Is Cetaphil Gentle Skin Cleanser The Best Cleanser For Sensitive Skin?

by Gio
review cetaphil gentle skin cleanser

What are dermatologists thinking?!

You know how they always recommend Cetaphil Gentle Skin Cleanser to their patients – even those with sensitive skin?

Turns out, there’s stuff here that would make sensitive skin scream in pain! Are they just being irresponsible or do they know something we don’t?

Let’s take a look at the ingredient list to find out:

What’s In Cetaphil Gentle Skin Cleanser?


Wait, the first ingredient is alcohol?! Isn’t that drying to the skin?

It depends. Some types of alcohols do make sensitive skin scream in pain. I’m talking about Alcohol Denat, Ethanol, Isopropyl Alcohol, and SD Alcohol. If you find these at the top of an ingredient list, beware.

But Cetyl Alcohol and Stearyl Alcohol – the alcohols used in Cetaphil Gentle Skin Cleanser – are fatty alcohols. Completely different thing. Fatty alcohols are moisturizing. Phew!

These good alcohols also bind the oils on your skin with water so that they can be rinsed away. In plain English, it cleanses and moisturises skin at the same time.

Related: What Does Alcohol-Free Really Mean?


Isn’t this the industrial antifreeze used in brake and hydraulic fluids?

Yep, but don’t worry. Derms know something about it you probably don’t: it’s the dose that makes the poison.

Propylene glycol is dangerous at 100% concentrations. In the minuscule doses used in cosmetics, it’s perfectly safe.

But why is it in Cetaphil Gentle Skin Cleanser? Propylene Glycol is a humectant: it attracts water from the environment into the skin, keeping it hydrated during the cleansing process.

Related: The Truth About Propylene Glycol: Why It Isn’t As Dangerous As You Think


Cetyl Alcohol and Propylene Glycol are terribly misunderstood but Sodium Lauryl Sulfate has gained a bad rep for a good reason: it’s irritating as hell.

When scientists want to know how irritating a substance is, they compare it to Sodium Lauryl Sulfate! Surely, that tells you everything you need to know about it, right?!

Not. So. Fast.

High concentrations of Sodium Lauryl Sulfate can and do strip the skin of the natural oils that keep it moisturised. Result = dry, irritated skin.

But Sodium Lauryl Sulfate isn’t the only cleansing agent in Cetaphil Gentle Skin Cleanser.  Even if it’s in third place on the ingredient list, the emollients that come before it counteract its drying and irritating effects – to an extent.

In other words, you can’t judge a product based on one ingredient. How that ingredient plays with its teammates matters too.

But, if your skin is sensitive or dry, I would still err on the safe side and avoid this. I know this seems to counteract what I’ve just said but these skin types are quite delicate.

For some of you with dry and sensitive skin, the addition of these emollients will be enough to avoid any side effects. But others may still experience them. At the end of the day, everyone’s skin is different and can react differently to the same product.

Sensitive skin, in particular, is such a wild card as you never know when it may throw a tantrum. So while I applaud Cetaphil for doing its best to counteract the irritating effects of Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, I wish it replaced it with a gentle alternative altogether.

Related: 7 Most Maligned Ingredients In Skincare Products


Is there anything in Cetaphil Gentle Skin Cleanser that didn’t gain a bad rep for one (bad) reason or another?!

Parabens got a bad rep when a study found them in breast tumours. Problem is, that study has so many flaws, even the scientists who did it claim they didn’t find any proof parabens cause cancer.

If you’re interested in the long version and why this study can’t be taken seriously, check out this post where I use science to debunk this and other parabens myths (hint: you shouldn’t worry about their estrogenic properties either).

Parabens ARE sensitive skin friendly. A lot of preservatives that are replacing them are actually more irritating!

Related: Parabens Are Safe: Why Science Says You Shouldn’t Fear Them

cetaphil gentle skin cleanser for sensitive skin review


Despite the addition of Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, this liquid cleanser doesn’t foam.


It’s fragrance-free. One less irritant to worry about. Phew!

How To Use It

It’s the first step of your skincare routine, both in the morning and at night.

Performance & Personal Opinion

Cetaphil Gentle Skin Cleanser has a very basic formula that only contains what’s strictly necessary: a surfactant to remove oils and dirt, moisturizing ingredients to prevent dryness, and preservatives to keep it safe and effective.

I usually complain about such basic formulas, but in this case, it makes sense:

  1. No reason to use antioxidants or other goodies that would just be rinsed down the drain.
  2. The more stuff it contains, the higher the chance it’ll bother sensitive skin. Basic and simple works best for this skin type.

Still, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I can’t help but wish they removed Sodium Lauryl Sulfate and replaced it with gentle cleansing agents.

I’m not the only one. Personally, my skin has nothing against this cleanser. It removes dirt and makeup well.

But a quick Google search reveals another story. So many people reported their skin has become drier or erupted in pimples after using this.

If you have dry/sensitive skin, stay away!

Who Is This For?

I personally don’t recommend this cleanser. Despite Cetaphil’s cleanser to tone down the irritating potential of Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, there are much better cleansers out there that cleanse skin without no irritation whatsoever.

Who Is This Not For?

No one. But it’s especially not suitable for dry and/or sensitive skin.


Cetaphil Gentle Skin Cleanser comes in a sleek white bottle with a blue pump dispenser. A bit boring, but hygienic and practical.

Does Cetaphil Gentle Skin Cleanser Live Up To Its Claims?

A mild, soap-free face and body cleanser that hydrates and soothes as it cleans.It cleanses well, but it doesn’t hydrate and soothe.
Ideal for dry, sensitive skin. Suitable for all skin types.It’s more suitable for oily than dry skin.
Dermatologist tested and clinically proven to be gentle on sensitive skin.It depends on how the test is done. You can literally get away with testing it on ONE person with sensitive skin… In my experience, and in that of many others, this isn’t the gentlest cleanser for sensitive skin.

Price & Availability

£8.35/$13.99 at Feel Unique and Ulta

Do You Need It?

Nope. There are gentler cleansers around.

Dupes & Alternatives

Have you ever tried Cetaphil Gentle Skin Cleaner? Share your experience and opinion below.


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

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Trisha March 5, 2014 - 6:22 pm

“Natural ingredients in particular, which are made up of tens of different chemicals, are often more likely to cause irritations and allergies than synthetic substances made in a sterilized lab with only a bunch of compounds.”

I had no idea!!!

Gio March 5, 2014 - 8:56 pm

Trisha, we tend to think of natural as safe, but natural substances are quite complex. Not to mention they often contain trace elements, such as heavy metals, or resins or pollen that can cause irritations.

For instance, depending on where you live and how pure your water is, it can contain all this stuff: lead, acrylamine, alachlor, alpha/photon emitters, antimony, asbestos, arsenic, atrazine, barium, benzene, benzo(a)pyrene, beta photon emitters, beryllium, bromated, cadmium, carbofuran, carbon tetrachloride, chloramines, chlordane, chlorine, chlorine dioxide, chlorite, chlorobenzene, chromium, copper, cyanide, 2,4-D, dalapon, o-Dichlorobenzene, p-Dichlorobenzene, 1,1-Dichloroethylene, cis-1,2-Dichloroethylene, trans-1,2-Dichloroethylene, Di(2-ethylhexyl) adipate, dinoseb, diquat, endothall, endrin, ethylbenzene, fluoride, glyphosate, hexachlorocyclopentadiene, mercury, radium, uranium, vinyl chloride, xylenes!

Of course, these trace elements are in such minuscule doses that they won’t kill you, but if you are allergic to one of these substances, you may get a negative reaction. That’s why some people can use refined but not natural, beeswax, for instance. The latter may contain pollen or other substances that can trigger an allergy.

So, while there are lots of natural substances that are safe for use, there are lots of others that can cause problems for people with sensitive skin or allergies.

Icaria March 5, 2014 - 8:51 pm

Great review! I’ve never paid much attention to cleansers with “actives” since they are pretty much useless and it’s my sink that would take advantage of them. Basic is good! I’ve never tried Cetaphil but might eventually just out of curiosity.

Gio March 5, 2014 - 9:16 pm

Icaria, I agree. When it comes to cleansers, basic is best. Not point in spending money for fancy ingredients that will end up down the drain.

xin March 6, 2014 - 1:43 am

I have heard so much goodness about the cetaphil cleanser, i will have no doubt about the simplicity and efficacy 😀

Gio March 6, 2014 - 5:00 pm

Xin, it’s a very popular cleanser, isn’t it? And it works very well too.

Daena March 6, 2014 - 7:09 am

I tried this on the advice of a dermatologist — I have dry, sensitive skin and rosacea. I used it once and immediately after, my skin became dry, SCALY and red. When I got out of the bathroom my husband actually gasped. I’ve never had this kind of reaction to anything, before nor since. I’m not even sure what my skin was reacting TO since it was such a basic, no-frills cleanser. It took weeks for my skin to recover.

Gio March 6, 2014 - 9:20 pm

Daena, that’s horrible! I’m so sorry to hear that. My guess (which of course could be wrong) is that Sodium Lauryl Sulfate is the culprit. Although there’s very little of it here, I guess it could still be enough to irritate particularly sensitive skin.

Daena March 11, 2014 - 6:27 am

I think you are likely right! I do tend to use my experience as a gauge for potential dermatologists. If they insist I use Cetaphil after hearing about it, or scoff — I’m so outta there. lol

Gio March 11, 2014 - 9:37 pm

I can’t believe the still insist you use Cetaphil after you told them what it did to your skin! Doesn’t matter how gentle a product is, there’s always the risk it could cause a negative reaction to someone. Dermatologists should know better!

pamela ap October 3, 2017 - 9:21 pm

I’m very disappointed with this wash. I was previously using the Cetaphil Cleanser (purchased from Costco) but didn’t feel like it was strong enough to clear up my face. I now use the Citrus Clear Acne Face Wash and for the first 3 uses, my skin felt so clean, especially after the very first use. The second night, even better. Its not strong like proactiv, which makes my skin so dry – its just perfect for someone who has acne like me, cause it keeps the zits away, and got rid of the existing ones that I had.

Gio October 6, 2017 - 8:55 pm

Pamela, sorry to hear this cleanser didn’t work for you but glad you found something that does.


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