When “Recommended” is Maybe BS?

So after my recent disastrous experience with a CeraVe cleanser, I’ve been thinking a lot about why the Frequently Recommended Things are so enduring popular and, you know … frequently recommended? Specifically, CeraVe and Cetaphil, which are always cited as the “use it, love it, derms recommend it” default choices for so many people. I’ve also been spending a little time on Reddit’s Skincare Addiction and every time I see these recommended — as they are on damn near every question, it seems — I go “baroo?” and then “UGH.” So let’s look at what’s in these mofos :


This “gentle cleanser” is anything but, by current standards. It only has eight ingredients … and they’re mostly crap :

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

Cetyl alcohol is a long-chain fatty alcohol that’s mildly comedogenic (the sources I see list it as a level 2) (out of a scale of 0 to 5; coconut oil is 4, my nemesis stearic acid is also a 2). It’s derived from palmitic acid (also comedogenic level 2) which comes from palm oil (ditto). It’s generally used as a thickener, emulsifier, or to provide opacity. It’s also used as an emollient, and as an industrial lubricant. Propylene glycol is fine, it’s one of those “omg a million uses” compounds that’re in everything. It’s GRAS (generally recognized as safe) for topical and oral use, plus in the synthesizing of some polymers and plastics, and as the carrier for medication inhalers and even electronic cigarette liquid. It’s a fine humectant, but it’s not anything spectacular.

SLS, I don’t even have to tell y’all what that is. King o’ the evil sulfates, harsh ‘n’ strippy. Boo. Stearyl alcohol is another fatty alcohol, also a 2 on the comedogenic scale, and like cetyl is used as an emollient, emulsifier, and thickener. All that’s left? Not one, not two, but THREE parabens.

WAIT ARE PARABENS TERRIBLE? Maybe? But on the whole, prolly not. Some people do seemingly have sensitivities to them, but as far as I know, there’s no indisputably solid evidence that “normal” levels of exposure to methylparaben and propylparaben are particularly harmful, and there’s no evidence that they cause cancer. Butylparaben, on the other hand, may be an antiandrogenic endocrine disruptor, but it’s still classified as non-carcinogenic despite some studies demonstrating a higher incidence of tumors in rats (which were, of course, exposed to much greater levels than you’d likely encounter just using facewash or whatever). Anyway, I personally am not super worried about parabens, though I’d maybe try to avoid butylparaben. But also, DAMN, CETAPHIL, you’ve only got five other ingredients, why you even need three preservatives? This, on top of the fact that your self-proclaimed “mild, soap-free cleanser” has a harsh-ass surfactant that’s also comedogenic (yes, SLS and SLeS are comedogenic!). “Soap” is not necessarily bad, but SLS really kind of is. :(


Okay so my own experience was TERRIBLE, but as in most things, ymmv. CeraVe cleansers have A LOT of fans, and there are some differences between the formula of the one I tried (Renewing SA) and the “regular” Foaming Facial Cleanser :

Renewing SA Cleanser Ingredients : Purified Water, Cocamidopropyl Hydroxysultaine, Glycerin, Sodium Lauroyl Sarcosinate, Niacinamide, Gluconolactone, Sodium Methylcocoyl Taurate, PEG-150 Pentaerythrityl Tetrastearate, Salicylic Acid, Ceramide 6-II, Ceramide 3, Ceramide 1, Hyaluronic Acid, Cholesterol, Sodium Benzoate, Zea Mays (Corn) Oil, Disodium EDTA, Sodium Lauroyl Lactylate, Cholecalciferol, Phytosphingosine, Xanthan Gum, Carbomer, Sodium Hydroxide

Foaming Facial Cleanser Ingredients : Purified Water, Cocamidopropyl Hydroxysultaine, Glycerin, Sodium Lauroyl Sarcosinate, PEG-150 Pentaerythrityl Tetrastearate and PEG-6 Caprylic/Capric Glycerides, Niacinamide, Propylene Glycol, Sodium Methyl Cocoyl Taurate, Ceramide 3, Ceramide 6-II, Ceramide 1, Hyaluronic Acid, Cholesterol, Sodium Chloride, Phytosphingosine, Citric Acid, Edetate Disodium, Dihydrate, Sodium Lauroyl Lactylate, Methylparaben, Propylparaben, Carbomer, Xanthan Gum

I’ve bolded the ingredients that’re common to both formulas. Ingredients in the “regular” cleanser that aren’t in the Renewing SA : Cholecalciferol doesn’t have any well-established benefits for topical application on normal skin afaics, but is sometimes used to help other ingredients penetrate the skin more effectively. Phytosphingosine is a lipid that occurs naturally in the skin and is related to ceramide function. The PEG-6 glycerides are coconut oil derivatives used as emollients. “Dihydrate” is probably calcium sulfate dihydrate, aka gypsum (like in plaster of Paris), which here functions as a binding agent.

Based on that list, I probably wouldn’t try the regular Foaming Facial Cleanser either — it’s still got the ester of stearic acid, which I suspect is what caused my breakouts, or at least contributed to them (along with the corn oil, no doubt).


Both Cetaphil and CeraVe also have wildly popular moisturizers! What’s in there?

Cetaphil Moisturizing Lotion Ingredients : Water, Glycerin, Hydrogenated Polyisobutene, Ceteareth-20, Cetearyl Alcohol, Persea Gratissima (Avocado) Oil, Tocopheryl Acetate (Vitamin E), Dimethicone, Sodium Levulinate, Sodium Anisate, Caprylyl Glycol, Benzyl Alcohol, Panthenol (Vitamin B5), Stearoxytrimethylsilane, Stearyl Alcohol, Citric Acid, Acrylates/C10-30 Alkyl Acrylate Crosspolymer

Hydrogenated polyisobutene is a synthetic mineral oil type deal. It’s a decent moisturizer/occlusive, and isn’t comedogenic as far as I can figure. Ceteareth-20 and Cetearyl alcohol, however, ARE. Avocado oil is an even higher 3 on the comedogenic scale; it has high levels of oleic acid and low levels of linoleic acid (plus a bunch of palmitic), making it maybe not an ideal choice for oily/acne-prone skin. Sodium levulinate is probably primarily a preservative/antimicrobial here, ditto sodium anisate. Benzyl alcohol is also a preservative — interestingly, Beautypedia rates it as “Good,” yet their entry for alcohols in general lists benzyl as one to avoid in skin products, along with the usual bad guy, isopropyl. WEIRD. Stearoxytrimethylsilane is a silicone compound and emollient, but it’s a long-chain-type silicone (more like dimethicone, I think) so probably not likely to be comedogenic. The acrylates/etc stuff is another super common ingredient, used as a binder/emulsifier to stabilize water-based/oil-based combos.

Okay so that’s all definitely not something I’d choose to put on my acne-prone skin. What about the much-vaunted CeraVe In The big Tub?

Cerave Moisturizing Cream Ingredients : Purified Water, Glycerin, Ceteareth-20 and Cetearyl Alcohol, Caprylic/Capric Triglyceride, Behentrimonium Methosulfate, Cetearyl Alcohol, Cetyl Alcohol, Ceramide 3, Ceramide 6-II, Ceramide 1, Hyaluronic Acid, Cholesterol, Petrolatum, Dimethicone, Potassium Phosphate, Dipotassium Phosphate, Sodium Lauroyl Lactylate, Disodium EDTA, Phenoxyethanol, Methylparaben, Propylparaben, Phytosphingosine, Carbomer, Xanthan Gum

Oh look, it’s ceteareth-20 and cetearyl alcohol again, yay, plus cetyl alcohol too, what a marvelous potentially comedogenic party. Behentrimonium Methosulfate is a conditioner most commonly used in hair products. Petrolatum is an effective occlusive, but not something I personally enjoy the feel of on my face. Potassium /dipotassium phosphates are buffers/pH adjusters. Sodium Lauroyl Lactylate is a thickener/emulsifier, Phenoxyethanol is yet another preservative, and I think we’ve covered the rest.

IN CONCLUSION : None of these things are all impressive or appealing to me? Of course, ymmv, as always! The things that make my skin flip its absolute shit (stearic/myristic/palmitic acids, many ‘cones,  etc) might be just fine for you, even if you battle breakouts as well! I am not a dermatologist or a chemist, so I’m by no means an expert — but when you’ve reached the point where your bf is like “what’re you doing over there?” and you go “I’m reading about an ester of lauric acid” and he looks like ” . . . ” and you realize you’re maybe missing out on Action in favor of long-chain fatty alcohols or synthetically-derived surfactants — well, then I think you’ve reached the point where if you don’t know at least a little about skincare ingredients, you at least qualify as “mildly obsessed.” And the above ingredient cocktails are, for me, somewhere between “feh” and “oh HELL no.”

POSSIBLY/PROBABLY BETTER ALTERNATIVES : Vanicream cleanser is effective, gentle, and cheap, and probably located in your corner store right next to the CeraVe and Cetaphil. Hyaluronic serums and a huge range of great skin-friendly oils (safflower, evening primrose, hemp seed, it’s a long list) are also easily gotten for not a lot of scratch, ditto something like Aquaphor if you really want/need a serious occlusive. Buy in bulk, layer, and save! Also maybe save your skin. <3

LOOOOVE any of these? I’m not judging you!