The Most Common Botanical Irritants Found in Skin-Care Products

Photo: Stocksy / Marija Savic
Botanicals are found in everything from shampoos to serums. And if it comes from plants, that's good, right? Shirley Chi, MD, a California-based dermatologist, says it's a little more complicated than that.

"I get so many patients on a daily basis telling me that they picked certain products because the think it's safe, it's plant-based, it's all botanical," she says. This is frustrating, she says, because just because a product is made of plants doesn't mean that it's safe. "Poison ivy is a plant. You're not going to put that on your face."

Botanicals are active chemicals that have historically been used as fragrance in skin care. Jeffrey Fromowitz, MD, a Florida-based dermatologist, says fragrance—natural or synthetic—can wreak havoc on your skin. "Fragrances are one of the most common causes of irritant contact dermatitis," he says. "Many people are sensitive to them in greater proportions than other skin care ingredients."

"As natural ingredients [botanicals] are often well-tolerated, and commonly included in skin care creams," says Dr. Fromowitz. "[But] natural does not always mean it is safe for all skin types. Everyone’s skin has differing levels of sensitivity and, in particular, reactions to product ingredients."

Essential oils are another form of botanicals, and Dr. Fromowitz says people with sensitive skin should avoid them. As a general rule of thumb, tea tree oil, mint oils, citrus oils, and lavender oil are a no-go if you have sensitive skin. However, he says botanicals like oat extract and chamomile might fair well, but everyone is different. Your best bet is to speak with your dermatologist and look for products with shorter ingredient lists, he says.

If you want to test a product, Dr. Chi says to take a small amount of product and rub it in under your ear, along the side of your neck, and then go to sleep. Do this for a couple of nights. "If you don't break out there, then you're not going to break out on your face," she says.

You'll also want to keep in mind the type of product you're using. "Oils are stronger than lotions and creams. They're more occlusive, so they trap in whatever the chemical is," says Dr. Chi. "If you put lavender in an oil, and then put that on your face, that's going to be stronger."

Brb, running to see if that face oil that made me puffy last summer includes botanicals.

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