Why Do Dermatologists Like Cetaphil?

Ingredients, Personal/Inspirational, Skin Care



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

Sodium Lauryl Sulfate Laureth

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 and renders it more susceptible to external irritants. Despite these facts, dermatologists have found that patients using Cetaphil do not have irritated skin, perhaps due to the still-higher concentration of emollient cetyl alcohol and/or sodium lauryl sarcosinate.

[Read More: Spotlight on Sodium Lauryl Sulfate]

Strike #2:  Parabens

Other readers might be concerned about the Cetaphil formulas because they contain parabensCetaphil 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.

[Read More: Are the Parabens in Skin Care Products Really Bad for You?]

However, the scientists at the U.S. FDA concluded that 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.

[Read More: 3 Reasons Why Paraben Alternatives Might Be Worse Than Parabens] [Read More: Are Paraben Alternatives Actually Better?]

Alternatives to Cetaphil


Still, I understand your concern in using Cetaphil, despite the great results patients have had with it for the past 20 years or so.  If you prefer sulfate-free and paraben-free alternatives that are also non-alkaline/low-to-neutral pH and non-lipid-containing, try the Aveeno Moisturizing Bar (pH also acidic, at 4.9; this is my favorite!), or the Dove Moisturizing Bar (pH neutral, at 7.3).

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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  • GG

    I am in my early thirties who has enjoyed trying many different products. I have very sensitive and dry skin. I finally came to use Cetaphil lotion on my face last month as recommended by dermatologist. What I personally found is many “natural” products have made my skin in very weak and fragile condition. I don’t want to use natural things that are not formulated. My temples of my face were becoming weak from AHA and lack of sunscreen. My face almost became wrinkled. I am so glad I found Cetaphil restoraderm. I haven’t had any problems. I don’t believe any of the problems with the body from the ingredients in cetaphil. I personally do not adhere to the lifestyle that one needs to apply a regimine of any more than 300.00 a year in topical skincare. I make my investment in formulated exfoliants and winter creams. I don’t buy toners, I make them. I also think buying soaps that cost over 10.00 is absolutely crazy unless you are wearing tons of gross heavy make up that absolutely requires you to remove it!

  • Dave

    Could it be that Galderma, like so many other skin care companies, include SLS in Cetaphil because they know it causes more problems down the line and therefore breeds a kind of dependency on their products?

    Searching Pubmed for “SLS irritant” suggests that SLS even in low concentrations can damage the stratum corneum to the point where it can take anywhere from 2 to 10 weeks to return to baseline levels. That is quite staggering isn’t it!?

    What’s more, Cetaphil is so loaded with cetyl alcohol that it actually feels silky. So while it feels silky to touch, the SLS is actually busy eating away at your stratum corneum causing damage for anything up to the next 10 weeks!!!

    It’s like to the equivalent of sugary foods and drinks; feels good in the short term, very bad in the long term!

  • Patricia C Peterson

    I have been using Cetaphil Cleaser and Cream moisturizer for over forty years and it has been very good on my skin. I first began using it by the recommendation of a dermatologist, while living in Buffalo New York. I get many compliment on how good my skin look.

  • Chris

    Danielle – The best thing to clean your skin with is all natural soap. Look for something that contains a high percentage of olive oil (70% or more) and contains some coconut oil, which acts as a gentle cleanser. Both oils are hypoallergenic (not likely to cause allergic reactions). If you have very sensitive skin look for something that has no colorant or fragrance. pH of the soap is irrelevant since the skin’s acid mantle recovers quite quickly.

    The ingredients for a super basic gentle bar of soap should read something like this: Olive oil, coconut oil, water (distilled) and sodium hydroxide.If your skin is not super sensitive you might be able to use something with a natural color (usually clay or plant based colorant) and some “milder” essential oils for fragrance (lavender is a good choice).

  • Can you please tell me if cetaphil is a good product or not ?

    • Nicki Zevola

      It depends on which Cetaphil you choose.

      Cetaphil Gentle Skin Cleanser for All Skin Types is NOT a good product. It contains the irritant sodium lauryl sulfate.

      Cetaphil Daily Facial Cleanser for Normal to Oily Skin is a GREAT product. it contains the non-irritating (but similar sounding) Sodium Lauroyl Sarcosinate and Sodium Laureth Sulfate.

      Confusing, but it’s true.

  • mary b

    I have used Cetaphil for oily skin in the past but wanted something to help mattify my skin better. I now use Citrus Clear’s Control Moisturizer – its thicker than what I had in mind for a facial lotion, but I don’t care because the product delivers what I need. It absorbs quickly and is a good primer before I apply my concealer and foundation. I stay shine free all day

  • HTK

    I go to skincare every week. Needless to say I can afford any skincare products I want. Price isn’t any kind of a barrier. Having said that I tend to use mass market cleansers from Cetaphil and Cerave more so than boutique brands simply because I feel they handle my issue much better. I have very oily skin so I try to reduce my sebum as much as possible. At once point I had a very lengthy skincare regiment that wasn’t benefitting me because it was leaving too much material in my pores. After consulting with the best deem and esthetician I could find (ones that weren’t trying to sell me their products) the consensus was that in my case less was more.

  • Chi

    Hello. That was really informative. I have sensitive skin and been rotating my Cetaphil Gentle Skin Cleanser with Physiogel Hypoallergenic Cleanser. Physiogel is similar to Cetaphil in texture.

    Here are the ingredients: Aqua, PEG-75, Cetearyl Alcohol, Disodium Phosphate, Sodium Cocoyl Isethionate, Methylparaben, Citric Acid, Butylparaben, Propylparaben, Perfume.

    Questions, if you don’t mind:
    1. Basing from the combination of ingredients, which of the two is better for sensitive skin?
    2. Do you still have the same answer if Perfume is removed from Physiogel’s ingredients?

    Thank you so much. Hope to hear from you soon.


    • Nicki Zevola

      @Chi – For someone who isn’t that afraid of most chemical ingredients, I’m not a big fan of PEGs. 1,4-dioxane traces can be found in PEG-6, PEG-8, PEG-32, PEG-75, PEG-150, PEG-14M, and PEG-20M, and unfortunately even small concentrations of 1,4-dioxane are bad.

      So I would go with the Cetaphil.

  • molly

    Thanks for the handy info!! I have severe… seriously severe… dermatitis. All lotions/creams burn- every “sensitive skin” formula, many prescriptions – would leave me wincing and actually crying due to the burning of application (even Aveeno). I found Cetaphil and it was just instant relief, I’ve never felt such comfort. Liquid silk! Of course it didn’t solve the dermatitis, but it seriously lessened the dryness with results I’ve never had before. It made it comfortable to sit in my own skin again… When i read that people had concerns over Cetaphil’s chemical ingredients, I was so disheartened… but this has calmed me down a bit. Cetaphil is my lifesaver, I can’t imagine not using it.

  • Stephanie


    I have been using Cetaphil for a few years now and it’s been the best cleanser I found so far. My skin is sensitive, dry but extremely oily and prone to breakouts. I would love to try the Aveeno Bar that you recommended but am scared that it would not get all the makeup off and make my face more oily. Are there any other cleansers that do not have the parabens, etc., won’t make you break out and remove all make-up at night?


    Great blog, by the way.


  • Leslie

    Thanks, Nikki. I’ve often wondered why the cleanser is so widely recommended considering the SLS and the parabens, too. But moreover, I stopped using it because I don’t think that it actually removes makeup.

  • @Benjamin
    I didn’t mean to suggest that the ingredients in cleansers couldn’t be detrimental or beneficial- indeed cleansers that are too harsh can strip the skin’s acid mantle causing dryness, irritation, etc…There are also certain ingredients that, used in a cleanser, are likely to remain behind- notably certain silicones and waxes. Sure enough, the Liz Earle cleanser you mentioned includes Beeswax, which no doubt makes your skin feel more protected after rinsing.

    I completely agree that a gentle, non-irritating cleanser can make a big difference in one’s routine. My point was more to the inclusion of ingredients like anti-oxidants, peptides, etc…which to my knowledge, do not remain on the skin after rinsing.

    I actually do like to let my cleanser sit a while when I can, in fact, in order to even properly remove makeup cleanser should be left on the skin for at least a full minute.

    Having said that, I’m a busy mother of a 3 year old little girl, and sometimes at night it’s all I can do to drag myself to the sink and splash my cleanser on and off before I crash into bed. I suppose my view is, if I can get these same benefits to greater advantage by purchasing them in, say, a moisturizer (which I’m going to use anyway) then why not?


  • I’ve often wondered why Cetaphil is so universally lauded. I have dry sensitive skin and derms have recommended it to me. The formula for sensitive skin stings almost every time I’ve used it. I assume it’s from one of the chemicals. I’ve never found a cleanser that doesn’t leave my skin feeling somewhat dry and stripped, despite the promises. And I’ve tried oil-based cleansers too!

    • Brendon

      Use “green people”
      best products for sensitive skin,no chemicals used at all

  • Greta

    To maximize the efficiency of cleansers, try multitasking by leaving your cleanser on you face while doing another step in your routine (I brush my teeth). That way your skin is in contact with the ingredients for longer.

  • I just started using Cetaphil about 2 weeks ago, and I love it! I was concerned about the ingredients list as well, but so far its the first cleanser that I’ve used that doesn’t irritate my skin. The first comment did make a valid point though, the cleanser doesn’t stay on our skin long enough, but we never know. Anyway, maybe when this bottle finishes I will try Aveeno, I love their body lotions!

    • Elaine

      why would you risk it. Is it worth Cancer. There are safer products to use!!!

  • Benjamin

    Nicki-thanks for your very detailed response-they’re so much nicer than the usual sweeping generalisations I get at skincare counters!

    Further to Jessica’s point, Dr. Leslie Baumann recommends glycolic acid cleansers such as MD Forte for my skin type (dry, resistant, non-pigmented and wrinkled). Whilst I accept your point that the effects of ingredients, good or bad, will be heightened with leave in products, I still think that cleansers with the right ingredients for your skin type are a critical step in any skincare regime. From my own experience, I know that just one use of a ‘stripping cleanser’ can leave my skin dry and tight feeling, whilst just one use of a cleanser such as Liz Earle’s Cleanse and Polish can mean I don’t even have to moisturise my dry skin. I infer from that that the skin absorbs ingredients pretty quickly, at least in the upper layers, and that your comment only stands for the deeper layers of the skin.

  • While Nicki addressed most of the reader’s concerns, I wanted to mention another reason the SLS and parabens probably aren’t an issue. Since cleanser is left on the skin for a very short time period, and then rinsed off, any ingredients in the product have very little effect on the skin.

    This is also why, as nice as it sounds, a cleanser with AHA/BHA, antioxidants, soothing ingredients, etc…probably isn’t worth the extra money. Ingredients like these are most beneficial to the skin when they’re formulated in leave-on products. To paraphrase cosmetic cop Paula Begoun, any benefits from these ingredients in a cleanser would be washed down the drain before they’d have a chance to have any effect.

    IMHO, save your money on cleanser and use it for more advance treatments/moisturizers!

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