CosmeticOBS - L'Observatoire des cosmétiques
June 13, 2019Expert selections

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A CosmeticOBS' shower gels selection

A shower gel is 80 or 90% water and surfactants. The best are no exception to the rule: it is the basis of the formula. Does that mean we can choose any one and all are worth, more or less? Not so simple. Because many other things can make a difference. Decoding and selection of products evaluated, tested and finally recommended by the experts of CosmeticOBS-L’Observatoire des Cosmétiques.

Reading time : ~ 8 minutes

A shower gel is usually composed of water, surfactants and emulsifiers: this is essential to lather and wash. Then several ingredients are often added, such as texturing agents, which give the consistency of a gel, “lather boosters”, which make it more or less abundant and persistent, chelating agents, which act by sequestering limestone…and possibly hydrating and wetting actives, which can preserve skin hydration weakened by repeated washing, more or less pearly colorants to confer an attractive colour to the product, a perfume, a few additional ingredients such as plant extracts, or a bit of vegetable oils for a touch of skincare… and of course, most often, preservatives to protect the product against bacterial proliferation.

A real shower gel is not a liquid soap, therefore it does not contain any saponified ingredient, which implies it should have better skin tolerance, and also limit the aggression of the protective hydrolipidic film of the epidermis. Yet is this a sufficient guarantee of quality?

Reading the formula

Of course, all shower gels wash, and even do it quite well.
However, there can always be a few surprises when reading the list of ingredients, or when using them in the shower. Indeed they are not all worth the same, and the differences between a “good” shower gel and one that can be left without any regret in store, often come from the quality of the ingredients used.

The aqueous phase

The most basic aqueous phase only consists of water, which must satisfy the obvious cleanliness and purity criteria required by the cosmetic industry.
This neutral base… may become active when replaced, at least partially, with floral water, which confers some of the properties of the plants it was derived from: soothing, refreshing or stimulating waters are the most frequently used.


Their quality is essential for the skin tolerance of the product. Some of them, such as cationic and anionic ones, may prove quite aggressive to the epidermis. Bad luck: they are also those which provide the most beautiful lathers, and are the least expensive for manufacturers, which is why they can be found more often than we would want them to in shower gel formulas. On the other hand, nonionic and amphoteric surfactants are known for being much more gentle for the skin.

Additional actives

A bit of glycerol – which can very often be found in shower gels (INCI name: Glycerin) – never jeopardizes the preservation of the epidermal hydration. Other hydrating and wetting actives may be added as a support, as it is always a “plus”: by definition, washing one’s skin represents an aggression for the hydrolipidic film, so doing anything to help it recover its balance avoids any tightness and drying sensation after the shower.

Other ingredients may contribute to bringing some of their own interesting properties: plant extracts, vegetable oils, emollient, smoothing or soothing actives… it is true they have a rather quick action, since shower gel is rinsed off a few seconds after being applied, but they do act a bit, and it is better than nothing.

The colour
Do you prefer a gel with azure glints, or a nice, pearly “cream”? Why not? The most attractive shades may be obtained by adding colorants. Some are harmless, others are associated with an allergenic potential or a controversial toxicological profile. In case of a doubt, translucence has the advantage of being safe…

The smell
The trend is towards freshness and energy in the morning, while soothing and relaxing are favoured in the evening… Perfume does play a major role in making a shower gel attractive. Yet perfume also often implies either essential oils, therefore an allergenic potential that can prove more or less strong, or chemical substances, which are not always to be trusted…


Any shower gel must be protected against bacterial proliferation in order to ensure its safety of use in time, which means it should contain a preservative system.
Such a system may come from packaging (UHT airless, for example), but it is more frequently composed of a complex of preservatives. It is well known that not all of them are harmless, some of them being endocrine disruptors, some being likely to release formaldehyde, and others which may prove quite allergenic and/or irritating for the epidermis… Some are known to be more acceptable than others though, and of course they are the ones experts at CosmeticOBS always favour.

Reading the label

This applies to both shower gels and all other cosmetic products: marketing services rival in imagination to convince us their products are the best… the formula is rarely put forward in sales arguments. What we are sold is a bewitching perfume, a hammam sensation, a reference to an Egyptian queen, a journey to tropical islands, a cocooning lather, or superfatted, gentle, comforting, energizing and refreshing effects, and what not…

What should be remembered from all this? Here are a few points not to end up (too) misled.

You do not judge the actual gentleness of a shower gel – the way it respects the skin and its balance – by the size of the word “gentle” on the label.
What should be taken into account is the nature of the surfactants and the possible presence of emollient and smoothing/soothing actives…

L’Observatoire des Cosmétiques has already mentioned that this reference, since it is not regulated, may be understood with rather qualified meanings by manufacturers. Here again, rather than taking their word for it, it is always better to check the list of ingredients does not contain any allergenic substance, such as aromatic molecules of perfumes or essential oils, or particular preservatives or colorants…
And beware: formulating a product to “reduce the risks of an allergic reaction”, according to the established formula, does not mean it is “gentle” for the skin. An irritating ingredient may well be non-allergenic.

Contains… something
No matter what this “something” may be, organic sweet almond oil or argan oil, aloe vera, honey, seaweed, tea, fruit or a spice… What does matter is:
1. how much there is (it should be remembered that the higher it is in the list of ingredients, the more quantity there is),
2. what it can be used for in a shower gel (a vegetable oil can nourish the skin, honey can soften it, and spice… spice it?),
3. whether it is worth the price it obviously increases…

The price
It is worth having a look at it! Especially if it is an everyday product used by the whole family, which gets empty pretty fast.
Is the price a guarantee of quality? Not necessarily… But in any case, it is always better to choose large family formats, which are always cheaper, and sometimes by far!

CosmeticOBS selection


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