Cetaphil: Why the popular cleanser isn’t doing your skin any favors

Cetaphil face wash

Cetaphil probably has the best PR of any facial soap. Beauty magazines gush over it as a no-frills $8 must-have. Dermatologists love to recommend it as a mild and non-irritating facial cleanser for two reasons: it doesn’t contain fragrance and, more tellingly, because MDs have a big Pharma love affair with the manufacturer, Galderma, the offspring of Nestlé and L’Oréal, which also makes acne drugs like Differin.

And yet there’s nothing healthy about this face-washing prescription.

Cetaphil Gentle Skin Cleanser contains just eight ingredients: water, cetyl alcohol, propylene glycol, sodium lauryl sulfate, stearyl alcohol, methylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben.

More reading: 7 all-natural bar soaps you’ll actually want to wash your face with

All but the water are chemically manufactured (let’s hope), and propylene glycol, sodium lauryl sulfate, and the three parabens have a seat on the dirty dozen, a list of cosmetic ingredients to avoid as potentially toxic.

Cetaphil face cleanserOne look at the label and you’ve got to go “Wait a minute! What?”says Spirit Demerson, who analyzes skin-care ingredients for Spirit Beauty Lounge, her online natural beauty store. “Cetaphil does not contain even one single beneficial ingredient and what it does contain is the equivalent of toxic sludge. Whether you think it’s keeping your skin healthy or not, it is absorbed into your bloodstream and research has proven almost all of the few ingredients in it are carcinogenic. I know it’s hard to imagine that washing your face can give you cancer but it’s worth consideration.”

More reading: Paraben update—there’s new research on beauty’s most problematic preservatives

Julia March, a top NYC facialist, says that so many New Yorkers believe that Cetaphil is healthy, they tend ignore the ingredients completely. “Cetyl alcohol, an emollient used in many cosmetics, is essentially a wax,” says March. “Propylene glycol is a common humectant (meaning it brings moisture from the air to the skin), but it also enhances product and chemical penetration into the skin and blood stream. Sodium lauryl sulfate is a foaming agent, and skin and eye irritant, that disturbs the healthy lipid barrier of the skin, and parabens are a group of preservatives being phased out for potential health risks.”

More reading: How to be a better reader of beauty labels

Given that there’s actually nothing clean about this cleanser, it’s rather amazing that millions of women think their skin will freak out if they use anything else. “It may not irritate skin very much, but it probably won’t help it much either,” says Nicole Yih, Assistant Spa Director at the Mandarin Oriental New York. That’s because there’s nothing in Cetaphil that nurtures skin. No antioxidants that help fight free radical damage; not a dribble of omega-rich plant seed oils that fortify the skin barrier; and not a drop of skin-calming botanicals.

More reading: Cleaner cleansers: Your post-Cetaphil skin-care regimen

A cleanser that you use twice a day should be judged on what it gives your skin. Consider this your new cleanser criterion. —Melisse Gelula

This post was originally published on July 20, 2010, and updated on June 29, 2015.

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203 Comments | ADD YOURS

  1. July 27th, 2015 at 10:40 am

    It’s great to uncover what products may not be great for your skin, but it would have been even better if you had a suggestion for a better cleanser!

  2. July 27th, 2015 at 10:42 am

    What SHOULD we use? Suggestions?

  3. July 27th, 2015 at 10:45 am

    What SHOULD we use? Recommendations/suggestions??

  4. July 27th, 2015 at 11:21 am

    Chemicals aren’t all bad for you, and “natural” doesn’t always mean healthy. I’ve been using this stuff for decades. The result: Most people who don’t know me think I’m 15-20 years younger than I am. Most of those “healthy, natural” cleansers sting my eyes and make my skin break out.

  5. July 27th, 2015 at 11:41 am

    Anyone have any alternatives? I use this and now I don’t want to… thougts on alt cleansers?

  6. July 27th, 2015 at 11:51 am

    THANK YOU!!!!! Finally someone willing to state the plain, obvious, truth about doctors informing the populous incorrectly about toxic products. THIS is why the rates of disease for women like cancers and autoimmune disease are skyrocketing, now 30 years of using toxic products day in and out we are all polluted and getting strange, new, illnesses. Addictive DO NOT know it all, most are average people no smarter than the advertising campaign sent to them to shill the next frankenpharm item to you!

  7. July 27th, 2015 at 11:53 am

    *DOCTORS do not know it all, not addictive (autocorrect on tiny phone)

  8. July 27th, 2015 at 11:57 am

    As we can see from the robust discussion here, this touched a nerve for many people – myself included. I think the article would have been better served to provide some alternatives that people who do use Cetaphil could consider, even better if they offered products from a variety of price points. Well+Good does itself a disservice for not doing so as part of this post.

  9. July 27th, 2015 at 12:11 pm

    I agree with Jordan–I value this post and would like it updated to include ***low-cost*** natural alternatives to Cetaphil. Thank you!

  10. July 27th, 2015 at 1:00 pm

    I don’t use this product. Who wants all these chemicals being absorbed into their bloodstream?

  11. July 27th, 2015 at 1:14 pm

    Serious, well+Good? This is a terrible article that makes non-scientific claims, and the quote about the cleanser having nothing beneficial in it (because people rely solely on cleansers to moisturize their skin and provide antioxidants and put nothing else on it… not really) is silly. If you keep posting this kind of garbage that gets pandered to women all the freaking time, then we’re through. Have a little respect for your readers.

  12. July 27th, 2015 at 1:16 pm

    First of all, I’m shocked/impressed at the level of discourse in the comments. Nice work, everyone!

    “Whether you think it’s keeping your skin healthy or not, it is absorbed into your bloodstream and **research** has proven almost all of the few ingredients in it are carcinogenic” (** added)

    The article made me assume that there was research done. To say that no one has done the research after specifically quoting someone discussing research doesn’t make much sense. I’m not trying to be contrarian (I’m allergic to SLS, so I’m always happy to see articles reminding us to check labels), I just like to be well-informed.

    @Well+Good, could you possible reach out to Spirit to get a link to the research she mentioned? It could be newer research since this article was first published five years ago. Also was a little surprised there wasn’t any citations/discussion of peer-reviewed research when this article was updated in 2015. If there is a lack of research, I think that’s definitely an issue worth addressing (though language in the article would have to point out that the opinions provided are based on years of anecdotal evidence rather than scientific research).

  13. July 27th, 2015 at 2:21 pm

    This is article is embarrassing.

    Discounting the opinion of ACTUAL doctors because of they’re in love with the manufacturer of a soap? What kind of conspiracy theory is that? It’s like accusing them of peddling Kleenex because they love Kimberly-Clark — it’s not like there’s a nefarious kickback strategy for low-cost consumer goods.

    Instead you cite a woman whose entire business is selling ‘natural’ alternatives, and two women who work in spas, also selling expensive skincare alternatives.

  14. July 27th, 2015 at 2:24 pm

    Are you kidding with this BS? Absolutely ZERO substance to your claims and no sources. Seems legit. This makes me so very angry. How dare you defraud who knows how many readers over the years? With nothing to back it up. Hey! I think I’ll start a website and pull complete BS out of my ass and see how many fools I can get to lap it up. Peer reviewed research (you know, actual SCIENCE) to back up my claims? Who needs it!

  15. July 27th, 2015 at 2:37 pm

    as a nurses aide I looked after an elderly man with sin like a newborn baby.
    cetaphil was recommended to him for severe dry skin as a young man.

    his son told me he was very fussy about what he would eat. his mother had a difficulty time keeping him happy with the meals.

    this man spread cetaphil on his skin every morning. and as a shower soap twice a week.
    his skin was incredible. clean, supple. blemish free.

  16. July 27th, 2015 at 2:55 pm

    Well since Cetaphyl works wonders on my face, and it’s been doctor’s prescribed, I would rather rethink how bad must these ingredients be after all…

  17. July 27th, 2015 at 3:08 pm

    Follow me on instagram, beautycounter_daily, for easy and interesting daily tips aimed to educate consumers on the harmful chemicals being used in the personal care industry.

    I can not believe skincare and cosmetic companies in the USA are allowed to use ingredients that are proven toxic and harmful to humans. Beautycounter is a company offering safe and effective products while having the highest ingredient selection process in the industry. We must stop buying from companies contributing to our health crisis and start supporting companies helping to educate the masses on the low standard and lack of regulation in the personal care industry. beautycounter.com/gerryjones

    Thank you well+good for educating your readers even when big potential advertisers might not like what you have to say. You are truly offering a valuable service and potentially saving lives. Brava!

    Please let me know if I can offer anyone help ingredients to avoid or advice.

  18. July 27th, 2015 at 3:20 pm

    I have spent my life outdoors. I am a cowgirl who happens to be married to a cowboy who happens to be a cosmetic dematologist. After years of selling product lines in our office I realized I needed to create my own skincare line to fix my damage.

    Since we are discussing cleansers, I am proud to present our Sanctuary Daily Gel Cleanser. All ingredients are natural bio-elements. They are ingredients of which you are familiar. They are ingredients your skin will love because they cleanse, nurture and improve it.

    Just a few ingredients …tumeric….arnica montana…willow bark…rosemary….lavender.

    I think you get it.

    JoAnn Foxx
    [email protected]

  19. July 27th, 2015 at 3:42 pm

    Are you kidding me? Show me the data that demonstrates any of these ingredients as “toxic.” You are honestly going to tout the uninformed opinion of a beautician (“facialist” = beauty school certificate) over the recommendations of a board certified dermatologist, with decades of education and expertise in the actual science of skin health? What next? Hair care recommendations from Donald Trump? Shame on you!

    Do your research and stop arrogantly undermining doctors! The advice you give your readers is uninformed and has potential to harm.
    #angryface #boohiss

  20. July 27th, 2015 at 3:45 pm

    Also, don’t forget that poison ivy is very natural and organic. Are you going to rub it on your face?

  21. July 27th, 2015 at 5:46 pm

    I was just recommended Cetaphil by my dermatologist today and then saw this. Anyone have any alternatives they recommend for sensitive skin?

  22. July 27th, 2015 at 7:03 pm

    What an absolute load of scaremongering bullshit. Do you realize that water has a scary, chemical sounding name? Do you realize that everything does? Stop being afraid of everything and educate yourselves before you 1) publish such swill and 2) believe it.

    Jack Anderoff

  23. July 27th, 2015 at 9:02 pm

    Vanicream makes a great cleanser that feels much like Cetaphil without all of the nasties. I love their creams too.

  24. July 28th, 2015 at 11:45 am

    What about the Cetaphil cream which is doctor recommended. Is this the case for cream as well?

  25. July 29th, 2015 at 12:48 pm

    It’s been almost a decade since I last used Cetaphil when my skin began to dislike it. Not only did the packaging change but the consistency of the product itself changed from a white, somewhat creamy gel-like consistency to a gel that dried out my skin. I even contacted the company for an explanation and they pretty much pretended that nothing had changed. So it was bye-bye Cetaphil. Before I even know what an SLS was, I knew my skin no longer liked or benefited from Cetaphil so I stopped using it and threw out the rest.
    I’m still surprised when people who have sensitive or breakout prone skin claim to use it as part of their daily regimen, my skin is thinking ‘Nah, girl, not me’. I’m glad I listened to my skin (which utterly rebelled) all those years ago.

  26. July 30th, 2015 at 7:22 am

    I tried this cleanser before. My skin didn’t feel clean after and it didn’t take my makeup off. My skin felt dirty after. I think I threw the bottle out after that and never used it again and that was years ago. I’ve been washing my face with sugar mixed with dr brommners liquid Castile soap lately

  27. August 1st, 2015 at 12:25 pm

    I think cetaphil is crap and was hoping this would enlighten people, but this article is so poorly written with overly alarmist claims. cancer, really? at least get an MD to comment as the expert source and cite some studies, not some facialist’s random thoughts that are no different from my aunt Ida.

  28. August 7th, 2015 at 9:14 pm

    Ooh Catherine and Claudia, you’re ruffling some feathers!!! Don’t you know it’s bad to think for yourself and question ANYthing, let alone ask someone to back up their claims?? LOLOLOLOL

  29. August 9th, 2015 at 7:47 pm

    Well you know what’s “all natural”?? Cyanide and poison oak, so why don’t you rub that all over your face! Just because something comes from a plant, does mean it is good for you. Just because something was created in a lab, doesn’t mean it’s bad for you! Alarmist much? Do your research and get a life.

  30. August 17th, 2015 at 9:25 pm

    Water is a chemical, idiots. “Chemically manufactured…” what does that even mean? Water can be manufactured. Ever take a chemistry class? You people are just disgusting.

  31. August 18th, 2015 at 8:53 am

    Typo in 4th para.

  32. August 21st, 2015 at 6:55 am

    Please properly cite your sources. I’m curious as to where all this information came from.

  33. August 24th, 2015 at 8:36 am

    It’s impossible to determine whether this story is alarmist because the sourcing is not up to snuff. Spirit Demerson may be echoing others’ concerns when she talks about potential carcinogens, but she has zero qualifications. If she is representative, why not get a derm or an oncological researcher to say so? Aestheticians are not legitimate sources to talk about dermatological issues (which are medical).. This would never pass muster at a magazine or newspaper.

  34. August 26th, 2015 at 12:46 pm

    My experience using products containing sodium laurel sulfate:
    Toothpaste-causes sores on my tongue and inside my mouth the skin sloughs off.

    Presurgical shower-Two years ago I was given a bottle of soap to use prior to surgery that caused extreme discomfort to one area of the body. It too contained sodium laurel sulfate.

    I carefully avoid it now. For toothpaste Sensodyne is the only I found free of it. All shampoos I have checked except Suave have it. I have not checked all shampoos. I use the baby shampoo that Jessica Alba produces.

  35. August 28th, 2015 at 6:54 pm

    This may be the most unsubstantiated and alarmist article I’ve ever read. Please don’t take the word of a “facialist” and a “skin care ingredient analyzer” over the word of men and women who have advanced degrees in skin care. Do you go to a witch doctor and give your kids plants when they are sick or do you go to someone who went to school for a dozen years after high school to make sure they get better? I always tell my kids, and I believe it’s sage advice – always consider your source. Do they have a motive or a stake in the outcome? Are they educated in the area on which they are giving advice? Can they provide objective sources for their conclusions? These people sell the stuff they’re promoting, they provide no indication of education, and they provide no objective peer-reviewed sourcing. Ask yourself, if what you’re reading is true, why am I able to go to my garage and put gasoline on my skin and not have it kill me because it was absorbed into my blood within 30 seconds? This is nothing more than people trying to sell their products.

  36. September 11th, 2015 at 2:00 am

    Hi Can you Help me every time I try a new Product for Sensentive skin, My Legs are Burning and Stinging and I have Red Rashes all over I have had the Patch Test with the Dermatoligist but nothing is working, what can I do, Is there any Fact sheets on Ingredients

  37. September 22nd, 2015 at 8:03 am

    Scientists have been analysing parabens for decades now. While some of the ingredients have been identified as carcinogenic, the low concentration of these ingredients within the skin care products bring little to no risk to your health and wellbeing.

    Also with the cleanser being a non-prescription medicine and targeted at customers with delicate skin, I don’t see why the assumption of minuet carcinogens in your bloodstream causing cancer is a feasible conclusion.


  38. October 30th, 2015 at 9:40 pm

    People have noticed this article is saying not to use this cleaner, but not giving you any other options. So I thought I’d just leave this here: If you want gentle and natural but effective, I personally recommend face cleansers from Andalou Naturals, Acure Organics, or John Masters Organics. I’ve tried facewashes from all these brands and I liked them, though Acure seems to be what my skin is really responding superbly to. I also double cleanse with an oil from DHC. They also make good stuff, and Korean skincare has great stuff as well. It really just comes down to trial and error. Take what your derm says your skin needs and try to find products that incorporate that. A lot of what my derm had me using just wasn’t working for me. Yeah, this sorta thing takes a lot of work, but it’s totally worth it in the end.

  39. November 24th, 2015 at 9:10 am

    http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/phs/phs.asp?id=1120&tid=240 (Public Health Statement for Propylene Glycol)
    http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/emes/public/docs/How%20Chemical%20Exposures%20Happen%20FS.pdf (How Chemical Exposures Happen: What You Need to Know)
    http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/skin/default.html (Skin Exposure & Effects)
    http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/skin/skinpermcalc.html (Skin Permeation Calculator)

    These are good and free starting points… with references to more sources.

  40. November 24th, 2015 at 11:41 pm

    I’m just not gullible enough to jump on the bandwagon here. Pretty much everything we use in our daily lives is made up of chemicals. I’m totally with you on that we should try to reduce our exposure where we can, but at the same time I’m not a fearmonger. Many companies have very good marketing tools and trick people into buying their crappy products. However, I tried cetaphil because of a recommendation from a pharmacist and my skin has now looked out felt this good in a long time. My point isn’t to convince you to use cetaphil, you should use what’s best for you. I just wanted to put in my two cents.

  41. December 5th, 2015 at 2:19 pm

    Not a good product if you want healthy skin. I stopped using it.

  42. December 6th, 2015 at 10:16 pm

    I ready your article. The question I have is that I was using this product for my body and not face. I get yeast infections with most soaps. This cleanser is the only one I haven’t. I noticed the suggestions inbetween the article about other products but all talk about facial cleansers. Do you have any suggestions for your body?


  43. December 7th, 2015 at 3:47 am

    I don’t use any commercial cleansers on my skin except an all natural soap and coconut oil. I exfoliate with a wash cloth. I won’t buy any cleansing products especially designed for skin anymore. Only natural ingredients for me. IMO all the rest are unreliable.

  44. December 7th, 2015 at 8:52 am

    For those looking for a natural, affordable skincare alternative, try Aubrey Organics. I’ve been using their products for decades and love them. Burt’s Bees repair serum is amazing. It’s also not hard to make your own body and face lotion. Try herbslist Rosemary Gladstar’s recipe. There will be no question about ingredients when you create your own.

  45. January 10th, 2016 at 9:38 am

    OMG! I have used Cetaphil in the past 3 years. I will never waste my money for it anymore. Thank you for this article.

  46. January 19th, 2016 at 1:18 pm

    This article was written almost six years ago. I’m reading it now for the first time. Interesting that a lot of what was written and dismissed at the time is now more widely considered to be true. Example: Paula’s Choice (Beautypedia), a very reputable no-nonsense reviewer of just about all cleansers, body washes, lotions, etc., used to endorse Cetaphil’s liquid cleanser. But no more. They recently said there are many better options on the market today. Personally, I tried that cleanser almost ten years ago and thought it was a gooey mess that didn’t really clean all the dirt and oil off my face yet dried me out anyway!

  47. February 28th, 2016 at 4:40 pm

    If you are looking for a chemical, paraben free skin care line, check out LimeLight by Alcone. You will love our skin care!

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  50. September 12th, 2016 at 2:58 pm

    I have seb. dermatitis. Dr. recommended cetaphil. I cant stand the feel of it when I put this stuff on my face. It feels greasy and sticky. Can someone tell me what else I can take to get rid of this stuff, or calm it down. Get it in scalp, face and ears.

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