Last week on the Today show, dermatologist Dr Francesca Fusco gave us the benefit of her advice on dry winter skin solutions. The best recommendation she came up with was the Clarisonic brush. This winter is the first one when I have used it religiously for body brushing and it has made a big difference. She also proffered moisturizing creams by Cetaphil, Suavé and Bliss. A closer look at the three of them revealed some surprises – good and bad.

Cetaphil Moisturizing Cream ($12) is something of a no-brainer: a low cost drug store product that lets petrolatum do most of the talking. I confess to being a bit of a petrolatum phobe, even though most of my fears are unfounded according to Erin’s excellent investigation into Petroleum Jelly and Vaseline: bottom line is that petrolatum is considered safe providing it has been properly purified to remove potentially carcinogenic byproducts. Even so, let’s be clear. This ingredient is not hydrating the skin, it is forming an occlusive barrier, keeping skin from naturally losing moisture to evaporation. That’s useful protection, but not something that is nourishing. Cetaphil Moisturizing Cream isn’t going to make those of us who like our products to chemical free feel warm and fuzzy, but most of its ingredients are benign, with the exception of the irritants and possibly toxic phenoxyethanol, sodium hydroxide and disodium EDTA.

The thing that you can’t beat Suavé Advanced Therapy on is price. It is less than three bucks at Walmart. It majors on glycerin and vitamins A and E. While I wouldn’t either use or recommend this product myself, I have seen far worse formulations at ten times the price. My reservations are based on several ingredients. Retinyl palmitate (the vit A that features high up on the ingredient list) is an odd recommendation for dry winter skin. It converts to retinol in the skin and can cause skin reactions, including peeling, redness, scaling, itching, and burning.

Similarly, one of the known side effects of triethanolamine is dryness of the hair and skin. The CIR determined that triethanolamine was “safe for use in cosmetics and personal care products designed for discontinuous, brief use followed by thorough rinsing from the surface of the skin. In products intended for prolonged contact with the skin, the concentration of triethanolamine should not exceed 5%”. Meanwhile, tocopheryl acetate (a form of Vitamin E) is one of those ingredients that can be good and bad for you at the same time. It is a skin-conditioning agent, moisturizer and antioxidant. However, the CIR (the cosmetic industry body) finds that there is strong evidence that it is a human skin toxicant, and in vitro tests on mammalian cells showed positive mutation results, linking it to cancer. It can also be a skin irritant.

Compared to the unpretentious Suavé, Bliss Triple Oxygen + C Energizing Cream ($54) falls into the waste of money category. It  justifies its triple oxygen appellation with three derivatives of perflurodecalin, which dissolve and deliver oxygen to the skin. Some studies have shown that formulas that include perflurodecalin improve the skin’s barrier function resulting in increased moisturizing efficacy.  Unfortunately, they are way down the ingredients list and preceded by mostly the bad and the mediocre. Exceptions are ethylbisiminomethylguaiacol manganese chloride also goes by the name of EUK-134 and is a useful antioxidant that prevents damage from UVB rays, nutrient rich macadamia oil and salicornia extract, a coastal growing herb (mainly in western Europe) that has strong antioxidant properties.

Unfortunately, there’s plenty of silicones and harsh preservatives, phenoxyethanol and sodium hydroxide, feature high up. Plus there’s the potential irritant ethylhexylglycerin. Sodium Benzotriazolyl Butylphenol Sulfonate is a broadband UV filter. But it isn’t there to protect you from the sun, but the other ingredients from photolytic and/or photo-oxidative degradation, thereby extending their shelf life. It teams up with Sodium buteth-3 and tributyl citrate to make something called Cibafast and in its undiluted form causes eye and skin irritation.

Ingredients in Cetaphil Moisturizing Cream

Water, Petrolatum, Glyceryl Polymethacrylate, Dicaprylyl Ether, Glycerin, Dimethicone, Glyceryl Stearate, Cetyl Alcohol, Prunus Amygdalus Dulcis (Sweet Almond) Oil, PEG-30 Glyceryl Stearate, Tocopheryl Acetate, Benzyl Alcohol, Phenoxyethanol, Sodium Hydroxide, Acrylates/C10-30 Alkyl Acrylate Crosspolymer, Dimethiconol, Disodium EDTA, Propylene Glycol.Garnier

Ingredients in Suavé Advanced Therapy

Water, Glycerin, Stearic Acid, Glycol Stearate, Retinyl Palmitate, Tocopheryl Acetate, Glyceryl Stearate, Cetyl Alcohol, Petrolatum, Fragrance, Dimethicone, Magnesium Aluminum Silicate, Isopropyl Palmitate, Triethanolamine, Carbomer, Dmdm Hydantoin, Methylparaben, Disodium Edta, Iodopropynyl Butylcarbamate, Titanium Dioxide.

Ingredients in Bliss Triple Oxygen + C Energizing Cream

Water (Aqua), Butylene Glycol, C12-13 Alkyl Lactate, Glycerin, Cocos Nucifera (Coconut) Oil, Ascorbyl Tetraisopalmitate, Squalane, Macadamia Ternifolia Seed Oil, Tocopherol, Cyclopentasiloxane, Dimethicone Crosspolymer, Phenoxyethanol, Sodium Polyacrylate, Sodium Hydroxide, Acrylates/C10-30 Alkyl Acrylate Crosspolymer, Potassium Cetyl Phosphate, Ethylhexylglycerin, Caprylic/Capric Triglyceride, Salicornia Herbacea Extract, Disodium EDTA, Ethylbisiminomethylguaiacol Manganese Chloride, Sodium PCA, Xanthan Gum, Tocopheryl Acetate, Hydrolyzed Soy Protein, Sorbic Acid, Sodium Benzotriazolyl Butylphenol Sulfonate, Tributyl Citrate, Buteth-3, Fragrance (Parfum), Perfluorohexane, Citral, Perfluoroperhydrophenanthrene, Perfluorodecalin, Limonene, Perfluorodimethylcyclohexane, Retinyl Palmitate, Vitis Vinifera (Grape) Seed Extract, Linalool, Yellow 6 (CI 15985), Red 33 (CI 17200).