Your laundry detergent is probably causing breakouts, according to a dermatologist


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Photo: Getty Images/Sigrid Gombert

When my skin suddenly decided to become wildly sensitive a few years ago, my first thought was to change the products I used. Face wash, moisturizer, shampoo—these seemed like probable culprits. In spite of switching to natural options, the breakouts persisted. But while folding my floral-scented clothing fresh out of the dryer, I had a realization. It had to be my laundry. At first, I didn’t give much thought to the detergent I used to wash my pillowcases, towels, and clothing. But to stop my face breaking out, I had to make a change.

Now, I’m not the only one who’s experienced problems from scented laundry detergent with irritating ingredients. In a recent thread on Reddit, hundreds of users had a discussion about having the same problem. When they used fragrance- and dye-free options, the pimples and cystic acne on their cheeks cleared up. Same with fabric softener. Plenty of people got itchy rashes and pimples until cutting it out of their routine.

“It’s possible that you can be allergic to certain chemicals or fragrances in the detergent,” says New York City-based dermatologist Dendy Engelman, MD. “Even if your laundry machine is doing a good job during its rinse cycle, there’s often still residual product left on your clothes that can cause contact dermatitis.”

To make sure your skin stays happy and clear, keep these tips in mind before your next load of laundry.

Face breaking out? Here are 4 ways to change up your laundry habits

1. Only buy detergent for sensitive skin

Sorry but that brightly-colored laundry detergent bottle promising tropical scents has got to go. Instead, choose one suitable for sensitive skin that’s both hypoallergenic and free of any sort of fragrance or dye. “It’s often scents and dyes that cause the problem. The majority of laundry detergents and fabric softeners include them, even some products marketed for baby laundry,” Dr. Engelman says. “To minimize the chances of contact dermatitis, be alert and look for detergents labeled fragrance-free and dye-free.” The two options Redditors swear by? All Free Clear and Tide Free & Gentle.

2. Be careful with essential oils

Keep using your essential oils as much as you want—just make sure to leave ’em out of your detergent if you’re prone to breakouts. Even though they’re great for adding fragrance the natural way, they can still irritate your skin as much as artificial scents.

“Essential oils made from parts of plants by distillation or by mechanical processing are sometimes added to laundry detergent products to add fragrance, but these have the potential to sensitize and irritate skin—especially for those with eczema whose skin may be more vulnerable to irritants,” says David Lortscher, board-certified Dermatologist and CEO of Curology. “Keep in mind that some people are very irritated by essential oils. Although they can smell good and are naturally derived, they’re not always the best ingredients for certain skin types.”

3. Ditch dryer sheets

Dryer sheets might be responsible for helping your laundry stay soft and static-free, but your skin is not a fan. Even dermatologists say they’re a trigger for people: They coat your linens and clothes with a layer of wax and grease, not to mention fragrance, that can be especially irritating to your skin.

4. Replace fabric softener with vinegar

It might sound scary adding pungent-smelling white distilled vinegar into the washing machine with your laundry, but putting a cup in the fabric softener dispenser can seriously save your skin. Not only is it a fragrance-free way to soften your clothes, but it also gets rid of some of the irritators that are commonly leftover: “It removes detergent and mineral residues from the clothes. There will be no toxic fragrance clinging to the fabric,” says environmental consultant Marilee Nelson.

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