Anyone who has sensitive skin knows how scary it can be—innocently trying a product that your friends claimed changed their lives can change yours for the worse and make your face red, inflamed, and flakey.
As someone with life-long, extremely sensitive skin, I know the game well: adding makeup and skincare products to my routine one at a time so I know which one’s to blame if something irritates me and the word “rash” being a part of my daily vocabulary (I had a rash on my face for a full year of college and eliminated everything from my skincare routine before finding out it was actually caused by a tomato allergy. Fun!).
After 23 years of trying new products and waiting for my face to spontaneously combust after (and with the help of my dermatologist), I’ve learned some ins and outs of which products are most likely to make my face hate me. Gentle cleanser? Great. Abrasive exfoliator? That’ll take me days to bounce back from.
If you too are plagued with sensitive skin, try eliminating these ingredients first. Your skin will thank you.
Many skincare products contain fragrance to mask less pleasant scents that some ingredients have, but even if an added fragrance is natural, it can anger sensitive skin (and was the first ingredient my dermatologist advised me to steer clear of when I complained to him about my skin flare-ups).
While the FDA requires ingredients used in skincare products to be disclosed on a label, fragrance only needs to be listed as “fragrance”, not as the ingredients within the scent. Since fragrances are mixtures of both natural and chemical ingredients, if a product is heavily scented, it could contain harsh chemicals that aren’t clearly disclosed and can irritate all skin, whether it’s considered sensitive or not.
When you’re looking for fragrance-free products, make sure to pay attention to “fragrance-free” labels versus “unscented” ones. “Fragrance-free” usually means that no additional scents were added to the product, while “unscented” means that an ingredient was added to mask the smell of the product.
2. Essential Oils
San Francisco skincare specialist Kristina Holey told The New York Times, “Some constituents of certain essential oils, like those in bergamot, are transformed into chemicals and enzymes when exposed to sunlight, which can induce a photo-allergic response,” after she investigated why so many of her patients were complaining about inflamed skin.
Tea tree, mint, citrus, and lavender oils should be used carefully or avoided completely. Tea tree oil can be safe for skin in diluted doses, but many acne products contain amounts of tea tree oil that can lead to dryness and irritation. Mint, citrus, and lavender oils can all cause irritation and negative reactions to the skin.
3. Chemical sunscreens
There are two types of sunscreens: mineral and chemical. Mineral sunscreens have two active ingredients, titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, which work by physically blocking UV rays (which is why they’re often referred to as “physical sunscreen”). Chemical sunscreens contain a variety of chemicals that absorb UV light and release it as heat after a chemical reaction takes place.
Chemical sunscreens have many more active ingredients than mineral versions, which makes the likelihood of irritating sensitive skin higher. Dr. Anjali Mahto told Harper’s Bazaar that mineral sunscreens may be “better for the skin than chemical sunscreens, especially if you’re prone to acne or other skin ailments.”
What to use instead
4. Harsh exfoliants
If you have skin that’s easily irritated, using an exfoliator that’s too abrasive can cause your skin to be immediately inflamed. Although you shouldn’t avoid exfoliating completely—it’s vital to removing dead skin cells and getting that glow—opting for gentler versions is essential in avoiding any skin flare-ups.
Because both physical exfoliators (like scrubs) and chemical exfoliators (like acids) are relatively harsh on the skin, using gentler types less frequently can exfoliate while avoiding any unwanted effects. Lactic acid is a good option for sensitive skin because it doesn’t penetrate as deeply as other acids.
What to use instead
5. Sodium Lauryl Sulfates
Jonathan Van Ness has us all swearing off sulfates in our shampoo, but they also linger in some skin cleansers and sunscreens, which, you guessed it, can be detrimental to sensitive skin. While they aren’t the cancer-causing monsters they’re made out to be, they can still be on the list of ingredients that can be the culprit of skin irritation.
What to use instead
Don’t panic, I’m not talking about your nightly glass of wine. Products that contain alcohol (like many astringents) can dry out skin and affect how it rejuvenates itself, which can be a death sentence to sensitive skin. Triple-check that none of your products contain denatured alcohol.