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Sometimes it’s easy to think that the “d” in diabetes stands for dry — as in dry skin. And not just in the cold, low-humidity winter. Many people with diabetes (PWDs)
These facts have given rise to an entire industry that produces, markets, and sells lotions and creams said to be specifically formulated for the needs of PWDs.
But are they any good? Are these creams any different from generic lotions? Or are they just the same goop with a fancy label and a higher tab at the cash register?
To find out, we put four leading diabetes-specific products to the test, using each for a week at a time on the dry feet and elbows of this mid-50s man who’s lived with type 1 diabetes for decades.
The idea was to evaluate each for aesthetics, texture, user experience, and of course how moisturized and fresh my skin would feel post-use.
About the maker: Launched in 2006 with a moisturizing cream, a lotion, and a hydrating cleanser, New York-based CeraVe now has over 70 skin care products, according to the company website.
They claim more Seal of Acceptance awards from the National Eczema Association than any other brand. They also claim “48HR Moisturization” on their packaging, and brag on the fact the ingredients include three essential ceramides (fatty acids), along with bilberry and urea.
Packaging and price: This CeraVe cream comes in an 8-ounce matte-finish plastic tube with a flip lid at the base, and retails for roughly $1.25 per ounce.
Instructions for use: Apply liberally as often as needed, or as directed by a doctor.
Out of the tube: Like all of the products we tested, it’s white in color, and odorless — which is a good thing, as medical experts generally agree that PWDs should use fragrance-free and dye-free moisturizers.
On the skin: It has a thick, solid feel to it, but is slightly oily in texture. After application, the skin stays slippery for quite some time. Speaking of time, how did it hold up over time? I put it on at bedtime, and my skin remained dry-free in the morning. But it did not remain so throughout the next day. So much for 48 hours of “moisturization.”
Bonus fact: There’s a “Sunburn Alert” on the bottle that says the product contains an alpha hydroxy acid that “may increase your skin’s sensitivity to the sun and particularly the possibility of sunburn.” They recommend adding sunscreen, wearing protective clothing, and limiting sun exposure both while using the product and for a full week afterward. That’s kind of scary.
About the maker: This generically-named cream is made by Greenbrier International, whom you’ve probably never heard of, but that’s owned and operated by another company that you most assuredly have heard of: the national discount store chain Dollar Tree.
In 2019, the company was slapped with a
Packaging and price: This product comes in a small 4-ounce glossy plastic tube with a flip lid at the base. The price is hard to compare to the others, because the foot cream isn’t all you get. This foot cream is sold at some online retailers bundled with a bottle of the company’s Diabetics’ Hydrating Lotion — which appears to be the only buying option.
What if I just want the foot cream? I couldn’t locate an online source for a single tube, other than eBay auctions. Instead, various online sellers typically offer this foot cream in lots of 3, 4, and 5 tubes. Although backordered, Dollar Tree lists a full case of the product with 12 bottles.
Instructions for use: Apply liberally as often as needed.
Out of the tube: Like the previous cream, it’s white and odorless, but this cream is so smooth in its consistency that it looks like a high-gloss coat of paint on a white race car. That slick, friction-free appearance carried over to its feel, too.
On the skin: My notes on my first encounter with this cream say, “Thick n’ slick.” The cream isn’t oily at all, and has a tactile feel that’s somehow exciting. The way it glides on the skin is delicious. By morning, my skin was on the dry side again, but the application of the product was such a joy that breaking out the bottle for a second round wasn’t an annoyance at all.
Bonus fact: I didn’t formally evaluate the bottle of Hydrating Lotion that was bundled with the foot cream, but I played with it a little and wasn’t as impressed with it as I was with the foot cream. The bonus lotion didn’t have that lovely frictionless feel of the cream.
And who would have thought? We are advised not to use the product on animal bites.
About the maker: DiabetTX is made by Genomma Lab, a Mexico-based multinational that established a USA subsidiary in 2010. The USA branch oversees 14 brand names, including the buffered aspirin brand Bufferin. They claim their DiabetTX product is specially formulated for dry, rough skin and that it “intensely moisturizes & conditions the skin of people with diabetes.” And with it being a Mexican company, that claim is repeated in Spanish on the front of the bilingual bottle. And it “starts working from the first application to enhance the beauty of skin.”
Packaging and price: It comes in a tall, thin, pale green semi-hard 13.5-ounce plastic bottle with a pump dispenser at the top. DiabetTX clocks in at about 70 cents per ounce.
Instructions for use: Apply generously to dry or rough skin areas. Apply as often as needed. For best results, apply daily immediately after showering or bathing.
Out of the tube: Once again, the cream is white and odorless. This is one contest you can’t judge by appearances.
On the skin: DiabetTX isn’t overly greasy. The consistency is something like baby lotion, and it has a smooth appearance. It soaks into the skin rapidly, not leaving the skin wet or oily. But starting on day 4 of use, I experienced a mild burning sensation that lasted for about an hour after putting it on — and not just on my feet and elbows, but also on my fingers, as well. Clearly my skin didn’t like exposure to one of this product’s many ingredients. (More on the ingredients of all these lotions to follow.)
Bonus fact: The bottle tells us to discontinue use in case of an unfavorable reaction. I didn’t of course, and the post-application burning continued for the remaining 3 days of my evaluation, but I suffered no rash or discoloration.
About the maker: This cream is distributed by Chattem, Inc, which in turn is owned by the pharma company Sanofi, makers of Lantus long-acting insulin, so you’d think they might know a thing or two about diabetes. The Gold Bond label has been around a long, long time. Since 1908. But the current owner of Gold Bond (Chattem, not Sanofi) has been around since 1879.
As to the lotion, they claim that “9 out of 10 people with diabetes saw noticeable skin improvement in 1 hour” using the product. Of course, I don’t think I’ve ever used any lotion that didn’t feel like it was helping out of the gate, so I’m not sure bragging on the first hour means much. The bottle also notes that it contains “7 intensive moisturizers,” that it’s a “daily total body moisturizer,” and that it’s dermatologist-tested, non-greasy, and hypoallergenic. It also contains the registered trademark product Hydralast, although we’re not told what that is, just that it provides 24-hour moisture.
Packaging and price: It comes in a 4.5-ounce semi-matt finish plastic tube with a flip lid on the bottom, and sells for about $1.26 per ounce.
Instructions for use: Apply liberally to dry, rough, or problem skin areas to accelerate “moisturization.” Reapply as often as needed.
Out of the tube: It’s white and odorless, but this time with a milky color, and it’s a bit translucent. It has the kind of sheen that Vaseline does. To the eye, the Gold Bond cream also has a somewhat gritty appearance, compared to the others.
On the skin: Like the Vaseline it slightly resembles, it’s slimy on the skin. So much for non-greasy. Applying at night, my skin remained dry-free in the morning. But, like all of the other lotions, did not remain so throughout the next day. So much for the 24-hour claim. Although in fairness, they do say to reapply as often as needed.
Bonus fact: Gold Bond makes a point of saying that their product contains no alpha hydroxy acids, which prompted the sunburn warning on the CeraVe product. But that doesn’t necessarily make this product as safe as Vaseline. The bottle (like most) says that you should call Poison Control immediately if you swallow it.
It seems that comparing the ingredients of the “diabetic” lotions to each other, or to mainstream lotions, is nearly impossible. That’s because the ingredient lists of the D-products tend to run on the long side. For instance, the Gold Bond cream is made of 41 elements if I counted the small print list of items correctly, most of them unpronounceable chemical names. In fairness, the label of Johnson’s baby lotion — that legendary pink stuff — doesn’t look all that different. It has a 24-item-long ingredient list which includes un-baby-friendly-sounding things like magnesium aluminum silicate, titanium dioxide, and the spelling bee-winning ethylhexylglycerin.
That said, all four D-lotions contain water and glycerin as primary ingredients, just like pretty much every other hand lotion on the planet. Speaking of common ingredients, I looked at Gold Bond’s website for their “Ultimate” product line up, and found the company’s self-described key ingredients which make up their diabetes product are identical to the key ingredients of their Healing Aloe product: Aloe, vitamins A, C, and E, and the mystery sauce Hydralast.
Now, that doesn’t mean the complete list is the same (it isn’t), but, of interest, the Healing Aloe cream sells for roughly 40 percent less, with the same key ingredients. It would seem that diabetes is pure gold for Gold Bond.
Speaking of money, Johnson’s baby lotion sells at some online retailers in a huge bottle for what works out to about 22 cents per ounce, a fraction of the cost of most of the “diabetic” lotions, which, granted, vary greatly in their cost.
It’s obvious that we pay a premium for diabetes-specific lotion, but are we getting value for our hard-earned dollars? For me, anyway, I did not find that any of them worked any better than mainstream consumer lotions.
But for an expert opinion, we asked California-based Dr. Diane Koshimune, a podiatrist and spokesperson for the American Podiatric Medical Association, what she thought about diabetes-branded skin care products.
“There’s no scientific evidence to support items labeled as ‘diabetic’ to be clinically better than a typical lotion or cream,” she said.
“Lotions that are labeled as formulated for people with diabetes typically are fragrance-free and contain ingredients that are particularly beneficial for addressing concerns that are often an issue for people with diabetes, such as neuropathy-induced severe dryness, referred to as xerosis,” Koshimune said. “Examples would be petroleum-based ointments as well as glycerin, which serve to coat the skin to trap moisture that the skin absorbs during a shower, for example.”
Which did I like best?
Actually, by far, I most enjoyed the close-to-the-cost of baby lotion Diabetics’ Foot Cream from the Dollar Tree folks. While I found that all the lotions “wore off” long before their claimed longevity, this one was at least fun to put on. The slippery, but not soggy tactile feel of the lotion made it a pleasure to use, and I found it kept dry feet and elbows at bay pretty much as well as any of the others, all of which had a less pleasing application process, at least for me.
So, what’s the takeaway in all of this? Perhaps Koshimune sums it up best. “Take a closer look at the difference in ingredient lists before purchasing a product that claims to be formulated for diabetics,” she said. “You may find that the difference, if any, is very subtle.”
Wil Dubois lives with type 1 diabetes and is the author of five books on the illness, including “Taming The Tiger” and “Beyond Fingersticks.” He spent many years helping treat patients at a rural medical center in New Mexico. An aviation enthusiast, Wil lives in Las Vegas, NM, with his wife and son, and one too many cats.