acid and arachidonic acid) increase skin permeation levels and therefore are an ideal vehicle for introducing the vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants already present in the formula. (Len Price, Carrier Oils for Aromatherapy and Massage, Riverhead Publishing, Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, England, 2012)

Do you use a balm?

I found these answers to be extremely compelling and would surely prompt anyone to incorporate a balm into their skincare regimen. As we in the Northeast head into the colder months, it’s prime time to use a solid protective barrier for the skin, though I will say again that I started using a balm in the summer months with excellent results and no oily residue. So frankly, a balm is a year-round option.

The information also makes me wonder about the efficacy of the many, many, often expensive creams that are sold today. Are we paying big bucks for a weak product? Will the long-term effects of a cream actually deplete the skin of vital moisture?  I’ll be reaching out to some of my favorite skin cream creators to find out!

Ultimately, I do think it’s a question of preference and what works best for your skin type.

Tomorrow, I continue this topic with the way to maximize using balms, as well as my picks for favorite balms—so stay tuned! (Linked)

With deep gratitude to the outstanding team of skin care brilliance who took the time to answer all my questions about balms: Suzanne LeRoux of One Love Organics, Laurel Shaffer of Laurel Whole Plant Organics, Anca Grigoras of Metta Skincare, Vicky Lyons of Lyonsleaf, Jessica Lafleur of Stark Skincare. Your answers blew me away. (OK, OK! I’ll stop with the balm/bomb analogy already.)

Top photo credit: Laurel Whole Plant Organics



26 thoughts on “Balms Vs. Creams⎯The Experts Weigh In, Part I

  1. Extremely informative, Sarita! This may be slightly off track, but I just got a body balm in a stick form in a subscription bag recently and I thought it was odd. But now I realize it’s not. Many body balms in jars are actually thick creams and they must have water and emulsifiers. This stick does not. Cool! Thanks for the info 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m so happy that you found it helpful, Allison!! I think a stick is wonderful for convenience but may be a tad hard to apply all over due to size, right? I totally hear where you’re coming from. Still, to spot treat extra dry areas it would be great.


  2. Great article Sarita! Those balms sound amazing 🙂 I haven’t used a cream in years, and these reasons are why Blue Labelle focuses on pure oil blends with no water emulsifiers or preservatives in any of our products! A note for Vegans / those prone to oiliness: a lot of balms contain beeswax which isn’t suitable for Vegans and isn’t advised for those prone to oiliness / large pores so oil blends like facial and cleansing oils are the perfect way to get the amazing lipid properties you’ve explained in a Vegan skin-balancing way. Thank you for promoting water-free skincare! Pascale x

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Just seen your reply, thank you Sarita! You’re more than welcome, I love talking about things like this. Your articles are so well & lovingly written it was a joy to contribute 🙂 XO

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank YOU so much for your answers! Your wisdom and experience made this post happen, Vicky. I hope you saw the second post with my recommendation of Lyonsleaf Beauty Balm. It earns high scores in my book and is certainly a standout product. Xo


  3. Water hydrates and plumps up the skin nicely. There’s something refreshing about a cream that an oil based product doesn’t have. Also, some oily skin types can only handle small amounts of oils that only a cream can deliver. I like both types of moisturizers and there is room and purposes for all. No need to demean the formulators of creams by making them seem like they’re ripping people off. Water always has purpose on the skin.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Very true that there are benefits to water and cream formulas that contain water. I don’t believe that the intention here was to rule them out but rather to explain the merit of a balm. These formulators did extensive research and testing to achieve formulas that perform. I believe that there is value to both creams as well as balms and that’s certainly the understanding that comes through in my post on Creams vs. Balms. Thank you for sharing here and I hope that you get to check out the other post too.


  4. Great article. As for water, yeah…our skin, people, is water-resistant! It designed to NOT absorb water, otherwise we would swell up enourmously after a quick shower. The only way we can absorb water is if we drink it. Thats that! Thats why i love Bee Yummy Skinfood cream , its a cream but made out of bee products. For those who allergic to bee products…100%Pure brand uses Aloe juice instead of water. For those who dont care for organic, Amore Pacific does wonders with its Bamboo Sap and Tea Tree extracts and zero water. I work at Neiman Marcus as an esthetician and yeah.,.we overpay for these brands which packed with water and chemicals…crazy overpay. They effective…yeah…so is your packed with chemicals bug spray. Does it mean you sould be using it? Probably no. But its your conscious….your body, your health at steak.


  5. Great article! I agree with Natalia, hydrate your skin by drinking enough H2O, eau, water. Soothe and smooth skin with a balm! But of course everyone has personal preference. Thanks for the info! I love making balms and many of my friends, family, and I use them and love them.


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