First up, let's address why botanical ingredients have long been considered public enemy number one for those prone to irritation. "So often, botanicals contain fragrance [from essential oils] that can cause contact dermatitis, and that's a huge no-no for sensitive skin," says Paul Jarrod Frank, MD, a cosmetic dermatologist based in New York City. "Just because something is plant-based doesn't mean it's good for you—keep in mind that poison ivy and poison oak are plants and you definitely don’t want to put that on your skin."
He explains that certain essential oils—like lavender, tea-tree, and citrus—can be irritating and drying; bakuchiol (aka the plant-based retinol alternative), though effective, can cause harsh reactions for some complexions; and plant oils tend to be occlusive and trap ingredients under your skin, which can cause irritation or spawn breakouts. "Botanicals are often reduced to single ingredients and then amplified into a much higher dose or quantity than you would find in nature, and this greater exposure can trigger a reaction," says Harper. She explains that because many botanicals are biphasic, high and low doses of the same ingredient can produce opposite effects on your skin. So while a low concentration of an essential oil could help skin fight off inflammation or battle a breakout for some skin types, a high concentration may irritate the skin and cause those things. "A lower amount is better," says Harper.
- Hilary Peterson, After being diagnosed with cancer, Hilary Peterson founded True Botanicals, a luxury clean and natural skin-care brand.
- Paul Jarrod Frank, MD, board-certified cosmetic dermatologist and founder of PFRANKMD
- Tata Harper, founder of the luxury natural skin-care line, Tata Harper Skincare
However, not all botanicals are necessarily bad news. "Just like synthetic ingredients, many—but not all—natural ingredients can be good for our skin," says Hillary Peterson, founder of True Botanicals. "It's important for people with sensitive skin to pick products from brands that are evaluating ingredients for biocompatibility with the skin." Dr. Frank points to chamomile and oat extract as prime examples of botanical ingredients that can actually be great for sensitive skin, thanks to their calming and soothing properties. Beyond that, it's important to keep in mind that there's not a one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to these types of ingredients. "Botanicals are powerful, and no single product is for everyone," says Harper. "Just as there are some people who are allergic to strawberries and nuts, there will be consumers who react to certain ingredients and experience adverse reactions, but that doesn't mean others won't benefit."
With all of that in mind, brands have started to make headway into developing chemically-elegant botanical products that those with sensitive complexions can use without having to worry about irritation. Keep scrolling for two of our favorites.
Shop botanical products for sensitive skin
When creating her Superkind collection, Harper says she took a “deep dive” into the science of reactive skin. “You realize that when you use the right filters, meticulously curate the right ingredients, and apply rigorous hypoallergenic testing, you can actually create powerful skin care for a complicated skin group,” she says.
The resulting products that Harper created swapped common irritants for gentler alternatives—for example, these use mulberry leaf extract instead of retinol to stimulate cell turnover without the harsh side effects. “We use a sugar carbohydrate complex which is a new moisture-binding technology that stimulates the production of ceramides to bind water into the skin and keep it there for as long as possible,” says Harper. “We also use a new technology of sugar prebiotics that bio-stimulates the eco flora and prevents a very specific strain of bad bacteria from disrupting the skin’s natural defense mechanisms.” Unlike many of the other products in Harper’s line, the Superkind collection is also free of essential oils that Dr. Frank suggests staying away from.
Over at True Botanicals, similar innovation has been happening with the launch of the brand’s new Pure Calm Radiance Oil. “By formulating with ingredients the skin can easily recognize and use, we avoid irritation,” says Peterson. “The oil is incredibly sensitive-skin friendly because we formulate with natural, biocompatible ingredients, like seed oils, that are similar in molecular structure to the lipids that are naturally produced on the skin.” The oil is made with 27 plant actives, which—in addition to addressing sensitivity—helps to restore skin barrier function, fight off free-radical damage, and reduce inflammation.
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