Lanolin Vs. Hydrogels for Nursing Pain: Which One to Use When?

Sore nipples are a common reason new mothers give up on nursing their babies. But nipple pain can often be remedied. Women using nursing pad

For relief, new moms may turn to topical treatments, such as lanolin—oil extracted from wool—or pads with hydrogels, which are water-based gels. With so many options, how does a new mom know which is the best choice?

First of all, prevention is the best treatment available. We can use creams and the gel pads galore, but if the problem isn’t fixed, the damage can continue, and it can take longer to heal.  The best way is to make sure baby has a wide latch and gets on the breast deeply.

Then next best thing is mom’s own breast milk. It contains high levels of auto-immunities to help prevent some infections and promote healing. It also has emollients to keep the nipple from chapping. This is the most cost-effective nipple treatment, and it’s readily available. We already teach hand expression to moms, so we can teach her to apply it after breastfeeding, too.

Some women want to go the vegan route or use ingredients already in their kitchen. In those cases, olive oil and coconut oil are top choices. 


Lanolin is recommended as more of a preventive cream vs. a healing ointment for cracked or bleeding nipples. If the nipples are cracked and bleeding or have other active damage, hydrogel is recommended over lanolin. However, if the nipples are just red and have generalized tenderness, then lanolin is a great choice. If a mom brings in other nipple ointments that do not need to be wiped off, those are fine. 

Word of caution: if mom is allergic to wool or has sensitivity when wearing wool sweaters, then lanolin is not recommended as it comes from wool. Try double-purified lanolin.  Always start with a test dose on the forearm to see how well it is tolerated.

Lanolin can be applied after every feeding, if desired. A small amount goes a long way, so you’ll need very little. Warming the ointment by rolling it between fingers can make application easier and less painful, especially if mom is using her own lanolin from a tube.

Our samples can be given to patients, two packets per patient.  Mom can purchase her own lanolin at the Overlake Mom + Baby Care Center, and the profits go right back into the lactation program. This is a cheaper option than hydrogel pads.

Hydrogel Pads

Gel pads are best for cracked, blistered and bleeding nipples. Hydrogels can be very soothing if mom is not able to tolerate her bra or clothing against her nipples. They are designed from the same type of medical therapy used to treat burns. Moist therapy has been proved to be more effective then dry therapy when it comes to certain types of skin damage.  

The gel pads are 90% water and can dehydrate if they are not worn and left out in the air. Mom should wet them, wait two minutes, apply and wear them when she is not breastfeeding, as this will help nipple damage heal faster.

The gel pads are worn directly against the skin. Oils such as lanolin can diminish the effectiveness of the pads and may ruin the pad.

When breastfeeding, mom may place them on a clean surface (like the original plastic backing) or in the fridge (not the freezer) to cool, as this will make them feel even better when placed back on after re-wetting, waiting 2 minutes, then applying.

Hydrogels are good for up to 24 hours of use. Though Medela’s instructions say to wipe breast first before breastfeeding, it may cause more pain for mom, so rinsing the nipple with warm water is better.  Rinsing the pad after use is also recommended, with a gentle scrub if there is debris on the pad. Washing the pad with soap may ruin the pad.

It is not recommended to cut the pads as it may cause the gel material to break apart and be ineffective.

Mom may need to wear a bra to keep the pad in place.

Gel pads are costly ($8-12 per pack of four pads).  They are available at the Overlake Mom + Baby Care Center or with the perinatal receptionist.  They are also available at places like Target, Wal-Mart, drugstores and

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