3 Redness-Provoking Products That Aren’t Doing Your Sensitive Skin Any Favors

Photo: Stocksy/Leandro Crespi
I have the skin of a middle-aged Irishman who drinks beer for breakfast, which is to say it is very, very red. Whenever I see a facialist, they tell me my skin is "exceptionally sensitive" in a foreboding tone that makes me scared to look into the mirror after they've done their work. (Google "Santa Claus" for an approximation of the reflection with which I'm met, or "Home Alone" for my typical reaction to it.) So I've finally set out to identify the cause of facial redness.

I'm rather careless with the products I pile onto my skin, which is definitely not doing it any favors, says New York-based dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, MD. Irritation from skincare products makes blood vessels dilate as blood rushes to the surface, causing redness.

With so many cleansers, serums, moisturizers, and masks crowding my cabinets, though, it's difficult to discern which are exacerbating my crimson glow and which are harmless (or even calming). So I asked the experts what to expel from my arsenal ASAP in order to keep my "cheery" complexion at bay.

Common skincare products that might be the cause of facial redness

1. Harsh cleansers

Merrady Wickes, a makeup artist and beauty director for The Detox Market, tells me that harsh cleansers which strip away the skin's moisture barrier are often low-key culprits for redness. (Counterintuitively, soothing oil cleansers may fall into this category.) Rubbing your face with cleansing wipes can also irritate the skin, says Wickes. "I like a gentle cream cleanser, like the Pai Skincare Camellia & Rose Gentle Hydrating Cleanser, or a lightly foaming cleanser like the Josh Rosebrook Complete Moisture Cleanse," she says.

2. Aggressive exfoliators

"If your skin is already red or sensitive, be mindful of exfoliating ingredients like glycolic or lactic acids, or manual exfoliators like aggressive crushed shells," Wickes says. Dr. Zeichner agrees, adding that hydroxy acids can definitely cause irritation leading to redness. "If you need to exfoliate, use perfectly spherical jojoba beads that won't irritate skin, like the Odacité Jojoba Beads Exfoliant," says Wickes. Or, look for acid-based products which use alpha hydroxy acids rather than beta, or combination alpha and beta, acids, and limit peels to 1-2 times per week. Gommages are an option, too.

3. Retinol-based products

"Topical retinoids are a mainstay of treatment for aging skin, however they can cause irritation in the first 2 to 4 weeks of use," says Dr. Zeichner. "That irritation can lead to red, itchy skin." To avoid this issue while still reaping the benefits of this highly-effective ingredient, try products specifically designed for sensitive skin, e.g. Shani Darden's Texture Reform Gentle Resurfacing Serum, any of these soothing formulations, or bakuchiol—the plant-based retinol alternative.

In addition to limiting or altering your use of the above ingredients, you may want to try working skin-soothing ingredients into the mix, too. Look for turmeric root, licorice, and green tea on a product's label or turn to redness-reducing superstar ingredient cica, aka tiger grass (of tiger balm fame).

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