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Pharmacy and Medications

What is the Difference Between Cream, Ointment and Gel?



Dear Pharmacists, What is the difference between cream, ointment and gel? As a general rule, how long can cream, gel or ointment or eye drop be kept after first opening?


Thank you for visiting NetWellness. Because the question asking about the differences between creams, ointments, and gels is not specific to a drug, the answer to it is very general.

Ointments generally stay on the skin longer than creams and gels. If a drug is applied to a place that can be rubbed off easily, then ointment is a good choice. However, creams or gels are better to use on the face because ointments are a bit greasy.

Ointment can also be a better choice if the patient has dry skin. The ointment can help keep the skin moist and may make it heal faster. On the other hand, creams and gels can dry things up so applying them onto the moist area would be helpful.

As for the expiration date for these products, there is really not a general one. If the drugs are made by the company, the expiration dates are written on the container or one year after you get it from the pharmacy; depends on which one comes first.

If a product is made by the pharmacy or mixed with water before being dispensed to the patient, then generally the expiration date is shorter. They will specifically put a date on the containers as well. Please refer to the pharmacy if the expiration date is not clearly written.

The expiration date for eye drops also depends on what they are used for and the companies that make them. Some eye drops need to be stored in the refrigerator before and after use for them to work. Some products have preservatives and some do not. Because of that, the expiration date will be different. Please refer to the package or the labeling of the drugs. If it is not clear, refer to the pharmacy.

Submitted by Van Mai, PharmD candidate,
The Ohio State University College of Pharmacy

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Response by:

Carmen M Hadley, RPh, CSPI
Former Clinical Instructor
College of Pharmacy
The Ohio State University