The Body Lotions We’d Get
The everyday body lotion we recommend for most people is the $20 CeraVe Renewing SA Skin Lotion. We came to this conclusion after performing 140 hours of research, teaming up with a chemist who has helped develop prestige-brand skincare products, and interviewing five top dermatologists. After narrowing our body lotion picks down from thousands of lotions to eight finalists, we tested them with a panel of 50 people. CeraVe SA won praise from our panel for its thicker-than-most consistency, absorption rate, and low greasiness. Testers also preferred the clean, not-too-medicinal scent of the fragrance-free formula. CeraVe’s line of lotions also came recommended by three of five dermatologists we spoke with.
Table of Contents
- Who should buy this?
- How we picked what to test
- What about “natural” or “organic” lotions?
- How we tested
- Our pick
- What’s inside?
- Flaws but not dealbreakers
- A lighter runner-up
- A pick for faster absorption
- How moisturizers work
- What do you get when you pay more for lotion?
- Ingredients of concern
- Care and maintenance
- Wrapping it up
Who should buy this?
If you love the lotion you’re already using, there’s no need to change it. There are many lotions equipped to moisturize skin and little evidence to show whether one proprietary formula is better than another. Since applying lotion can be subjective and ritualistic, there’s no reason to ditch the one you’ve got.
But if you’re looking for a lotion that feels rich and smooth going on and hydrates your skin with proven ingredients, or if you want something better-formulated to take care of your skin in your current climate, then one of our picks will certainly benefit you.
If you have specific needs, understanding ingredients can help you find a formula that’s a better fit for you (see “How moisturizers work” and “Ingredients of concern” for more info):
- If your skin is very dry, try lotions that are rich in emollients and occlusives
- If it’s humid out or your skin is oily, try lotions that are more humectant-heavy
- If you have rough patches, like your elbows and knees, acid exfoliants can help smooth them out
- If you have keratosis pilaris (a condition in which keratin plugs up the hair follicles, creating tiny white bumps on the skin), a lotion spiked with alpha and beta hydroxy acids like lactic acid and glycolic acid may help minimize bumps.
- If you have mature skin, look for exfoliants and antioxidants, which rid the body of dull, dead skin while protecting it from oxidation and free radicals
- If you have very sensitive skin, avoid possible irritants like fragrance, MCI, and formaldehyde releasers, which Dr. Schalock considers more of an allergenic threat to those with sensitive skin than parabens
How we picked what to test
When it comes to body lotions, there isn’t enough consensus in the existing data to help us come up with a list of top contenders. Although there’s a near-infinite number of individual reviews of lotions online, few involve any head-to-head tests. Consumer Reports published a roundup of body lotion reviews and test results in November 2011 (subscription required), and Good Housekeeping has published ratings for about a dozen hand creams, but the publication has not printed a comparative guide to body lotions. Major beauty publications like Allure include body lotions in their “best-of” coverage, but don’t attempt (or detail) scientific testing methods.
To help narrow our selection, we decided to look only at easily-spread body lotions suited for everyday use, rather than thicker creams. We also looked for lotions that would work well on normal adult skin, since children’s skin is usually more sensitive, less dry, and doesn’t require the exfoliating acids recommended by our dermatologists for adults with flaky skin.
Then we ruled out any lotions with fragrance. Scent is a polarizing and highly personal preference that can compromise one’s ability to rate the performance of a lotion. But more importantly, proprietary fragrances can contain allergens and irritate sensitive skin. (For more on the difference between unscented and fragrance-free, read How moisturizers work.)
Next, we talked to five members of the American Academy of Dermatology and a cosmetic chemist for a scientific perspective on which ingredients moisturize, soothe, and lubricate the skin best. The experts we spoke to recommended lotions with these ingredients:
- Glycerin, glycerol, or hyaluronic acid for pulling in moisture
- Petrolatum, mineral oil, shea butter, or triethanolamine for sealing in moisture
- Ceramides for preventing the evaporation of water and retaining moisture
- Alpha and beta hydroxy acids (such as lactic and salicylic acids) for exfoliation
- Silicone and silicone derivatives (dimethicone, cyclomethicone) for silkiness without grease
- Aloe and oatmeal to deliver soothing properties
- Vitamins like A, C, D, and E for antioxidant power
We then read through hundreds of fragrance-free body lotion reviews on sites like Amazon, Drugstore.com, and MakeupAlley.com to get a sense of which characteristics drive the best user experience when applying lotion. We discovered that people are generally looking for a lotion that smells pleasant, makes skin appear smoother and brighter, and doesn’t make their skin or hands feel greasy or sticky.
As for ingredient analysis, we chose lotions that had a combination of humectants, occlusives, and emollients known to moisturize the skin well (see How moisturizers work). We checked out lotions that deliver skin benefits in addition to moisturizing via exfoliants and antioxidants. Aside from fragrance, we tried to stay away from sketchy ingredients (see Ingredients of concern).
One big, mean spreadsheet later, we pared down thousands of lotions to eight products that were recommended over and over. We made sure that our picks varied in thickness and (likely) absorbency; this would help provide a range of choices that would be right for different times of year, weather, and skin care needs.
Our finalists were:
- Cerave Renewing SA Skin Lotion ($16 or $2/oz.) – Contains glycerin, mineral oil, salicylic acid, hyaluronic acid, and ceramides. Recommended by Dr. Dina Strachan, board-certified dermatologist and director of Aglow Dermatology.
- Lubriderm 3-in-1 Fragrance Free Lotion ($15 or 90 cents/oz.) – contains glycerin, mineral oil, fatty alcohols, and aloe. Recommended by online reviewers.
- Cetaphil Moisturizing Lotion ($11 or 70 cents/oz.) – Contains glycerin, macadamia nut oil, and dimethicone. Recommended by Dr. Dina Strachan.
- Aveeno Daily Moisturizing Lotion ($15 or 80 cents/oz.) – Contains glycerin, petrolatum, and oat kernel flour. Recommended by online users.
- AmLactin Moisturizing Body Lotion ($35 or $2.10/oz.) – Contains moisturizing fats, ceramides, and ammonium lactate. Recommended by Dr. Heidi Waldorf, an associate clinical professor of dermatologyat Mount Sinai Hospital in New York.
- Avène TriXéra Lotion ($29 or $4.30/oz.) – Contains fatty acids, ceramides, and glycene to relieve itching. Recommended by Dr. Heidi Waldorf.
- Burt’s Bees Shea Butter and Vitamin E Body Lotion ($10 or 80 cents/oz.) – Contains synthetic beeswax and safflower oil as alternative to petrolatum and mineral oil. Recommended by beauty editors and online users.
AmLactin Cerapeutic Restoring Body Lotion($17 or $2.60/oz.) – Contains glycerin, mineral oil, and ceramides. Recommended by Dr. Heidi Waldorf.
What about “natural” or “organic” lotions?
First, the FDA does not regulate the use of the words “natural” or “organic” on cosmetics labels. And, as the FDA says, “An ingredient’s source does not determine its safety. For example, many plants, whether or not they are organically grown, contain substances that may be toxic or allergenic.”
There are USDA guidelines for organic labeling, but a product that says “made with organic ingredients” on the front label can still contain up to 30% non-organic ingredients.
Keep in mind that botanical-based lotions are not necessarily better than those made with mineral oils and traditional preservatives. Dr. Wanner said that even though marketing trends lean toward more “natural,” “herbal,” and “plant-based” skincare, there is nothing out there that tells us whether plant-based or phytochemical ingredients are better than non-plant-based or mineral-derived ingredients. In fact, Dr. Wanner told us that she worries about patients’ exposure to contact allergies from plant-based ingredients.
Those looking for an organic, plant-based alternative now may be most satisfied by using an oil such as coconut oil, jojoba oil, or shea butter instead of a lotion. These ingredients aren’t as cosmetically elegant as most lotion formulations and they may feel greasier when applied, but they can work on their own to moisturize the skin. And since these oils are typically comprised of a singular ingredient (rather than a mixture of many) and can be found in 100% organic and ethically sourced forms, they may be less likely to include allergens and stowaway contaminants.
How we tested
When it came time to test these lotions, we opted not to use a corneometer, a probe that measures moisture on the skin, as Consumer Reports used in its testing. While corneometers can provide some useful cues on lotion efficacy, our consulting chemist Matthew Sander advised us that there are often too many variables present to make reliable conclusions from the data.
Before applying any of the lotions, we asked testers to refrain from using any lotion the previous day, since we wanted to be sure that moisturization results noticed were from the formulas they were trying, not from residual effects of their own body lotions. Testers were asked to apply two lotions to their bodies (one to the leg and arm of one side, the other to the limbs on the opposite side) at least once a day for two days.
When first dispensing lotion into the hands, testers were asked to rate each formula for scent, consistency, thickness, texture, and greasiness. Next, they were asked to rate the lotion in many of the same categories during application. Then, 15-60 minutes after applying the lotion, testers were asked to rank each for how quickly it absorbed, how smooth it made their skin, how moisturized the skin felt, how greasy or oily the hands felt, whether they would prefer that the lotion absorb faster or slower, and what overall effects the product had on the skin.
We then surveyed respondents a second time, 24 hours after they applied the lotion, to rate the overall smoothness, moisturization, and appearance of the skin.
After testers completed surveys in which they compared up to eight of the lotions, they submitted a final survey regarding their overall experiences. At this point, they were asked to identify their two favorite lotions and their two most important criteria (among scent, thickness, smoothness of lotion, absorption rate, improved skin smoothness, skin appearance, or lack of oily residue left on the skin).
Alongside survey information, we conducted our own lab testing, measuring the viscosity, or thickness, of each of our eight lotions. We wanted to see how measured texture would correlate with our survey testers’ opinions of the consistency of each lotion.
After lab tests and surveys were complete, we compared people’s reported preferences with the viscosity measurements. We found that most users preferred lotions in the middle to high end of the thickness range. We also found that a subset of testers preferred relatively thin lotions. Our recommendations reflect those preferences.
Our testers loved it, too. In our survey, people felt the consistency was just right and didn’t leave skin feeling greasy. We asked our respondents to rate the feel of their skin the next day (for this and every lotion tested), but there wasn’t enough variability between responses about different moisturizers to determine a difference.
Most of our testers didn’t take offense to the mild, slightly medicinal scent, and the ingredients’ natural scent doesn’t linger on the skin after application.
Amazon users also give the lotion high marks. At press time, 45 of 54 Amazon reviewers gave the lotion a perfect five-star rating, and it scored a 4.5-star average overall. The lotion is also a best-seller on Drugstore.com, with 27 reviewers giving the lotion a 4.5-star average.
This specific lotion also came recommended by Dr. Heidi Waldorf, an associate clinical professor of dermatologyat Mount Sinai Hospital in New York and one of the experts we interviewed for this story. And the CeraVe brand was heralded by Dr. Peter Schalock, a dermatologist and assistant professor of dermatology at Harvard Medical School and Dr. Dina Strachan, board-certified dermatologist and director of Aglow Dermatology.It won a Best of Beauty award in 2012 from Allure and was named runner-up for best body lotion in Prevention’s 2012 Beauty Awards.
Let’s break down the CeraVe SA ingredient list:
Purified Water, Glycerin, Mineral Oil, Ammonium Lactate, Salicylic Acid, Trolamine, Glyceryl Stearate SE, Behentrimonium Methosulfate, Cetearyl Alcohol, PEG 100 Stearate, Cetyl Alcohol, Cholecalciferol (Vitamin D3), Ceramide 3, Ceramide 6 II, Ceramide 1, Cholesterol, Phytosphingosine, Dimethicone 360, Methylparaben, Disodium EDTA, Propylparaben, Hyaluronic Acid, Sodium Lauroyl Lactylate, Carbomer, Xanthan Gum
The namesake salicylic acid (SA) exfoliates by removing old, dead skin and allowing the skin cells underneath to renew the epidermis. In addition, salicylic acid is an anti-inflammatory, protecting the skin from excess irritation. Even though some might equate salicylic acid with acne treatments, which can dry some peoples’ skin, Dr. Waldorf praised salicylic acid as part of a combination of ingredients in lotion because it “can help hold in moisture as well, so if someone tends to have areas where they’re very dry, scaly, it’s a good thing to use.”
CeraVe SA also includes another great exfoliator, ammonium lactate (a salt of neutralized lactic acid). This is an alpha hydroxy acid and anti-inflammatory ingredient that helps slough off dead skin cells to give skin a brighter appearance.
Hyaluronic acid is another a beauty product all-star ingredient heralded for its ability to help moisturize (the ingredient, which our bodies naturally produce, is commonly used in anti-aging skincare products). Dr. Dina Strachan told us, “A hyaluronic acid holds 1,000 times its weight in water, so that’s great for attracting water through the skin when combined with an ingredient that helps seal the moisture into the skin.”
Glycerin, the ingredient listed second only to water, draws moisture to the skin. The mineral oil helps to seal moisture into the skin. Vitamin D acts as an antioxidant.
Ceramide 3, Ceramide 6 II, and Ceramide 1 are known as ceramides and sphingolipids, important components of the skin’s natural moisture retention system. They help prevent evaporation of water and also act as emulsifiers (ingredients that allow oils and water to combine), which improve moisture retention in the skin.
Flaws but not dealbreakers
Our testers neither ranted nor raved about the the lotion’s scent, but we must warn that the clinical smell can be a bit of a turn-off at first—most people are used to scented lotions. On the flipside, the scent vanishes quickly after it’s absorbed.
This lotion contains parabens, which some people are concerned about; however, the experts we spoke to and the FDA deem the ingredients as safe to use. (You can read more about parabens in Ingredients of concern.)
Though CeraVe SA is still within drugstore price range, it’s one of the costlier options we tested. (At $15-20 for an 8-ounce bottle, it’s quite a bit more than Cetaphil). However, we’re willing to pay a bit more for its quality exfoliating ingredients, silky texture, and quick, grease-free absorption.
The FDA says products with alpha hydroxy acid and beta hydroxy acids are safe to use, but should be tested on the skin for sensitivity, should be used in conjunction with sunscreen, and shouldn’t be used on children. Also, some people are concerned about how and whether ingredients like salicylic acid absorb into the bloodstream.
Also, because safety studies for pregnant women and salicylic acid haven’t been done, there is a chance that lotions with salicylic acid may not be the best choice for pregnant women. If those are major concerns, we highly recommend checking with your doctor before using our pick or any product with salicylic acid in it. (See How moisturizers work for more info).
A lighter runner-up
Ingredient-wise, Cetaphil contains a mix of skin protectants and moisturizers, along with vitamin E, which acts as an antioxidant in addition to helping skin retain moisture. Dermatologists like this lotion because it’s mild and great for sensitive skin. It’s also paraben-free, if that is important to you.
Even though Cetaphil Moisturizing Lotion has an average thickness, our testers loved that it absorbs as quickly as thinner, more watery lotions. (It was reported to be the fastest absorber by our panel.) Our panelists also approved of its mild scent.
A pick for faster absorption
The moisturizing ingredients in this lotion include panthenol and glycerin, plus some fatty alcohols like cetyl alcohol and cetostearyl alcohol (ingredients that have emollient properties, can help the oil and water in a lotion bind together, and thicken and improve the texture of a lotion). It also contains a salt of lactic acid to exfoliate and aloe to soothe. It is light enough to be used on the face or body.
Though it’s a newer formulation than some of the other lotions we tested, it has quickly become a bestseller on Amazon (130 Amazon reviewers give it an average of 4.3 stars). While Lubriderm markets this lotion to men, skin is skin, and our female testers felt this formula worked quite well for them.
How moisturizers work
When our skin feels dry and itchy, the very outer layer of our skin, the stratum corneum, may not be retaining as much water as it should. A good body lotion moisturizes by mimicking what the skin naturally does to stay hydrated. There are three main types of ingredients in lotions that work to achieve this:
- Occlusives create a barrier over the skin to prevent water loss in the outermost layer
- Humectants moisturize by attracting water from the lower layers of the skin and binding it in the outermost layer
- Emollients create smoothness to the skin by filling in its tiny crevices
Occlusives are thick, water-resistant substances like petroleum jelly, which penetrate only the superficial layers of the stratum corneum. They tend to be oils and petroleum-based ingredients like coconut oil, mineral oil, and petrolatum. “Basically, [occlusives] seal water into the skin. Because they’re so heavy, they’re not as cosmetically elegant,” Dr. Strachan said. “If that’s all there is in a moisturizer, it’s good to use after a bath, but it’s not something you put on dry skin.” Dr. Strachan also points out that applying petroleum jelly all over the skin comes with its own challenges (hello sticky clothes syndrome)—that’s why occlusives work better in conjunction with other ingredients.
Humectants, like glycerin, panthenol, and urea, copy the body’s natural ability to moisturize by attracting and binding water to the skin. They work in two ways: by pulling water from the lower layers of the skin up to its surface and by pulling water from the air. For example, the humectant hyaluronic acid holds holds a thousand times its weight in water, so it can funnel all this water to the top layer of your skin. But a single humectant doesn’t make an effective moisturizer alone—it must be paired with something that can seal the water into the skin, such as an occlusive.
Emollients, such as avocado oil and squalane, soften the skin. In the thickness scale, emollients fall in between occlusives and humectants. Dr. Waldorf likened emollients to spackle, saying, “they fill the spaces in between the skin cells, so the skin has a nice silky feel and looks smoother.” In addition, emollients also act as a kind of light occlusive, smoothing and sealing the skin, by mimicking the lipid bilayer (the seal of the skin that decreases water loss in the body). And while our skin does its best to not allow outside elements to penetrate, Dr. Molly Wanner, a board-certified dermatologist and instructor in dermatology at Harvard Medical School pointed out that some emollient products that have ingredients already found in our skin cells, such as fatty acids and cholesterol, may penetrate better into the deeper layers of the skin.
Beyond the basic moisturizing ingredients found in moisturizers, other ingredients can help improve the look and feel of skin.
Acids, including alpha hydroxy (AHA) and beta hydroxy acids (BHA) can be great for particularly ashy, unevenly toned, or bumpy skin. These can slough off excess dry skin cells and can help patients with acne by exfoliating from the pore. Dr. Wanner said that studies of hydroxy acids show that lactic and glycolic acids have the smallest molecular size, which means they can get into our skin more easily. She also pointed out that studies have shown that 8 percent alpha hydroxy acid formulations (less than the 12 percent often encountered in lotions and other personal care products) can help with acne and pigmentation problems. When lotion brands claim to have lactic acid, they’re often referring to a different chemical such as ammonium lactate or potassium lactate, which are actually salts of neutralized lactic acid. They’re not for everyone—they can irritate sensitive and freshly shaved skin. The FDA recommends spot testing lotions with these ingredients, using sunscreen if skin will also be exposed to sun, and not applying on children. Though there’s not enough research to indicate whether it has a negative effect on pregnant women, who should consult their doctors when using salicylic acid.1
Antioxidants (such as Vitamins A, C, and E) can also boost a lotion’s performance by protecting the skin against free radicals and UV radiation. Antioxidants need to be well-protected from light and air when in the bottle, so select antioxidant-enriched lotions packaged in opaque bottles with small openings.
Silicone derivatives, such as dimethicone and cyclomethicone, tend to sit on top of the skin2, giving the skin a silky feel. (See Ingredients of concern for more on why dermatologists consider them safe.)
What do you get when you pay more for lotion?
Body lotions can be had for a mere few cents per ounce up to $30 per ounce. Expensive lotions tend to include hard-to-source skin-softening ingredients, along with those that tout skin-renewing technology.
AmLactin Moisturizing Body Lotion – Our chemist calls the ingredient list for this moisturizer “impressive,” with its sphingolipids, moisturizing fats, and ammonium lactate (great for people with extremely damaged skin or eczema). Further, our derms and online users ranked this lotion highly. However, our testers didn’t like the smell. They also thought the formula absorbed too slowly and was too oily, reporting that it left their hands greasier than they liked.
AmLactin Cerapeutic Restoring Body Lotion came recommended by dermatologists for great moisturizing ingredients, including ceramides and AHA, and Amazon users give it 4.4 stars. However, our testers rated it middle-of-the-road on many criteria. They also disliked its strongly clinical, almost plastic scent the most of all the samples.
Avéne TriXera+ Selectiose Emollient Cream uses a lot of whole, natural fats and strong synthetic moisturizers with a full range of humectants, emollients, and occlusives. Our derms also recommended it, with Dr. Waldorf calling it one of her favorite moisturizers. On Amazon, an impressive 57 users gave the lotion a near-perfect 4.8 stars and 74 percent of Makeup Alley’s 50 users say they would buy it again. While our testers liked the thickness of the lotion, many found the formulation to be too oily and reported that it left their hands greasier than they would have liked.
Burt’s Bees Body Lotion with Shea Butter and Vitamin E12 substitutes plant extracts with moisturizing properties for typical petroleum-based ingredients. The synthetic beeswax replaces petrolatum, while safflower oil is used in place of mineral oil. It’s also paraben-free. Though it is labeled as fragrance-free, it contains essential oils to mask the medicinal smell of the raw ingredients, which may irritate some skin. Our testers liked that it didn’t leave hands greasy, but they also wished that it absorbed more quickly.
CeraVe Moisturizing Lotion contains ceramides and fatty acids in addition to more common moisturizers. However, we opted not to test it because the CeraVe SA offered additional exfoliants to help slough off dead skin cells and brighten skin.
EltaMD Fragrance-Free Lotion contains petrolatum, dimethicone, and the fatty acids glyceryl stearate and stearic acid. While it contained a strong roster of moisturizing ingredients, it also contains many preservatives, with just about every paraben (methyl, ethyl, propyl, butyl, isobutyl) plus phenoxyethanol.
Neutrogena Intensive Moisture Wrap Body Treatment and Alba Very Emollient Body Lotion contain both typical and specialty fats for moisturization, but we chose not to test them because they both contained fragrance as an ingredient.
Eucerin Daily Replenishing Moisturizing Lotion - The ingredients in this formula don’t stand out against the formulas we tested.
Eucerin Intensive Repair Very Dry Lotion – The ingredients in this formulation are pretty waxy/oily and Amazon users who aren’t fond of the lotion dock it for being greasy. It contains the preservative methylchloroisothiazolinone (MCI), which a small number of people might be sensitive to, but this is not necessarily a reason to reject on its own. While there’s nothing obviously wrong with this formula, it doesn’t contain particularly exciting ingredients either.
Nivea doesn’t make a fragrance-free lotion.
Gold Bond Ultimate Soothing Skin Therapy Lotion – This lotion’s ingredients aren’t as excellent as those we tested.
Vaseline Men’s Body and Face Lotion – The ingredients list for this lotion doesn’t stand out when compared to those we tested.
Vaseline Intensive Rescue Repairing Moisture – This lotion didn’t get the expert support of the formulas that we tested, so we excluded it.
Lubriderm Daily Moisture Lotion – This moisturizer contained the essentials and nothing else. Given that it didn’t get a nod from our experts, we decided not to test it.
Lubriderm Daily Moisture Lotion Sensitive Skin – This lotion doesn’t have the robust online following that others do and didn’t come recommended by dermatologist.
Kiehl’s Creme de Corps – This widely-loved lotion is too expensive ($29.50 or $3.68/oz.) to make our cut.
Alba Botanica Very Emollient Body Lotion – While “unscented,” the lotion isn’t fragrance-free, and contains ingredients to mask the scent of others.
Ingredients of concern
Parabens: Parabens are used as preservatives in many beauty and personal care products. Since the late ‘90s, some small studies have shown parabens to have estrogenic properties. A few studies have shown a link between parabens and human breast cancer cells, although these studies did not show that parabens caused the cancer, nor did they study healthy breast cells as a comparison. Though the Environmental Working Group directs people to use products with parabens with caution, and some companies have started to market their products as “paraben-free,” dermatologists and doctors agree that more study needs to be done to determine if this compound is harmful in personal products, since right now there’s no evidence that it is.
We talked to dermatologist Dr. Peter Schalock, who specializes in contact allergy and who has recently reviewed the literature about parabens, for his take on the issue. While he knows better than to declare that any ingredient is completely safe, he actually prefers parabens to other preservatives, like formaldehyde releasers or methylchloroisothiazolinone (MCI), because they are, “a good bacteria and fungus killer [and are] pretty much consistently the least allergenic preservative.”
Schalock agreed that parabens can be estrogenic, though just minimally. “The most estrogenic paraben as far as I can find in a reference—and I’m approaching this from evidence-based [standpoint] because I don’t have anything else other than opinion—is butylparaben, which was 50 to 100,000 times less estrogenic than a woman’s own estrogen,” he said. “It is estrogenic? Yes. Is it significantly estrogenic? It doesn’t seem to be.”
Fragrance: Many fragrances can cause allergic reactions, with one report citing more than 100 fragrances as having been identified as allergens3. Generally, derms like Dr. Strachan advise staying away from fragranced products because they can cause people to experience skin irritation and rashes.
Formaldehyde releasers: The use of formaldehyde releasers in beauty products has increased in the past few years (though the use of formaldehyde itself has become less common); they’re thought to be used in about 20 percent of personal care products sold in the US4. In body lotions, formaldehyde releasers used include quaternium-15, diazolidinyl urea, imidazolidinyl urea, DMDM hydantoin, and sodium hydroxymethylglycinate.
Formaldehyde is listed as a probable human carcinogen by the EPA, which means that long-term exposure has caused cancer in rats, but not a lot of human studies have been done. It mostly comes from industrial processes, such as making particle board. But it also occurs naturally, including in our breath.
In the grand scheme of things, allergic reactions to formaldehyde releasers are rare. The North American Contact Dermatitis Group reports that reactions to different formaldehyde releasers in skin care products range between about 2 to 9 percent. However, Dr. Schalock noted these ingredients might further compromise very dry skin. If your skin is very dry or if you have eczema, then your skin’s barrier isn’t working as well as it should be. And over time, with more exposure to these releasers, the chance of skin becoming even more sensitive increases.
PEG (Polyethylene Glycol): This ingredient is made by a chemical process that can cause the creation of 1,4-dioxane. Some people are concerned about 1,4 dioxane because the EPA calls it a possible carcinogen. However, as doctors say, we are talking negligible amounts here, and research has also shown that it evaporates from the skin very quickly. For more information about 1,4-dioxane see our article on dish soap.
Petrochemicals: While untreated and mildly treated mineral oils are known carcinogens, those used in our lotions are pharmaceutical-grade mineral oils (also known as white mineral oils). They’re not only deemed safe by governing agencies, they’re considered helpful moisturizers by our derms. And while some people may be concerned about using mineral oil on their skin, rather than a plant-based oil, Dr. Wanner notes that there is no research that indicates botanicals are better than petrochemicals. If environmental impact is your concern, the American Cleaning Institute, which represents both green and conventional companies, says that ingredients derived from petroleum, plant, or animal sources are all detrimental to the environment, just in different ways.
Silicones: Silicones like dimethicone, found in many lotions, help make a lotion smooth. Some are concerned that this ingredient can sit on top of the skin, trapping dirt and causing breakouts. Others are concerned about silicones as marine pollutants. And others wonder whether silicones can cause allergic reactions. Our allergy expert, Dr. Schalock, doesn’t consider them to be a particular allergy risk, saying, “I have seen, from a silicone perspective, absolutely no good evidence that silicone is an allergen.” Some people fear that silicones in products can cause breakouts, but Dr. Schalock has not seen evidence that the silicones are responsible.
Retinyl palmitate:Our bodies naturally produce this vitamin A derivative.5 It is also used in skincare as an antioxidant. A 2012 study by the National Toxicology Program (NTP) conducted on mice suggested that the antioxidant may speed the development of skin tumors and lesions when applied to the skin in the presence of sunlight. However, dermatologist Daniel Siegel, former president of the American Academy of Dermatology, noted on the organization’s site that there is no published evidence to suggest that either topical or oral retinoids increase the risk of skin cancer. “In fact, oral retinoids are used to prevent skin cancers in high-risk patients such as those who have undergone organ transplantation,” he remarked.
Benzyl alcohol: There is a very slim chance that benzyl alcohol, an ingredient often used as a preservative or as a component of “fragrance,” may cause an allergic reaction in some people. “It’s a low low loooow grade contact allergen,” said Dr. Schalock. “We do test routinely for it and I’ve only seen it once.” If your skin is sensitive to lotions with fragrance, keep an eye out for this ingredient, which can still be present in fragrance-free lotions that use it as a preservative. “The fragrance allergy is my only big beef with benzyl alcohol,” he said.
Phenoxyethanol: Like benzyl alcohol, this is a preservative, but Dr. Schalock said, “if you look at the inky definitions, phenoxyethanol is classified as a fragrance.” And though it’s fragrance-related, phenoxyethanol can be in “fragrance-free” formulations as long as it’s used as a preservative. If you know you’re allergic to fragrance, you may want to steer clear of formulas with phenoxyethanol. That said, it is not considered a major allergen. It does not release formaldehyde and is less irritating than other preservatives used in lotions.
Methylisothiazolinone/methylchloroisothiazolinone (MI/MCI) are preservatives in beauty products and latex- and water-based paint. In beauty products, they can be used in place of parabens. In a 2008 study that evaluated allergens listed in North American Contact Dermatitis Group (NACDG) screening panel and a database of 276 moisturizers available at Walgreens Pharmacies, MI/MCI was determined to be the 10th most common allergen in moisturizers, found in 6.2 percent of products. There are a few studies that show that up to about 10 percent of people may get contact dermatitis from one or both of these.6
Care and maintenance
Wrapping it up
While all eight lotions we tested have great moisturizing ingredients, we ultimately like the CeraVe Renewing SA Lotion most (and are willing to pay a bit more for it) because it exfoliates and moisturizes at the same time, and it possesses a smooth feel, which our testers loved.
Lotion Buying Guide, Consumer Reports, May 2012
Moisturization and Skin Barrier Function, Dermatologic Therapy, February 2004,
Measuring the effects of topical moisturizers on changes in stratum corneum thickness, water gradients and hydration in vivo, British Journal of Dermatology, September 2008,
The clinical benefit of moisturizers, Lodén M, European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology, November 2005
Moisturizer technology versus clinical performance, Dermatologic Therapy, 2004,