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Gel or Cream: Which Works Better for Sore Muscles?

If you’re looking for relief from muscle soreness, you’re probably not struggling with a lack of options. Asking three different friends what they use may even give you three very different answers. Some people swear by ibuprofen, some use relief patches, some use creams, and some might just tell you to go get a massage. 

At the end of the day, the specific type of pain reliever you choose may just boil down to preference. But when it comes to muscle soreness, topical treatments like hempvana pain relief cream are preferred by many for a number of reasons. So that leaves us with the question, if you’re choosing a topical treatment, should you choose a gel or a cream? And what’s the difference? Here’s everything you need to know to help you make your decision. 

Topical Pain Relievers: What Are They? 

Now that we’ve used the word a few times, let’s begin by explaining what “topical” means in the context of medicine. A topical pain reliever is one that you apply directly to the affected area on the outside of the body. Think gels, creams, ointments, or even adhesive patches. They have active ingredients that will work to relieve discomfort in the target area after being absorbed through the skin. In contrast, oral pain relievers, which are capsules, tablets, liquids, or anything you put in your mouth and swallow, work after traveling through your gastrointestinal tract and your liver, and they’ll typically affect your whole body rather than just one specific area. 

So in summation, topical pain relievers are applied to the outside of the body to target a specific area. An easy way to remember this is topical has the word “top” in it, and you put a topical treatment on top of your skin. 

Topical Pain Relievers for Sore Muscles

Once applied to the skin, topical treatments can help relieve sore muscles in two ways, depending on the product. They either contain ingredients that work as a counterirritant to pain points or they contain a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) that’s absorbed into the inflamed tissue. Some topical pain relievers contain a combination of both, or include other supplemental ingredients (like the hemp in hempvana pain relief cream) that help enhance the effects or add extra benefits.


Topical treatments that contain counterirritants are those that create a cooling or heating effect to a target area when applied. This sensation occurs almost immediately and is intended to remove focus from the soreness or pain and direct it instead towards the new feeling in that area. In this way, a counterirritant counters the present irritation with a new sensation. Methyl salicylate is a common ingredient used for this effect; it’s derived from wintergreen and will cool your skin when applied. 

Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs)

NSAIDs have a deeper effect as a topical treatment and may take slightly longer to kick in. If a muscle soreness cream or gel contains an NSAID, it will permeate deeper into your body with the goal of soothing the irritated tissues within. These creams won’t just distract you with a counterirritant, but are actually intended to take on the cause of the pain right at the root. Ibuprofen, which you likely take orally, is a common NSAID. So when used topically, an NSAID has a similar goal as an oral medicine like ibuprofen, but its effects are targeted at a specific area rather than the entire body. 

Supplemental Ingredients

Topical muscle relief treatments may have supplemental ingredients, too. If the topical treatment contains NSAIDs, it may also include ingredients like menthol, a counterirritant that creates a cooling sensation for immediate relief while the NSAIDs are absorbed. Or, the topical cream or gel may contain supplements that help with absorption and moisturization, like hempvana’s pain relief cream. This cream contains hemp seed extract which boasts numerous health benefits and helps to moisturize and protect the skin as the other active ingredients work to relieve pain. 

Gel or Cream: What’s the Difference?

Now that you know the basics of topical pain relievers, it’s time to differentiate between gel and cream treatments. The reason this section is saved for last is because the truth is, there isn’t much of a difference. Both are applied and used similarly, and if you’re deciding between a muscle relief gel or a muscle relief cream, you’ll likely notice they have similar ingredients and intended effects. 

The main differences between gel and cream are really in the texture, appearance, and oil content. Gels are transparent and mostly water-based. Since they’re usually oil-free, they absorb the quickest into your skin, but they don’t moisturize your skin at all. Instead, gels often hydrate from within after the quick absorption. This results in more frequent application, potentially quicker results, but ultimately a similar effect.

Creams, on the other hand, are usually opaque and may contain oils or fats. These could be supplemental oils, like the hemp seed extract in Hempvana pain relief cream, or a more standard oil, like soybean oil. Thanks to the oil, creams are better for moisturization than gels are as that layer of lipids prevents moisture loss by staying on the skin’s surface longer. But also thanks to the oil, creams may take slightly longer to absorb, though they still work quickly. This means they last longer and therefore require less frequent application. 

The Bottom Line

The main takeaway here is that when choosing a topical pain reliever, it’s less about the texture (gel or cream) and more about the active and supplemental ingredients. Topical treatments are recommended for muscle soreness due to their ability to target a specific area, but after that, the specifics are up to you, your preferences, and what your body needs. You may need a topical muscle relief cream that contains an NSAID, or you might be fine with just the distraction of a counterirritant. But no matter what you choose, always consult with a healthcare professional before use to ensure you aren’t sensitive to any of the key ingredients.