From drugstore aisles to dermatologist’s offices, one cleanser has withstood the test of time: Cetaphil Gentle Skin Cleanser ($6). The seemingly simple formulation has racked up 41 (count them: 41!) beauty awards industry-wide, countless name-checks from celebs, and more dermatologist recommendations than we’d care to count. But with only eight ingredients—a surprisingly minimal number—and zero “actives,” what’s behind the glowing reviews?
My personal introduction to Cetaphil came when I was 15. My dermatologist had prescribed me Retin-A, and sent me home with dozens of samples of Cetaphil, promising that it would be gentle enough to keep my skin calm while the Retin-A fought off my acne, and it was at the time. “I love how well-tolerated it is by my patients, who are often undergoing other topical treatments for their skin,” says Tiffany Libby, MD, a dermatologist.
The formula’s pretty simple: It contains a surfactant or cleansing agent, preservatives, and a humectant or moisture-retaining agent, so that skin doesn’t get parched (and TBH, it doesn’t have much else). “At the end of the day, sometimes less is more,” says Matthew Meckfessel, who works on the research and development team at Galderma, the company behind Cetaphil. “You don’t necessarily need 8,000 ingredients to have a benefit. To have the bare minimum, in itself, is a benefit—especially for those patients who have sensitive skin.”
As with all cleansers, the star of the show is a surfactant. In this case, that’s an ingredient called sodium lauryl sulfate, which is usually also behind mosts cleansers’ ability to foam up at the sink (it’s in loads of stuff from laundry detergent to toothpaste, too). “In order for a cleanser to be effective, it needs to use compounds that can bind to dirt and oil, as well as water, so that when you rinse away that cleanser, it’s actually going to rinse away the oil with it,” Meckfessel tells me. “Otherwise, you’re just kind of splashing water on your face–you’re not really cleansing it.”
There’s been a lot of buzz about SLS because, sometimes when it’s used in certain amped-up formulas, it can be harsh on skin and leave complexions a little dried out; however, Cetaphil taps the ingredient at low levels. You can tell this is true because despite SLS’s reputation as a foaming agent, the cleanser doesn’t lather when mixed with water.
As for the other seven ingredients that make up this beauty shelf mainstay, there’s a humectant and an emollient, which help keep skin hydrated; water, which helps keep the formula in liquid form; and three preservatives in the form of parabens. Admittedly, for those with strictly 100 percent clean beauty countertops, that might be a deal-breaker since the ingredient has been brought into question in the past decade. As a reminder, though, if a beauty product contains water, it needs to have a preservative so that it doesn’t grow cultures. Moldy beauty products can also adversely affect the health of your skin (and this is especially important if you’re stashing your face wash in the shower, where a hot and steamy environment breeds bacteria).
Many derms will tell you that it doesn’t matter if you spend $8 on your cleanser or $800. In this case, all you need is $6 and eight ingredients for one that works. For whatever skin type, concern, or situation you may be dealing with.