Swap This for That: Healthier Alternatives to CeraVe Cleansers

March 4, 2022 (updated April 20, 2022)

Looking for a better swap for the uber popular CeraVe cleansers? Well you’ve come to the right place. We’ve teamed up with Kate Noonan, a voted-in member of the Society of Cosmetic Chemists, the Society for Investigative Dermatology and the American Society for Microbiology to help us identify better CeraVe cleanser swaps with comparable pHs and similar hydrating ingredients and surfactant structure. 

bottle of cerave cleanser

By: Kate Noonan and Lisa Fennessy

Swap this for That is a series where we take reader questions from the blog and social media on tough-to-find clean swaps—and answer them right here! If you like this, be sure to check out our natural alternatives for Aquaphor, our clean swap for children’s Tylenol and our natural swaps for Purell.

This time it’s all about finding a better swap for the popular CeraVe cleansers—and we’ve got you covered across the board. 

IN THIS POST:


retail shelves of cerave products

Who is CeraVe?

If you are someone who washes their face, you’ve probably heard of a little brand called CeraVe. It’s one of the most popular and ubiquitous drugstore cleansers on the market—and not by chance.

Kate Noonan explains, “Galderma dermatology drug representative Tom Allison, and Galderma CEO Steve Clark, moved to Coria Laboratories and founded CeraVe in 2005. Coria (now Valeant) makes most of the drugs dermatologists prescribe to their patients and Coria sold dermatologists on CeraVe too. Coria struck deals with dermatology offices, then major retailers like CVS and Walgreens. This product placement led to steady representation for CeraVe in the skincare world.”

Today, we are breaking down CeraVe’s most popular cleansers and finding healthier dupes. This includes their Hydrating Facial Cleanser, Foaming Facial Cleanser and their Cream to Foam Cleanser. But before we dive in, let’s set the stage for why these swaps can make an impact.


RELATED: For more ingredient intel, be sure to bookmark our NO THANKS List

hand holding a bottle of cerave facial cleanser

Ingredients to consider in the CeraVe cleansers

A good-fit cleanser will have the right combination of ingredients to cleanse the skin without stripping it or throwing the skin’s pH off balance. Dermatology research has discovered the mildest cleansers contain multiple, larger surfactant molecules, hydrating and moisturizing ingredients, and a pH close to skin’s 4.2-6.0 (1,2,3). Let’s take a closer look.

Surfactants

Maybe you’ve been advised to avoid surfactants in the past, but not all surfactants warrant boycotting. Surfactants, in general, are known for their cleansing power, which is the reason why many brands use them as an active ingredient in cleansers (including facial cleansers). But not all surfactants are created equal. 

TLDR? Skip to the PRO TIPS (highlighted in pink) listed in each section!

When it comes to facial cleansers, surfactants can be categorized into two groups: Larger surfactants and smaller surfactants. Larger surfactants form wide micelles (or particles) that gently sweep away excess sebum and grime without damaging skin cells’ proteins (4,5) are different than smaller, strongly negatively charged surfactants like sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and sodium laureth sulfate (SLES). These smaller micelles cause skin cell swelling and death, which leads to irritated and cracked skin (6).

PRO TIP: Look for gentle surfactants decyl glucoside, cetearyl glucoside, coco glucoside, sodium lauroyl methyl isethionate and sodium cocoyl isethionate (7).

PRO TIP: In gel formulas, look for 2+ surfactants, while in cream-to-foam formulas, look for hydrating ingredients with at least 1 surfactant.

pH

The other really important factor when it comes to cleansers is pH. In general we want a cleanser’s pH to be between 4.2-6.0 (closest to the skin’s natural pH). Outside of this, it can dry out your skin and disrupt epidermal barrier function (14).

Now, riddle me THIS: pH isn’t something that brands tend to disclose on their product labels (15). So what are we supposed to do? Bill Nye it up and pH strip test all of our cleansers? 🙄

Well, for the record, we DID strip test these three CeraVe cleansers (and all our healthier cleanser options). Here are the results: 

  • CeraVe Hydrating Facial Cleanser: 5.3 pH
  • CeraVe Foaming Facial Cleanser: 6.2 pH 
  • CeraVe Cream to Foam Cleanser: 5.4 pH 

PRO TIP: Look for a facial cleanser with a pH between 4.2-6.0 (closest to the skin’s natural pH).

PRO TIP: Buy some pH test strips. Just kidding, not really. 

Hydrating ingredients

Ideally we want to see hydrating ingredients incorporated into the cleansers we use too because let’s face it, dry skin is NOT CUTE. What makes one cleanser with surfactants hydrating and another not? Kate explains it’s all about the addition of the hydrating ingredients: “Hydrating ingredients ‘coat’ surfactants so they cleanse skin without disturbing its proteins and lipids.”

PRO TIP: Look for ingredients like sodium hyaluronate, glycerin, glycolipids, xanthan gum, starch, lecithin, guar hydroxypropyltrimonium chloride, peptides and plant oils (16,17,18,19).

Additional ingredients to consider

In addition, we also see the following ingredients show up in the CeraVe brand, which should be considered. 

  • PEGs (PEG-40 STEARATE, PEG-6 CAPRYLIC/CAPRIC GLYCERIDES, PEG-30 DIPOLYHYDROXYSTEARATE, PPG-5-CETETH-20, PEG-100 STEARATE, etc.): PEGs are emulsifiers that contain carcinogens 1,4-dioxane and ethylene oxide (20).
  • EDTA (DISODIUM EDTA, TETRASODIUM EDTA): Ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid is a chelating agent added to cosmetics for preservation and foaming performance which has been found to be mutagenic (21).
  • Acrylates (ACRYLATES/C10-30 ALKYL ACRYLATE CROSSPOLYMER, CARBOMER etc.): Products made with carbomer and acrylates regularly contain more than 2 ppm benzene, according to the FDA (22). And the CDC’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) states, “The maximum allowable amount of benzene in workroom air during an 8-hour workday, 40-hour workweek is 1 ppm” (23). 
  • Parabens (METHYLPARABEN, PROPYLPARABEN): Parabens are a category of cosmetic preservatives that are genotoxic xenoestrogens (24). More here
  • Polysorbates (POLYSORBATE 20, POLYSORBATE 60): Polysorbates contain unacceptable levels of ethylene oxide, one of the most confirmed human carcinogens (25).
  • Phenoxyethanol: Used as a broad-spectrum preservative, phenoxyethanol is regulated in the EU as it has residual carcinogen ethylene oxide and phenol from manufacturing. (26) It’s also been linked to neurotoxicity (27,28). Phenoxyethanol is not regulated in the U.S.
  • Chlorphenesin: A preservative that causes irritation in a sizable group of people (29).

Better Swaps for CeraVe Cleansers 

CeraVe Hydrating Facial Cleanser  

The CeraVe Hydrating Facial Cleanser is CeraVe’s original cleanser. Kate says, “This formula has 2 ingredients that contain 1,4-dioxane (a carcinogen according to the U.S. Dept of Health and Human Services); PEG-40 STEARATE and POLYSORBATE 20. This warrants reformulation to comply with NY State’s requirements for minimal 1,4-dioxane ppm by December 2022. Cetearyl glucoside and coco glucoside are clean swaps” (30). 

BUT it’s a crowd fave because it’s hydrating, drugstore accessible, a generous size and “derm recommended.” We tried and tested a ton of healthier alternatives and these swaps come the closest.👇 

Bottle of mad hippie cream cleanser in front of wood background

Swap CeraVe Hydrating Facial Cleanser for Mad Hippie Cream Cleanser | $12+

The Mad Hippie Cream Cleanser is not an exact swap, but it’s pretty close—and it has some sweet upgrades. Not only is it void of the concerning ingredients listed above, but it also comes souped-up with skin nourishing ingredients like green tea, jojoba, sodium PCA and algae extract. We also love that it’s packaged in glass.

As far as performance goes, the Mad Hippie Cream Cleanser is a very gentle cleanser, yet it can still remove even the toughest of products, like SPF. We love it off the top because it’s unscented and doesn’t sting the eyes. It also leaves skin feeling really clean and hydrated. 

Kate comments, “Mad Hippie is a brand I respect because they are dedicated to not only ‘clean’ but cruelty-free beauty too. They also have impeccable ingredient quality and brand ethos.”


a hand holding bottle of cetaphil gentle skin cleanser

Swap CeraVe Hydrating Facial Cleanser for Cetaphil Gentle Skin Cleanser | $10+

AND, if you are in a pinch, the unscented Cetaphil Gentle Skin Cleanser is also a viable swap. (Can you believe I just typed Cetaphil?! I KNOW!) 

Recommending ONLY this formula from the Cetaphil line, as this product has been reformulated with better ingredients (water, glycerin, cetearyl alcohol, panthenol, niacinamide, pantolactone, xanthan gum, sodium cocoyl isethionate, sodium benzoate, citric acid). It’s a very gentle, non-foaming cream/glycerin cleanser, and almost an exact dupe to the CeraVe Hydrating Facial Cleanser.

Kate says, “The Cetaphil Gentle Skin Cleanser is very very similar in terms of feel and performance but Cetaphil isn’t cruelty-free like Mad Hippie. If there’s only Cetaphil around on vacation, for example, I can at least count on the clean ingredients in this formula.”

chart showing cerave hydrating facial cleanser verses cetaphil gentle skin cleanser

CeraVe Foaming Facial Cleanser

If you’ve tried this cleanser and have been left with irritated skin, keep reading. This could be because the main surfactant in the CeraVe Foaming Facial Cleanser is cocamidopropyl hydroxysultaine, which is known to have irritating properties (8). 

Another reason could be because the pH of this formula is 6.2, which we found to be too stripping for our skin. 

And lastly, we also see PEGs, EDTA and parabens, which are ingredients of concern (noted above), as well as phenoxyethanol—which may also be contributing to irritated skin as well (913). So let’s find a comparable swap!

hand holding bottle of burt's bees truly glowing gel cleanser

Swap CeraVe Foaming Facial Cleanser for Burt’s Bees Truly Glowing Gel Cleanser | $10

The Burt’s Bees Truly Glowing Gel Cleanser is a viable swap because it’s a gentler formula, it has better ingredients, it’s a similar texture, has a microbiome-friendly pH and it’s also a drugstore pick with similar accessibility. We also appreciate that it’s packaged in recyclable plastic. 

In terms of performance, Kate says, “My skin is so happy and hydrated every time I use this cleanser. It has a very light lavender scent. Love that the lid snaps tightly to lock for travel.” 

chart showing cerave foaming facial cleanser verses burt's bees truly glowing gel cleanser

CeraVe Hydrating Cream-to-Foam Cleanser

People in general LOVE foaming cleaners. I know because I used to be one of them. 🤣 I felt like if my face was not squeaky clean, then my cleanser (AKA bar of soap) was not working. Well, nothing could be further from the truth. Now I realize that squeaky-clean feeling was probably a combination of dried out skin and irritation. #ewdavid

The CeraVe Hydrating Cream-to-Foam Cleanser has a couple of ingredients we are looking to swap out. First, chlorphenesin. This ingredient has been shown to irritate skin in a sizable group of people and therefore we recommend avoiding it—especially if you have sensitive skin. In addition, we also see acrylates, PEGs, EDTA and polysorbates, which are not our top picks for skin-nourishing ingredients (noted above). So let’s identify a swap. 

hand holding tube of acure seriously soothing jelly milk makeup remover with wooden background

Swap CeraVe Hydrating Cream-to-Foam Cleanser for Acure Seriously Soothing Jelly Milk Makeup Remover (unscented) | $13

The Acure Seriously Soothing Jelly Milk is similar in texture, pH and accessibility to the CeraVe Hydrating Cream-to-Foam Cleanser—but with a few upgrades. Specifically, we see sodium hyaluronate and jojoba oil doing double duty to not only hydrate skin, but also to work with the cleansing agents to remove SPF, foundation and eye makeup. We also appreciate the move toward recyclable plastic. 

In terms of performance, Kate says, “The CeraVe Cream-to-Foam irritated my skin and couldn’t take off my makeup. Acure’s Seriously Soothing Jelly Milk Makeup Remover is very similar in texture to the CeraVe Hydrating Cream-to-Foam Cleanser but cleanses and removes makeup without irritation. I also love that it has no added fragrance.”

chart showing cerave hydrating cream to foam cleanser vs acure seriously soothing jelly milk makeup remover

Have you tried any of these swaps? If so, which is your favorite?

And, like this post? Be sure to check out our swaps for Aquaphor, Purell and Children’s Tylenol.

xo, lisa signature line

REFERENCES:

  1. Seweryn A.; Interactions between surfactants and the skin–Theory and practice; Advances in colloid and interface science, 2018 Jun 1; 256:242-55; https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29685575/

2. Blaak J, Staib P.; The relation of pH and skin cleansing. pH of the skin: issues and Challenges, 2018;54:132-42; https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30130782/

3. Zlotogorski A.; Distribution of skin surface pH on the forehead and cheek of adults; Archives of dermatological research, 1987 Aug 1; 279(6):398-401; https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/3674963/

4. Jagadeesan S., Mathew M.; Skin Care Products for Sensitive Skin: Soaps, Cleansers, and Shampoos; The Sensitive Skin: Treatment Modalities and Cosmeceuticals, 2019 Feb 28; https://www.ijccm.org/filterSearch?authorList=soumya%20jagadeesan%2Cminu%20l%20mathew&sections=medicine&speciality=Dermatology&documentType=Chapter

5. Seweryn A.; Interactions between surfactants and the skin–Theory and practice; Advances in Colloid and Interface Science, 2018 Jun 1;256:242-55; https://www.researchgate.net/publication/324499107_Interactions_between_surfactants_and_the_skin_-_Theory_and_practice

6. Li Z.; Modern Mild Skin Cleansing; Journal of Cosmetics; Dermatological Sciences and Applications, 2020 Jun 15;10(02):85; https://www.scirp.org/journal/paperinforcitation.aspx?paperid=100876

7. Mehling A.; Kleber M.; Hensen H.; Surfactant mildness, original research: Comparative studies on the ocular and dermal irritation potential of surfactants; Food and chemical toxicology, 2007 May 1;45(5):747-58; https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17169473/

8. Guin J.D.; Reaction to Cocamidopropyl hydroxysultaine, an amphoteric surfactant and conditioner; Contact dermatitis, 2000 May 1;42(5):284-; https://europepmc.org/article/med/10789849

9. Birnie A.J.; English JS. 2‐phenoxyethanol‐induced contact urticaria; Contact Dermatitis, 2006 Jun;54(6):349-; https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16787464/

10. Hernandez B.; Ortiz‐Frutos F.J.; Garcia M, Palencia S.; Garcia M.C.; Iglesias L.; Contact urticaria from 2‐phenoxyethanol; Contact dermatitis, 2002 Jul;47(1):54-; https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12225420/

11. Lujan D.; Hernandez-Machin B.; Peñate Y.; Borrego L.; Contact urticaria due to phenoxyethanol in an aftershave; Dermatitis: contact, atopic, occupational, drug, 2009 Jul 1;20(4):E10-; https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19804693/

12. Chasset F.; Soria A.; Moguelet P.; Mathian A.; Auger Y.; Francès C.; Barete S.; Contact dermatitis due to ultrasound gel: A case report and published work review; The Journal of Dermatology, 2016 Mar;43(3):318-20; https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26346708/

13. Orjales R.N.; Vazquez C.C.; Gonzalez F.C.; Paris M.B.; 2-phenoxyethanol-induced contact urticaria and anaphylaxis; Journal of investigational allergology & clinical immunology, 2010;20(4):354-5; https://insolitbeauty.com/documentacion/Alergias%20por%20fenoxietanol.pdf

14. Yosipovitch G.; Misery L.; Proksch E.; Metz M.; Ständer S.; Schmelz M.; Skin Barrier Damage and Itch: Review of Mechanisms, Topical Management and Future Directions; Acta dermato-venereologica, 2019 Dec 1;99(13); https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31454051/

15. Tarun, J.; Susan, J.; Suria, J.; John Susan, V.; Criton, S.; Evaluation of pH of bathing soaps and shampoos for skin and hair care; Indian Journal of Dermatology, 2014 Sep-Oct;59:442-444(5); https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25284846/

16. Ghosh S.; Blankschtein D.; The role of sodium dodecyl sulfate (SDS) micelies in inducing skin barrier perturbation; J. Cosmet; Sci. 2007 Mar;58:109-33. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17520152/

17. Khutoryanskiy V.V.; Synthesis and solution properties of hydrophobically modified polysaccharides; Eurasian Chemico-Technological Journal, 2005 Apr 20;7(2):99-113; https://ect-journal.kz/index.php/ectj/article/view/546

18. Fevola M.J.; Walters R.M.; LiBrizzi J.J.; A new approach to formulating mild cleansers: hydrophobically-modified polymers for irritation mitigation; InPolymeric delivery of therapeutics 2010 (pp. 221-242); American Chemical Society; https://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/bk-2010-1053.ch012

19. Mukherjee S.; Yang L.; Vincent C.; Lei X.; Ottaviani M.F.; Ananthapadmanabhan K.P.; A comparison between interactions of triglyceride oil and mineral oil with proteins and their ability to reduce cleanser surfactant‐induced irritation; International Journal of Cosmetic Science, 2015 Aug;37(4):371-8; https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/ics.12205

20. Khan A.D.; Alam M.N.; Cosmetics and their associated adverse effects: a review; Journal of Applied Pharmaceutical Sciences and Research, 2019 Apr 4:1-6; https://www.researchgate.net/publication/332243856_COSMETICS_AND_THEIR_ASSOCIATED_ADVERSE_EFFECTS_A_REVIEW

21. Heindorff K.; Aurich O.; Michaelis A.; Rieger R.; Genetic toxicology of ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid (EDTA); Mutation Research/Reviews in Genetic Toxicology, 1983 Jun 1;115(2):149-73; https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/6406880/

22. FDA alerts drug manufacturers to the risk of benzene contamination in certain drugs; US Food & Drug Administration; https://www.fda.gov/drugs/pharmaceutical-quality-resources/fda-alerts-drug-manufacturers-risk-benzene-contamination-certain-drugs

23. Toxological Profile for Benzene; Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry; https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/toxprofiles/tp3-c1.pdf

24. Güzel Bayülken D.; Ayaz Tüylü B.; In vitro genotoxic and cytotoxic effects of some paraben esters on human peripheral lymphocytes; Drug and Chemical Toxicology, 2019 Jul 4;42(4):386-93; https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29681198/

25. Report on Carcinogens; Fifteenth Edition; National Toxicology Program; Department of Health and Human Services. https://ntp.niehs.nih.gov/ntp/roc/content/profiles/ethyleneoxide.pdf

26. Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety; Opinion on Phenoxygethanol, 2016 Oct 6; https://ec.europa.eu/health/scientific_committees/consumer_safety/docs/sccs_o_195.pdf

27. Mußhoff U.; Madeja M.; Binding N, Witting U.; Speckmann EJ.; Effects of 2-phenoxyethanol on N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptor-mediated ion currents; Archives of toxicology, 1999 Mar;73(1):55-9; https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10207615/

28. Béranger R.; Garlantézec R.; Le Maner-Idrissi G.; Lacroix A.; Rouget F.; Trowbridge J.; Warembourg C.; Monfort C.; Le Gléau F.; Jourdin M, Multigner L.; Prenatal exposure to glycol ethers and neurocognitive abilities in 6-year-old children: the PELAGIE cohort study; Environmental health perspectives, 2017 Apr;125(4):684-90; https://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/doi/full/10.1289/EHP39

29. Lee E.; An S.; Choi D.; Moon S.; Chang I.; Comparison of objective and sensory skin irritations of several cosmetic preservatives. Contact Dermatitis, 2007 Mar;56(3):131-6; https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17295686/

30. New York State Department of Environmental Conservation; 1,4-Dioxane Limits for Household Cleansing, Personal Care, and Cosmetic Products; https://www.dec.ny.gov/chemical/121658.html

By Lisa Fennessy

Lisa is the founder of This Organic Girl. Passionate about clean beauty, organic eats and nontoxic lifestyle, Lisa writes to create awareness. Conscious consumerism and informed decisions will impact the marketplace, our health and THE WORLD!

6 Comments

  1. Reply

    Alicia

    I wanted to give a shout-out to Josh Rosebrook’s Moisture Cleanse for leaving my skin feeling the same way it used to when I used CeraVe. No tightness, at all. I only use it as part of my AM routine or as a second cleanse in the evening because it doesn’t do enough for my makeup removal on its own.

    1. Reply

      Lisa Fennessy

      Hi Alicia! Love that you found a viable swap for you! Thanks for sharing! xo, L

  2. Reply

    Becky

    I love CeraVe but definitely going to try to switch to one of the alternatives since I also heard good things about Cetaphil! Often CeraVe products are approved by my dermatologist so it’s great that you dug deeper into the natural side of the ingredient narrative which can get confusing. Additionally, any thoughts on Vanicream line? I heard it’s very gentle. Good article with reputable sources!

    1. Reply

      Lisa Fennessy

      Hi Becky, Just looked at the Vanicream line and I do not recommend. They formulate with several ingredients we avoid. More on our No Thanks List. : ) Lisa

  3. Reply

    Aga

    Yes, cerave, but cerave is part of loreal, and loreal is part of nestle:/

    1. Reply

      Lisa Fennessy

      Thanks for your comment Aga. Just as Cetaphil was formally a subsidiary of L’Oreal and then of Nestle too. No brand is truly perfect so it’s really up to each individual to let their own values and circumstances guide their decision making process. We set out to find a healthier swap for the CeraVe cleanser that was just as accessible and preformed similar and I think we did just that with this recommendation. Thanks for reading! xo, L

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