Medicine Cabinet 101: Creams and Ointments

Tubes of creams and ointments have a habit of falling out of the medicine cabinet. While you’re in there wondering where they all came from and checking expiration dates, here’s the three most versatile and cost-effective generics to keep on hand:

Bacitracin: This is a good over-the-counter antibiotic ointment to use. Clean all wounds well with running water and use an antiseptic (like hydrogen peroxide) before applying antibiotic ointment. Bacitracin works well against most bacteria and doesn’t cause allergic reactions like some other antibiotic ointments.

Hydrocortisone: This is an over-the-counter topical steroid. General uses include eczema, irritated, over-dry skin, itchy rashes, poison ivy/oak. Sold as 0.5% and 1%. Both are safe to use, as directed, for children. Comes as a cream (the product is white and creamy) or as an ointment (the product is clear and greasy). The ointment works better for eczema and dry skin as it has a better penetrating and moisturizing effect. Hydrocortisone ointment/cream is a better choice than diphenhydramine (Benedryl) cream for itching. Some people can have a reaction to diphenhydramine cream. Diphenhydramine (liquid or tablets) is a better choice for hives, poison oak/ivy, and itchy rashes.

Clotrimazole: The over-the-counter workhorse anti fungal cream. It’s used for fungal skin infections like ring worm (tinea corporis), yeast diaper rashes, athlete’s foot (tinea pedis), vaginal yeast infections, and jock itch (tinea cruris). Comes as 1%.

There’s more on treating skin here.

About Lisa M. Asta, MD

Lisa M. Asta, M.D. is board-certified by the American Board of Pediatrics and is a Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, for which she is also a Media Representative (she has been interviewed for “Kids Health” on Health Radio, and quoted in Parenting Magazine, USA Today, and the New York Times, among other publications). She is a Clinical Professor of Pediatrics at the University of California at San Francisco and past pediatric chair at John Muir Medical Center in Walnut Creek. She graduated from Temple University School of Medicine and the Johns Hopkins University. Dr. Asta is also a writer whose fiction has appeared in Inkwell, Philadelphia Stories, Schuylkill, and Zeniada. Her essays have appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Hippocrates, the San Jose Mercury News, and The New Physician Magazine. She is an occasional contributor to KQED public radio’s Perspectives series, and has written articles for Bay Area Parent, Valley Parent, Parents’ Press, and Parents Express, as well as online at,, and She wrote a chapter in The Field Guide to the Normal Newborn, ed. Gary Emmet, M.D. currently has two how-to videos for parents in production which feature Dr. Asta. For more on Dr. Asta’s writing, visit
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