The beauty, and the drawback, of social media is that it has democratized skin care. If a product gave someone a reaction, or made them break out, they’re going to make sure you’ve heard of it. (Today’s conscious consumers also have eagle eyes on ingredient lists — and some of these products have ingredients that certain customers feel aren’t up to snuff.)
Consumers are less likely to go to a dermatologist for product recommendations than they are to turn to their favorite YouTubers and Instagram influencers with gorgeous skin. This has given rise to the skin-care “stans”: people who will go to bat for certain brands (Glossier is a great example of this) and judge others for using products they see as subpar. And with the rise of “clean” beauty, the products that tend to come under fire are those that are seen as overly produced or “unclean” — like petroleum jelly and moisturizers with parabens.
But what exactly is the truth about these products? What do both sides say, and what do the professionals think? To cut through the noise, we spoke to two dermatologists — Hayley Goldbach, a board-certified dermatologist in Orange County, Calif., and Sejal Shah, a board-certified dermatologist in New York — about five of the most controversial products on the market.
Vaseline petroleum jelly
The basics: If you’re a human with skin, it’s likely you’ve slathered a little bit of Vaseline on it. It’s known as a go-to for chapped lips and healing, because it was the first petroleum jelly on the market. Vaseline is a single-ingredient product; the jar contains only white petrolatum, which is a mineral oil.
What customers say: Aestheticians and Redditors alike have come out recently saying that Vaseline and other similar products are “suffocating your skin,” because they sit on top of your dermis instead of being absorbed. The fact that it’s petrolatum, which is obtained from petroleum, is another doozy. Hydrocarbons, which are present in petroleum, can be detrimental to your health. In fact, hydrocarbons are carcinogens in certain situations.
But there are plenty of people who are huge fans of Vaseline for its healing properties — and these two factions tend to battle it out regularly. One Twitter thread that started with a tweet about the benefits of Vaseline quickly devolved into a mishmash of conflicting opinions. Those who love Vaseline brought up studies that showed the benefits of the products, while others said the fact that it was made from petrolatum was disgusting, and made it not suitable for use on the skin. Things spiraled from there.
What pros say: “Vaseline and other petrolatum products have been used for years and years and years without any indication that they’re dangerous,” Goldbach says. “But people are afraid about the potentially impure petrol items.” That’s why it’s important to use refined petroleum jelly — which Vaseline is. “The refining process removes the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which are damaging to your skin,” she adds. So as long as you’re using the refined stuff, you’re good.
What you need to make sure of, however, is that you’re using Vaseline correctly. “Vaseline is occlusive, meaning that it doesn’t draw moisture from the air. Instead, it holds moisture against your skin,” Shah says. But it also holds, well, everything else against your skin. So the majority of people who complain about breakouts from Vaseline probably aren’t washing their face well enough before applying Vaseline. It’s also smart to apply another moisturizer before your Vaseline, as the Vaseline will help keep that moisturizer against your skin.
Cetaphil Gentle Skin Cleanser
The basics: As far as cleansers go, Cetaphil is one of the gentlest you can put on your skin. It’s a soap-free cleanser, which means that it isn’t made with the fats that can strip or irritate sensitive skin, and cleans using other synthetic cleansers. It’s also fragrance-free, hypoallergenic and non-comedogenic, so it won’t clog your pores. If you’ve got sensitive skin or have ever set foot in a dorm bathroom, it’s likely you’ve seen a bottle of this stuff hanging around.
What customers say: Plenty of customers agree that Cetaphil is one of the better cleansers on the market. On MakeupAlley, the cleanser has an average rating of 3.5 out of 5. Though the soap-free formula means it doesn’t foam, the majority of users say it’s moisturizing and it keeps their skin feeling squeaky-clean.
But there is definitely a divide. Aestheticians and consumers alike have derided Cetaphil, putting it on par with DIY remedies that don’t do anything to actually help your skin because it has no active ingredients.
Other detractors take a harder line with the formula, which contains sodium lauryl sulfate — a surfactant that works to clean your skin. In larger quantities, SLS helps a cleanser foam up. In fact, it’s present in most foaming shampoos and toothpastes. SLS can be drying, which is why some folks steer clear.
What pros say: The fact that it is so gentle, and doesn’t have active ingredients, is exactly why dermatologists love this stuff. “It’s a basic gentle cleanser, so it’s not necessarily going to clear acne or target signs of aging, but dermatologists often recommend it for this exact reason,” Shah says. “It generally won’t interact with prescription medications or other recommendations your dermatologists are making.”
Shah says that there is this belief that you’re supposed to punish acne-prone skin with a ton of ingredients, but the opposite tends to be true. “Acne medications can sometimes be drying or irritating, so to prevent worsening this issue, dermatologists commonly recommend basic moisturizers and cleansers,” she says. And although this cleanser doesn’t foam, it does cleanse the skin gently and effectively — which is all you can really want from a cleanser.
St. Ives Fresh Skin Apricot Scrub
The basics: It’s impossible to talk about divisive skin-care products without talking about St. Ives. The physical exfoliant was once a mainstay in many a teen shower; its crushed-walnut formula helps to buff away dead skin on the face and body.
What customers say: A few years ago, St. Ives was part of a class-action lawsuit. The plaintiffs argued that the crushed walnuts caused damage to their skin, and that claims that the formula was non-comedogenic were false. These complaints are shared by other customers, who say the stuff is tough on their skin. But others love St. Ives, saying it helped cure their acne and smooth their skin. In fact, even Gigi Hadid said she’s used the scrub since high school.
On Twitter, the discourse can get heated. A few years ago, one customer tweeted out her hate of St. Ives, and her mentions quickly turned ugly. Defenders jumped in, claiming that the scrub worked wonders for them. But her retort was pretty spot on: “The ‘well it worked for me!’ concept in skin care to me is the equivalent of ‘I eat whatever I want and I never gain weight!’ ”
What pros say: “There’s always a question of whether the walnuts are smooth or jagged, because jagged edges can cause abrasion,” Goldbach says. Shah agrees, saying that not every skin type needs physical exfoliation. Sensitive-skin types especially can have negative reactions.
“That said, anything that’s abrasive can cause damage to the dermis — even a washcloth,” Shah says. “If you’re going to use it, or any type of exfoliation, make sure to go gentle.” She suggests not exfoliating every day, either, and to talk to your dermatologist if you start to see reactions.
CeraVe Moisturizing Cream
The basics: Another favorite of sensitive-skin types, this moisturizer is intensely hydrating and relatively affordable, and can be used from your head to your toes. It includes ceramides and hyaluronic acid to hydrate, while also helping to repair a damaged skin barrier, making it a clutch tool in the winter months.
Those who don’t love the cream say that it makes their skin feel tight and sticky. But the biggest issue for some consumers? It contains parabens — a chemical preservative that in some forms has been banned by the European Union.
What pros say: “Parabens are a hot topic because there’s always the question of whether they lead to endocrine disruption,” Shah says. “They’ve been found in breast tissue, but they haven’t been shown to cause breast cancer.” Although the Food and Drug Administration says it continues to look into parabens, they still haven’t been directly linked to any disease.
And as Goldbach points out, parabens are an effective preservative. They’ve been studied more than other preservatives that companies may use in place of parabens. “Because of this, we don’t know how well those other preservatives hold up,” Goldbach says. This means you might have to keep other products in the fridge — something you won’t have to do with your CeraVe.
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