Sensitive skin is known to be highly reactive to various irritants and allergens, so choosing a non-toxic and hypoallergenic skincare is crucial. Even though there are many skincare products on the market that claim to be safe for sensitive skin, the truth is many of them still include harsh ingredients. In this article we’ll highlight ten worst ingredients for sensitive skin you should avoid, as well as list top five high-performing products recommended for sensitive skin.
Do You Have Sensitive Skin?
The term “sensitive” is one of the most misused and misunderstood terms in the skincare industry. And this is mainly because in many cases it’s tricky to diagnose “sensitive skin”. One of the main characteristics of sensitive skin is abnormal sensation, skin hyperactivity and reactivity triggered by substances or environmental factors like pollution, sun, heat, cold, humidity, etc.
In general, this hypersensitivity condition can be visible like in case with atopic dermatitis, allergic reaction, breakouts or acne. For example, some of the visible signs of skin irritation include redness, inflammation, and peeling. Or it can be in a form of self-diagnosed sensory reaction, when skin “feels” itchy, tight, stinging, burning or dry.
Some other characteristics of sensitive skin include compromised lipid barrier, immune activity and neurogenic response in the skin. However, one of the best ways to identify whether you have sensitive skin is to take self-assessment questionnaires.
Top 10 Irritating Ingredients To Avoid
A study done on skin hypersensitivity concluded that “cosmetics are the main triggering factors of sensitive skin, especially in women, due to overuse and sometimes inappropriate use of products.”
Moreover, many personal care products contain thousands of chemicals, and some compounds are not even listed on the label!
That being said, the Breast Cancer Prevention Partners organization warns about the cumulative effect of the exposure to these unsafe chemicals. As stated in their report, even in small amounts, but with frequent and repeated usage, there is a real concern either because the chemicals are carcinogens or because they disrupt the body’s hormones.
Even though there are hundreds of common skincare irritants that can trigger allergic reactions, Skin Perception narrowed it down to the 10 worst ingredients for sensitive skin. However, “patch testing” still remains the best way to discover your individual sensitivity to a certain ingredient or product.
10. Vitamin A / Retinoids
Even those who don’t have sensitive skin can react negatively to retinoids. Despite it being an effective anti-aging ingredient, retinol can be too harsh, irritating, as well as increase skin’s photosensitivity. A good alternative is retinaldehyde – a more gentle form of retinol, or bakuchiol – plant extract with similar benefits of a retinol.
In general, alpha and beta hydroxy acids are considered great exfoliating solutions. However, they can be quite irritating and drying to all skin types, especially sensitive. Out of all hydroxy acids, glycolic acid is the most irritating, and is not recommended for those with sensitive skin.
On the other hand, more gentle alpha hydroxy acids like lactic acid and mandelic acid, are well tolerated in low concentrations by sensitive skin. Also, salicylic acid (a most common BHA) is less irritating than most AHAs, but those with sensitive skin should use it in lower concentrations (0.5%).
8. Benzoyl Peroxide
The true allergic reaction to benzoyl peroxide is rare, but this ingredient can cause bad skin reaction, redness and peeling if your skin is sensitive or you have a history of skin inflammation. Often, benzoyl peroxide is used in topical acne treatments due to its effectiveness, and it can easily be spotted as an active skincare ingredient. But a good alternative is sulfur, azelaic acid and salicylic acid in low concentrations.
7. Abrasive Particles
Those with sensitive skin types should be especially careful when it comes to exfoliating the skin. And particularly physical scrubs that contain harsh abrasive particles like crystals, apricot or walnut shells, pumice, grains, salt, sugar and such. The main concern is that it’s hard to control the intensity of pressure applied, and that the abrasive particles can damage the integrity of the skin surface.
6. Chemical Sunscreens
Even though chemical sunscreens are more desirable by many due to their lighter texture and ease of application, they can cause irritation and even stinging sensation in those with sensitive skin. A chemical sunscreen is usually formulated with oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate and octinoxate, which are linked to skin irritation. Instead, opt for (physical) mineral sunscreen or mineral block, which use zinc oxide or titanium dioxide (a safer alternative for those with sensitive skin).
There are about 150 preservatives that have been approved for use in skincare. They are commonly used due to antibacterial properties and ability to prolong the shelf-life of the product. So why did preservatives make it to our top worst ingredients for sensitive skin? Because, many preservatives including parabens, methylisothiazolinone (MI), urea, propylene glycol, and formaldehyde releasing preservatives are linked to long-term health concerns like endocrine disrupting, skin irritation, and immune system dysfunction. And those with hypersensitivity conditions might have an adverse reaction to certain types of preservatives.
4. Essential Oils
Even though essential oils are natural, they can still cause skin irritation due to their potency, especially if they are listed at the beginning of the ingredient list. For example, essential oils like tea tree oil, bergamot, peppermint, citrus (lemon, orange) are highly concentrated and can trigger a negative skin reaction.
However, essential oils of chamomile, geranium, blue tansy, palmarosa, tend to be less concentrated and more gentle to sensitive skin. Overall, the quality and concentration of essential oil are important factors when it comes to skin sensitivity. For example, certified organic essential oils are usually a higher quality and safer option.
The use of alcohol in skincare is very common, mainly as means to prevent bacteria growth (antimicrobial), stabilize product formulation, and as a solvent and degreasing agent. But not all alcohols are the same. For example, SD alcohol (aka specially denatured alcohol) and isopropyl alcohol (aka surgical spirit) can be highly irritating and drying for skin, and can also weaken skin barrier.
Overall, the safety of alcohols in personal care products depends on the concentration that is used in the formulation of the cosmetic product. In general, high concentrations of denatured alcohol and isopropyl alcohol (appear at the beginning of the ingredient list) can cause drying and irritation, especially if you have sensitive and dry skin. However, some fatty alcohols like cetyl alcohol, stearyl alcohol and cetearyl alcohol are more gentle and don’t dry out skin as much.
Common in cosmetics and personal care products, sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and sodium laureth sulfate (SLES) are aggressive synthetic chemicals that function as foaming agents. If used on daily bases, they can cause skin, eye and respiratory tract irritation, skin inflammation, and are linked to endocrine disruption. Also, sulfates are mildly comedogenic, which means they can clog pores.
But out of all sulfates, SLS is one of the cheapest, strongest and most irritating ones used in skin care. That being said, those with contact dermatitis, skin inflammation or sensitive skin type should avoid products with sulfates, as this harmful ingredient can worsen pre-existing skin conditions.
1. Fragrance (parfum)
And the winner of the top 10 worst ingredients for sensitive skin is fragrance! Generated in the lab, a single fragrance can contain up to 200 chemicals or compounds. Moreover, under current regulations the “fragrance” itself is considered a trade secret, so the manufacturers don’t have to disclose the list of ingredients that make up a certain fragrance.
As reported by Fragranced Products Information Network, currently there are about 3,000 chemicals that are being used as fragrances. However, another U.K. study reported that “perfume” is the second most common cause of allergy in patients at dermatology clinics.
And there are many more reports that explain skin sensitivity and rashes as adverse reactions to substances used in the fragrances. Also, keep in mind that the term “unscented” is misleading, since the product can still contain an unscented fragrance (aka masking agent) that is added to mask other strong scented ingredients. So opt for skincare products that are labeled as “hypoallergenic” or “fragrance-free” as they tend to be more gentle on sensitive skin.
5 Best Products For Sensitive Skin
In general, skin sensitivity can be addressed and reduced with the help of topical agents. Well-formulated skincare for sensitive skin can address skin redness, calm irritation, and also restore pH balance.
Look for skin care products that are labeled as “hypoallergenic” (formulated specially for highly reactive skin) or fragrance-free (no extra fragrance added, scent occurs naturally), and that don’t contain components from our list of top worst ingredients for sensitive skin. And the following 5 products that we love are formulated with skin-friendly ingredients and are great options for sensitive skin.
Korres Foaming Cream Cleanser
You’ll love this gentle foaming cleanser if you prefer multi tasking products with great ingredient content. For example, some of the superfoods here include real greek yogurt, mineral-rich sea water, and amaranth seed extract that is naturally rich in fatty acids and antioxidants. Not only does it deeply cleans pores and removes makeup, but also it reduces redness, soothes and hydrates. Moreover, it’s formulated for all skin types including dry, sensitive, stressed and irritated skin.
Andalou Naturals 1000 Roses Floral Toner
Formulated specifically for sensitive skin, this natural hypoallergenic toner is infused with alpine rose stem cells, pomegranate, aloe vera, hyaluronic acid, panthenol, white tea extract and other soothing botanicals. It can be used as a toner to balance skin pH, reduce inflammation and lock in moisture, or as a daytime refresher.
Related: 10 best natural toners for sensitive skin
DR. JART+ Cicapair Tiger Grass Serum
This soothing serum is super gentle on sensitive skin. Not only it targets skin redness and prevents future irritation, but also it strengthens skin’s protective barrier and repairs skin damage. The formula itself is highly-concentrated and includes proprietary ingredients like jartbiome, advanced centella (tiger grass), cicabond, niacinamide, and other herbs and moisturizing agents.
Eminence Calm Skin Chamomile Moisturizer
Formulated specifically for sensitive, irritated, normal and dry skin types, this organic moisturizer is packed with soothing, healing and hydrating ingredients. In addition to calming plants like chamomile, calendula and arnica, it also includes rejuvenating oils, antioxidants, and other hydrating and brightening components. Great option for those with inflamed skin conditions.
REN Ultra Comforting Rescue Mask
Great option for those with hypersensitive skin! This fast-acting facial mask will soothe irritation, calm itchiness, reduce redness, as well as hydrate and moisturize your skin. Some of the skin-rescue ingredients include white mushroom extract, comforting arnica extract, yeast derived beta-glucan, algae and nourishing oil blend. And you’ll love the cream-like texture of this comforting mask.
“Allergens In Cosmetic” FDA.gov
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“No More Dirty Looks: The Truth About Your Beauty Products and the Ultimate Guide to Clean and Safe Cosmetics.”
Zukiewicz-Sobczak, Wioletta A et al. “Allergy to selected cosmetic ingredients.” Postepy Dermatologii i Alergologii, Oct. 2013, Vol. 30, Issue 5.