One Small Thing: Face Wash from the '#1 Dermatologist Recommended Facial Skincare Brand,' Whatever That Means

Brand drama has ensued from skincare lines' claims of #1, causing the BBB National Programs to get involved

One Small Thing: Face Wash from the '#1 Dermatologist Recommended Facial Skincare Brand,' Whatever That Means

There are a lot of number one skincare lines out there but I’m pretty sure I’m using the best one.

I never got into Neutrogena, which has long claimed to be the “#1 Dermatologist Recommended Brand.” Maybe that owes to circumstance, maybe fate. CeraVe, the “#1 dermatologist recommended moisturizer brand” that previously billed itself as the “#1 dermatologist recommended skincare brand” (more on this in a second) never grabbed me either. Its particular kind of unscented just doesn’t smell right to me. I tend to agree with Cetaphil, whose bottle reminds me when I wash my face every morning and night (and sometimes when I’m bored while sitting on the toilet) that it is the “#1 dermatologist recommended facial skincare brand.” After all, it is what my dermatologist recommended, and who am I to argue?

When my dermatologist changed my life by putting me on the retinoid Tazorac over 10 years ago, he told me to do away with expensive, perfumed face soap. All I needed was a cheap, unscented, non-foaming, frankly cum-like gel to glide over my face a few times a day. I would love to report that it’s like honey when Cetaphil’s Gentle Skin Cleanser washes over me, but honestly, it’s like nothing but slightly thicker water. One hit of its love addicted me all the same.

Because I’m not running actual clinical trials, it is very hard for me to say with certainty that I’ve been punished for deviating from my Cetaphil regimen, but something really bad happened a few months ago when I started using Cetaphil less. Hanging around my bathroom etagere was a free sample of an exfoliating face wash from another brand that I finally tried and liked. I bought a tube of it and started using it a few times a week in Cetaphil’s stead. My retinoid is essentially a 24/7 exfoliator, so I was really just scrubbing my face in perfumed redundancy, but even minor novelty was important to late lockdown joy. At the same time, Barry’s Bootcamp had reopened, which meant I was doing intense HIIT workouts while wearing a face mask and then washing my face with the Daily Ritual Cream Face Cleanser by Oribe that Barry’s keeps in its locker rooms.

All this change (but maybe just sweat trapped between my face and mask) wreaked havoc on my skin, producing the kind of cyst that years of watching Dr. Pimple Popper had me living in mortal fear of. I have not had a cyst this bad since I started Tazorac—possibly not ever, during my years of acne-prone skin. My dermatologist lanced this beast that had taken up residence next to my chin and diagnosed it as an ingrown hair. (During a follow-up visit, he injected it with cortisone.) I now live without a trace of the veritable solar system of dead skin cells that had sprouted on my face, but the weeks that I was its host were some of the most painful of my life. It hurt without touching it. It was so full that merely pressing near it or resting my hands on either side of the head caused violent spewing of gray matter that actually might have contained pieces of brain for their proximity to it. The flood produced by minor pressure on this is something I still can’t unsee.

I cannot be sure that my deviating from using Cetaphil’s Gentle Skin Cleanser every wash on the wash is what caused this horror, but I have my suspicions. I’ll never cheat again on my number one.

But while we are on the subject, what does it actually mean to be #1 in this field? What does it mean to be so #1 that it’s integrated into the packaging of a product? Especially when other brands can claim they are #1 as well? Cetaphil manufacturer Galderma did not return my request for a comment on where my bottle of Gentle Skin Cleanser gets off telling me that it’s the “#1 Dermatologist Recommended Facial Skincare Brand,” so I dug deeper to get under the pore of this issue and push things out.

It turns out that some brands’ claims of dermatologist recommendations derive from the results of a poll of about 1,500 U.S. dermatologists called the ProVoice survey conducted by a company called IQVIA. The fine print in ad copy, like this listing for a Cetaphil lotion on, often attributes ProVoice as the source of its claim. It is also what CeraVe used.

How can (at least) three different brands claim to be “#1 dermatologist recommended?” Part of the answer lies in the qualification of exactly what’s being recommended (Cetaphil is the “#1 dermatologist recommended facial skincare brand” while CeraVe is the “1 dermatologist recommended moisturizer brand”), but there was recently a dispute regarding a more general claim. In some skincare brand drama that we didn’t know we needed, Johnson & Johnson (which owns “#1 dermatologist brand” Neutrogena) challenged L’Oreal’s claim (as seen in online advertising, on social media, and in stores) that its CeraVe is the “#1 dermatologist recommended skincare brand,” objecting to its ProVoice survey source. Earlier this year, the National Advertising Division, an arm of the BBB National Programs (what was once referred to as the Council of Better Business Bureaus prior to its 2019 restructuring), evaluated Johnson & Johnson’s claim and recommended that L’Oreal modify its copy.

This review of a company’s claims and recommendation for modification is a fairly common NAD practice that NAD VP Laura Brett described to Jezebel as “semi-judicial.” Brett said this self-regulatory and voluntary process is an alternative to litigation, explaining that under the Lanham Act, one can sue a competitor for unfair competition. “It’s really an alternative to regulatory scrutiny from the Federal Trade Commission,” she said.

Cases like this come to the NAD via competitor claims, as well as the department’s own external surveying. In the case of Johnson & Johnson versus L’Oreal, the NAD “did not take issue with [ProVoice’s] general methodology or with the particular categories surveyed,” but it did determine that the survey’s vague guidelines “created the possibility of double-counting or that dermatologists would record the same brand recommendation in different categories if the recommendation for a particular indication is applicable in multiple categories.” Brett pointed out that the NAD’s decision did not find ProVoice to be completely unreliable, but that it was unreliable in this case of L’Oreal’s broad claim.

NAD’s January 28 release said that L’Oreal planned to appeal the recommendation, but Brett said that about a month ago the brand withdrew its appeal. “And when they did that, they agreed to comply with our recommendations,” she said. “So that means that they agreed to modify that number one dermatologist recommended skin care brand claim.” While the “About” section of CeraVe’s site as recently as April was still calling the brand the “#1 dermatologist recommended skincare brand,” the site now reads that it is the “#1 dermatologist recommended moisturizer brand.”

“I can’t tell you that claim is truthful because we haven’t reviewed it,” said Brett on the CeraVe’s update. “I think it’s likely that they looked at the reasoning of the decision and tried to find a claim that was supported. I respect their willingness to participate and comply with our recommendation and assume that chances are they’ve followed that guidance in formulating their modified claims.”

Meanwhile, Neutrogena continues to bill itself as the “#1 dermatologist recommended brand.” But in a decision announced Wednesday (this skincare beef is coming in hot!), the NAD has now recommended that Neutrogena discontinue the following claims: “#1 Dermatologist Recommended,” “#1 Dermatologist Recommended Brand,” “#1 Dermatologist Recommended Skincare Brand,” “#1 Dermatologist Recommended Skincare.” To support its claim of Neutrogena being the “#1 Dermatologist Recommended Skincare Brand,” Johnson & Johnson Consumer Inc., submitted the results of a different survey than that which L’Oreal had cited—this one was conducted by a company called Ipsos. “NAD had several concerns regarding the methodology of the Ipsos survey and its ability to capture the full breadth of dermatologist recommendations,” reads part of the NAD’s release regarding its decision. Johnson & Johnson plans to appeal.

The challenger to Johnson & Johnson’s claim about Neutrogena, by the way, was L’Oreal. Revenge!!!

But if different surveys can be interpreted in different ways, and with the very reliability of this data collection being questioned in these NAD cases, doesn’t this whole determining-#1 thing start to look kind of futile?

“I certainly could get cynical doing this job, but I do think that, of course, the companies are going to position their product the best way that they can,” said Brett. “I think a number one dermatologist recommended skin care brand is different than a number one dermatologist recommended moisturizer brand. And if it were a number one dermatologist recommended acne skin care brand, that’s a different recommendation. Certainly, it does put some burden on the consumer to read the claim carefully, but the qualifying language is part of that claim. It’s not that the consumer has to dig for more information as to how these two can be side by side and both have a number one doctor recommended claim on it. It’s that information is right in front of them and to the extent they’re confused, they can really look more carefully at the claims and determine which one means more to them.”

Please note that Cetaphil stayed out of this entire mess, like a good #1 dermatologist recommended facial skincare brand. The best, even, I’d say!

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