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These Classic Skin-Care Products Are Becoming Increasingly Polarizing

Experts weigh in on three old-school, once-staple formulas to see how they stack up next to newer innovations.
Nivea Crème. Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Nivea Crème. Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

If you've read even just a handful of interviews in which a beauty routine is so much as mentioned, then you know that people (celebrities, especially) are obsessed with Cetaphil Daily Facial Cleanser. It may not be the chicest skin-care product at the drugstore, but it also happens to be beloved by models (Taylor Hill, Elsa Hosk), beauty editors (Alessandra Steinherr, Julie Schott, Jane Larkworthy), dermatologists (Dr. Amy Wechsler, Dr. Shereene Idriss) and the king of never aging, Pharrell. Its no-frills approach to cleansing is suitable for all skin types and claims to be all-around inoffensive and effective. It also costs less than $10. So why, pray tell, are we not all using Cetaphil Daily Facial Cleanser? If it is indeed as universally adored, dermatologist-recommended, and clearly affordable, as it appears, shouldn't all other facial cleansers be canceled?

The same can be said for two other classic beauty products that, in a time when the word "iconic" is grossly overused, are actually, truly iconic: Nivea Crème all-purpose moisturizer (the one in the recognizable blue metal tin) and Vaseline Petroleum Jelly. When was the last time you saw these once-staple products in a top shelfie on Instagram?

A lot of this has to do with the clean beauty movement, of course, which often insists that these products are "toxic" and harmful if used regularly, due to their use of chemically manufactured ingredients. However, that criteria would disqualify most of the beauty products on the market, cabinet staples or otherwise. Fear-mongering aside, what if it is time to leave behind the classic products of the past and rely solely on newer brands, with sleek packaging and more sophisticated formulas?

We reached out to Toronto-based dermatologist Dr. Sandy Skotnicki and cosmetic chemist Stephen Alain Ko (more commonly known by his website and Instagram handle @kindofstephen) to find out what experts have to say about three of the most recognizable skin-care staples.

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The Cleanser: Cetaphil Daily Facial Cleanser

"Cetaphil is a very simple cleanser," explains Ko. And while some of the eight ingredients that comprise it include ones that we've been told to be suspicious of, Ko says that "often ingredient breakdowns of formulas look at them in isolation, which removes context." While Cetaphil contains sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), it's at a lower concentration than in many other cleansers, so it doesn't lather into a sudsy foam. It's all about context: "300 grams of salt will probably kill you," says Ko, "but no one writes provocative articles about the danger of a pinch of salt in a cookie recipe."

"Parabens, they have been so vilified in the 'non-science' arena of the beauty industry that it's an uphill battle to convince consumers they're not bad," says Dr. Skotnicki, who adds that while she's certainly frustrated by the fear-mongering driven by the clean beauty community and doesn't necessarily agree with much of it, the movement has caused her to curate a list of 'clean' products to suggest to patients who don't want to use products like Cetaphil. "I think we, as dermatologists, need to have recommendations for our patients who want to avoid [so-called] 'toxic' ingredients."

The Lip Balm: Vaseline Petroleum Jelly

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"Vaseline is a one-ingredient formula (petrolatum), though there are newer [Vaseline products] with added scents, pigments and shimmers," says Ko. "It's a very well-tolerated occlusive which helps reduce the amount of water that evaporates through the skin over time. Its texture and emollience also offer instant smoothing, softening and flexibility to the skin." That's a rave review if we've ever heard one, and when looking at benefits of a lip balm, smooth, soft and flexible skin sounds pretty damn good. So what's the potential issue with this classic multi-tasker?

The hesitation around putting petroleum jelly or petrolatum on your lips is understandable: Considering it's a gel that was discovered when it formed on oil rigs in the mid-1800s, it may not sound like the most appealing thing to slather all over your mouth. But the Vaseline brand has maintained for years that the components of petroleum jelly that have been found to be potential carcinogens have been entirely removed during the product's refining process (Vaseline is highly-refined and triple-purified), making it safe to use. It's worth noting that what that means is any other generic petroleum jelly products not produced by the Vaseline brand might not be, so if you're going to go for petrolatum, it's best to stick to the OG.

"Vaseline is great as a lip balm," says Dr. Skotnicki. "It certainly is better than the bevy of lip products [on the market made] with fragrances, flavors, mint, menthol and beeswax — all of which can be irritants and allergens."

Safety aside, we'd be remiss not to mention that petroleum jelly is a byproduct of the very unsustainable oil industry, so it's unfortunately not the eco-friendly choice when it comes to lip balms.

The Moisturizer: Nivea Crème

A favorite of grandmothers around the globe, Nivea Crème all-purpose moisturizer was also allegedly one of Marilyn Monroe's secrets to radiant on-camera skin (along with a thick layer of Vaseline, which she would use as a glow-enhancing makeup primer). But it hasn't exactly maintained a reputation as a modern skin-care product that appeals to millennial or Gen Z shoppers.

"Like Vaseline, Nivea Crème contains petrolatum, along with other emollient ingredients, like lanolin," says Ko. But "unlike Vaseline, it's an emulsion — which is a mixture of things that don't usually mix; in this case water and petrolatum and other emollients. The emulsion creates a cream-like texture, which can be more elegant and easier to apply." 

But what's inside the iconic blue tin isn't quite as dermatologist-friendly as Vaseline and Cetaphil. "Lanolin, limonene, geraniol, hydroxycitronellal, linalool, citronellol, cinnamyl alcohol and perfume are allergens," cautions Dr. Skotnicki. "Maybe one in a cream [would be] okay, but not all of them. The first four ingredients are really what Nivea is [made of]: aqua, paraffinum liquidum, cera microcristallina and glycerin." The rest are fragrances that give Nivea its famous scent, but they also happen to be potential irritants, making Nivea Crème a risky choice for sensitive or reactive skin types. 

The general takeaway here? Plenty of old-school formulas have gotten undeserved bad raps as the clean beauty movement has taken off, striking fear in the hearts of skin-care shoppers everywhere. In reality, some enduring classics are classics for a reason. But we're also living in a Golden Age of skin care, with new technological innovations, game-changing ingredients and options that prioritize sustainability in new and exciting ways hitting store shelves every day. Consumers have never had more choice in the matter — or more access to information, thanks to the internet. So decide what your priorities are, do a little studying and take comfort in knowing your skin has plenty of options to turn to.

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