Sensitive skin can put a total damper on your beauty routine. One: Testing new, trendy products is basically impossible, because you never know what’s going to cause a major flare-up. Two: You feel like a freaking chemist as you Google all the ingredients on the product labels (Methylisothiazolinone? No, thanks!). But just because you’re sensitive doesn’t mean your skin can’t flourish. You just have to know which ingredients are most likely to cause trouble. SELF talked to two dermatologists to create a comprehensive list of no-no ingredients you may want to avoid.
First things first: It’s important to determine if your skin is really sensitive or just irritated at the moment.
"Many patients who think they have sensitive skin could actually be overusing products,” dermatologist and RealSelf contributor Joel Schlessinger, M.D., tells SELF. “Additionally, the complexion is much more prone to irritation in the winter, and this doesn’t necessarily mean you have sensitive skin.”
If you find that the majority of products you put on—including vitamin C serums, retinols, and benzoyl peroxide creams—cause stinging, red spots, or another negative reaction, chances are, you have sensitive skin. Sensitive skin also has a harder time maintaining moisture, so you might be prone to dryness and itchiness. And if your face looks flushed in both summer and winter, that's another tipoff.
If you think you might be sensitive to products in general, it’s important to make an appointment with your dermatologist to confirm. “What seems like a symptom of sensitive skin can also be a sign of other skin conditions like eczema, rosacea, or even an allergy,” says Dr. Schlessinger. And dermatologist Whitney Bowe, M.D. emphasizes the importance of avoiding self-diagnosis. “People try to lather on numerous ingredients to treat multiple issues,” she explains. “But the more your skin is exposed [to an ingredient that irritates you], the more it can sensitize the skin.” Yes, that means while you’re trying to fix the problem, you could actually be making it worse.
Here, a list of ingredients dermatologists warn their patients with sensitive skin to avoid. While there are other things that may cause a reaction, these are the most common culprits to look for when shopping in the skin-care aisle.
1. Fragrance: Scent is the first thing dermatologists cut out when you’ve got sensitive skin. Currently, there’s no way to tell what ingredients go into what is simply labeled “fragrance” on many product bottles. “An artificial fragrance could contain 200 or more different chemical or botanical components, and your skin could react to any one of them,” says Dr. Schlessinger. “Companies aren’t required to disclose what goes into their fragrance ‘recipe,’ so pinpointing the exact cause of a reaction can be almost impossible.”
The good news is there are tons of products that are marketed to those with sensitive skin. But you still have to be careful. There’s a slight difference between “fragrance free” and “unscented”—and “fragrance free” is the better option.
“’Fragrance free’ usually means that no extra fragrances were added to the product. This does not necessarily mean that the product does not have a scent, but that the scent occurs naturally due to the ingredients,” explains Dr. Bowe. “’Unscented’ usually means that an ingredient was added to mask the scent of ingredients in the product that contain a strong odor. Unfortunately, those with sensitive skin may be sensitive to that ingredient.”
2. Dyes: If you have sensitive skin, you may want to talk to your colorist before booking your next dye appointment. According to Dr. Schlessinger, paraphenylenediamine (PPD) is a common ingredient found in permanent hair dyes that can cause an allergic reaction. The result is a rash at the hairline, nape of the neck, and around the ears. PPD is most often found in darker dyes and comes as a two-step process—the PPD dye and the developer. For both in-salon and at-home hair color kits, there are options formulated without PPD. Ask your colorist about Wella Koleston Perfect Innosense, and shop a brand like Madison Reed or Clairol Natural Instincts for a DIY option.
3. Preservatives: “Preservatives are necessary for keeping any product that contains water fresh and stable,” explains Dr. Schlessinger. “Some preservatives, like parabens, while not considered harmful to health, can cause an allergic reaction in certain people.” Parabens are more likely to irritate those who already have skin issues like eczema, psoriasis, and contact dermatitis. Another preservative to look for in your cosmetics and skin products is methylisothiazolinone, which is a high-hazard allergen according to the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database.
4. Botanical extracts and essential oils: Just because a product is marked “natural” or “organic” doesn’t mean it won’t cause a reaction on sensitive skin. “Products that are considered 'natural' often contain ingredients that may be unusual or untested,” says Dr. Schlessinger. “I also see quite a few reactions to organic products. After all, poison ivy is organic.” Plant-based ingredients like citrus fruit extracts and mint can cause irritation if it’s a primary ingredient.
5. Sulfates: You’ve probably seen a lot of sulfate-free shampoos in the beauty aisle lately, and that’s because ingredients like sodium laureth sulfate and sodium laurel sulfate can strip the hair of its natural oils—and the same goes for skin. “[These are] cleansing agents that help create a rich, foaming lather,” explains Dr. Schlessinger. “They can prove too harsh for some, drying out skin and hair and contributing to rashes and blemishes.”
6. Harsh exfoliants: Yes, you can use exfoliating products if you have sensitive skin, but the key here is moderation. It’s important to avoid using products that are too strong. “I recommend chemical exfoliation with amino fruit acids,” says Dr. Schlessinger. “AFAs are derived from the sugar cane bud rather than the stalk and provide better exfoliation with minimal irritation.” He recommends LovelySkin Luxe Exfoliating Gel Mild 11% ($60, lovelyskin.com) for his patients. If you prefer to use a product with glycolic or salicylic acid, start off with a very low percentage and slowly work your way up.
Dr. Bowe has a favorite DIY recipe to exfoliate sensitive skin. “Oats are a natural exfoliator and are known for their soothing properties,” she says. “[Just mix] oats, honey, and banana for an at-home gentle face scrub.” No matter which method of exfoliation you choose, start by using the product only once a week and slowly increase frequency. “People with sensitive skin usually can't tolerate exfoliating more than twice a week,” says Dr. Bowe. “Patients will come into my office with red, irritated skin, and it turns out that they are exfoliating too often or using too harsh of a formula.”
While this list is a good starting point, both dermatologists agree that the biggest mistake you can make with sensitive skin is to skip the patch test when you incorporate a new product into your routine. You want to apply a small amount to your neck or wrist first. Then, wait 24 hours to see if there is a reaction. If there isn’t any redness or itching, it’s OK to use on your face or body.
And if the hunt for products that meet all the requirements has really got you stressed, there are a few brands that dermatologists always turn to. Dr. Bowe likes drugstore brands like Dove’s unscented line, Aveeno, Cetaphil, and CeraVe, while Dr. Schlessinger recommends La Roche-Posay to his patients. For extremely sensitive skin, he turns to the Vanicream line since it’s fragrance-free, lanolin-free, gluten-free, formaldehyde-free, and paraben-free.