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Is my facial wash causing acne?

Erin inquires…I have a question about facial cleansers. I have a lot of problems with mild acne, nothing awful, but still consistent and annoying. I have tried various prescriptions and asked a couple doctors, and they have all said a really good cleanser is Cetaphil since it is very gentle. But recently I went to my parents’ house and didn’t have any Cetaphil for several weeks, and suddenly my acne got better. So now I am wondering if Cetaphil might be making things worse. How can you tell if a cleanser will exacerbate acne? What things should I look for/avoid??? And is it possible that it’s better to just not wash your face at all???

The Left Brain reciprocates:

Thanks for the questions Erin. You’ve stimulated a brainy response.

Correlation is not causation

One of the most interesting aspects of your question is the logical connection you make between not using Cetaphil and the disappearance of your acne. Unfortunately, just because something is logical doesn’t mean that it is true. It’s one of the Beauty Brains Basic Beliefs: Two events happening at the same time do not mean they are related. They might be related but that doesn’t mean they are. Think about this, researchers have found that most bank robbers have eaten cheeseburgers within 24 hours of their heist. Does this mean that cheeseburgers and bank robbing are somehow related? Come to think of it, maybe that’s why they call him the Hamburgler.

So too could it be the case with Cetaphil and your acne. Without more evidence or testing you just can’t know if there is a real connection or it’s just a coincidence. Based on the ingredients in Cetaphilit’s most likely a coincidence.

Is Cetaphil making your acnes worse?

The most likely answer for the majority of people is NO, Let’s take a look at the ingredients.

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

The formula is mostly water (probably 90% water). The next ingredient is Cetyl Alcohol. This is not the regular kind of alcohol that you drink but a fatty alcohol derived from coconut oil. It (along with its cousin Stearyl Alcohol) will help bind with the oily materials on the face so they can then be washed away. Propylene Glycol is a humectant that will also help bind with oily materials on the skin and provide some moisturization. The Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) is the only true “cleanser” in the formula and it is in there at a relatively low level. It removes all the dirt and oil off your face. The last three ingredients are paraben preservatives that keep the product microbe free. We recently did a post on parabens.

The bottom line is that none of these ingredients by themselves has ever been shown to cause acne. SLS is an aggressive cleanser that can be irritating to some people so that could potentially be making things worse. You could also have a chemical sensitivity to any of these ingredients but that would really be rare.

Can you tell if a cleanser will make acne worse?

For any specific person, you can’t really tell unless you try it. Most any cleanser is designed to improve skin appearance not make it worse. However, if you want to be extra cautious you should buy products from larger, established brands. The companies that make these products will have spent a lot of money researching and testing their products to ensure they work well. Smaller companies do not have the money to invest in testing raising the possibility (albeit small) that their formulas could be exacerbating your acne.

What should you look for or avoid in a cleanser?

It’s an old study, but this one published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology looked at the comedogenicity (the ability to cause acne) of various cosmetic ingredients. Quoted from the article,

Ingredient offenders include isopropyl myristate and its analogs, such as isopropyl palmitate, isopropyl isostearate, butyl stearate, isostearyl neopentanoate, myristyl myristate, decyl oleate, octyl stearate, octyl palmitate or isocetyl stearate…

You should avoid any formula with these ingredients in it. This is not to suggest that the formulas are bad or will cause acne. It’s just that these ingredients could cause acne so are best avoided. One interesting note about this study is it was done in the early 1980s using animal testing. Currently, this is the only effective way to predict if a formula is going to cause acne. Since most companies do not use animal testing on there formulas any more, there is really no way to tell for sure.

Is it possible that it’s better to just not wash your face at all?

An interesting notion, but not one we here at the Beauty Brains can endorse. Washing your face removes excess oil, dead skin cells, dirt and even bacteria that accumulate daily. For some tips on the proper method, check out the information here.

And in the event that we haven’t turned you off to Cetaphil, you can purchase it right here.

What’s YOUR favorite cleanser? Leave a comment for the rest of the Beauty Brains community.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • amy August 14, 2014, 3:10 pm

    I know this is an old post, but thank you! I have taken a hiatus from cetaphil gentle cleanser because I read on paula’s choice that it was downgraded to an “average” product due to its SLS content. however, I miss cetaphil, and wanted to dig deeper to see if paula’s choice claims were all that legit.

  • xi April 22, 2016, 10:30 pm

    I’ve been using Cetaphil’s cleanser and moisturizing cream and always felt itchy and redness on my face even those are made for sensitive skin. BUT I just got the Made from Earth Green tea Cleanser and pH Equilibrium Moisturizer last night and I’m very satisfied with it. Granted I have super sensitive skin(and also oily), never felt any uncomfortable since last night.

  • Christi October 30, 2016, 8:20 am

    I have been using Cetaphil for two weeks now and I have been breaking out worse than I had before in a really long time . I was hoping it would start clearing it up but it hasn’t . Should I change face soap or try it out longer cause it will get worse before it gets better .. please help

    • Randy Schueller October 31, 2016, 8:18 am

      It’s hard to say for sure because sometimes acne that is caused by a specific product can take months to develop. You might try using Cetaphil on half you face and nothing or something else on the other half to see if you find a difference.