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Daily Question: Why Do Dermatologists Like Cetaphil?

Posted Sep 29 2011 2:12pm


I was wondering why dermatologists recommend Cetaphil, when everything except the water in it is synthetic, when it contains SLS, when it contains no antioxidants, omegas, AHAs, BHAs…anything. I understand it might not irritate your skin, but several of the ingredients have received negative press and have been labelled as potentially toxic. Moreover, there’s nothing in there I can see that will actually improve your skin. Am I missing something-is Cetaphil owned by a corporate giant who will destroy the reputation of any dermatologist who dares to criticise it?


Dear Benjamin,

You bring up an excellent point.  Dermatologists classically have loved the Cetaphil cleansers because they are non-alkaline ( pH 6.3-6.8 ), lipid-free, non-comedogenic, and mild enough for sensitive skin.  Cetaphil cleansers have a slightly acidic pH and contain high concentrations of hydrating cetyl alcohol (in the formula for  all skin types ) and sodium lauroyl sarcosinate (in the formula for normal to oily skin ), both of which attract moisture to the skin, rather than stripping the skin of moisture like the lipids in bar soaps do.

Strike #1:  Sodium Lauryl Sulfate

That having been said, I understand your concern about the Cetaphil formulas.   Both contain fair concentrations of sodium lauryl sulfate, which is a known skin irritant.  In fact, pure sodium lauryl sulfate is used in ‘challenge patch tests’ to evaluate the barrier function of skin, because it strips away skin’s natural lipids, rendering it more susceptible to external irritants. Despite these facts, dermatologists have found patients using Cetaphil do not have irritated skin, perhaps due to the still-higher concentration of emollient cetyl alcohol and/or sodium lauryl sarcosinate.

Strike #2:  Parabens

Other readers might be concerned about the Cetaphil formulas because they contain parabens:  Cetaphil Daily Facial Cleanser for Normal to Oily Skin  contains only methylparaben, while  Cetaphil Gentle Skin Cleanser for All Skin Types  has methylparaben, propylparaben, and butylparaben.  Like many skin care products, Cetaphil contains parabens because they are effective preservatives and correlated with a low incidence of contact dermatitis, according to  the  American Journal of Contact Dermatitis

Controversy over parabens began largely in the late 1990′s, due to the suggestions  that parabens bind to estrogen receptors in MCF-7 breast cancer cells .  It was also suggested that parabens upregulate estrogenic gene expression in  human breast cancer cellsyeast cells , and in the cells of  fish . Alarmingly, parabens were found to  increase breast cancer cell proliferation,  as well as  in breast tumor samples .

However, the scientists at the U.S. FDA concluded  parabens in the concentrations found in skin care products and cosmetics (up to 25%, but typically 1%) pose no logical risk to the consumer .  How was the conclusion made?  Simple:  The amounts of parabens used in the studies were far higher than the consumer is exposed to with skin care and cosmetic product use.   For instance, In  the study with fish , parabens were ingested in doses between 100 and 300 mg/kg, which amounts to about 15000 mg of parabens  for the average 74 kg American woman.   A normal application of skin care product gives an exposure of about 60 mg.*

*How I came up with this:   A normal application of a skin care product [sunscreen] amounts to 1 mg of product per cm2 of skin .  The average human body has 14800 cm2 of skin.  The average skin care product is about 1% parabens and  20-60% [depending on paraben type and the rest of the formulation] crosses the skin , resulting in about 60 mg of parabens, or roughly 1/24 the amount used in the study).

Later studies suggested  parabens accumulate in tissues over time , but only for 36 hours.

Alternatives to Cetaphil

Bottom Line

With all of the concern out there regarding sulfates and parabens, I can’t imagine dermatologists will be universally recommending Cetaphil far into the future.  Although the results from Cetaphil cleansers are almost always excellent, I know some of my more cautious readers would prefer alternatives free of sulfates and parabens, like the  Aveeno Moisturizing Bar  or the  Dove Moisturizing Bar .  Hopefully Cetaphil can reformulate their cleansers without sulfates or parabens while preserving efficacy in the future.  At any rate, I have never heard of anyone having a negative reaction from Cetaphil, so the choice depends on how cautious you choose to be with your skin care.  Good luck!

Hope this helps,

Ingredients in Cetaphil Gentle Skin Cleanser for All Skin Types

Water, Cetyl Alcohol, Propylene Glycol, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, Stearyl Alcohol, Methylparaben, Propylparaben, Butylparaben.

Ingredients in Cetaphil Daily Facial Cleanser for Normal to Oily Skin

Water, Sodium Lauroyl Sarcosinate, Acrylates/Steareth-20 Methacrylate Copolymer, Glycerin, PEG-200 Hydrogenated Glyceryl Palmate, Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Butylene Glycol, PEG-7 Glyceryl Cocoate, Phenoxyethanol, Masking Fragrance, Panthenol, PEG-60 Hydrogenated Castor Oil, Disodium EDTA, Methylparaben.


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