Let’s face it. Sensitive skin can hinder things like experimenting with a buzzy new serum or the latest Insta-worthy skin-care trend. After all, studies have shown that skin-care ingredients (and the overconsumption of them) can be a major trigger for hyperactive (read: sensitive) skin. But while certain products may feel like they’re off-limits for you, it’s what’s actually on the inside of the bottle that matters (because there are, in fact, ingredients to avoid for sensitive skin).
We know, we know. A flare-up here and a rash there is all it can take for you to swear off trying new products for good, but if you buy according to ingredients (versus product types), you can sidestep clogged pores, irritation, and everything in between. We tapped two pros to give it to us straight—here are the skin-care ingredients are more likely to cause irritation, and what can you replace them with. Their answers (to keep in your back pocket), below.
You know that rich, foamy lather you get from your cleanser that makes you feel like you’re in a skin-care commercial? Yup, that’s sulfates at work. and when it comes to everyday products like cleansers and shampoos, many are typically spiked with a dose of sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and sodium laureth sulfate (SLES). These ingredients make the product foam or lather, and in doing so, they are able to remove dirt and grime from the complexion.
“SLS is a surfactant that has been shown to increase transepidermal water loss and as such, can be somewhat drying and irritating, especially for those with sensitive skin,” says Kenneth Mark, MD, a board-certified dermatologist. On everyone but the most sensitive and dry skin types, they tend to be A-okay, but Sandy Skotnicki, MD, dermatologist and author of Beyond Soap warns that SLS, in particular, is a “negatively charged surfactant, and this negative charge can damage the proteins in the skin surface and lead to a weakened skin barrier” in the most sensitive skin types. If you have a reactive complexion, instead, opt for a coconut-derived cleanser such as coco betaine.
We like: WLDKAT pH Balance Patchouli + Cherimoya Gel Cleanser, $29
No, we’re not talking about your nightly glass of red wine. Alcohol-laden skin-care products have a bad rap for being incredibly drying to skin, which isn’t exactly what most people with sensitive skin are looking for. “Alcohol is typically found in gels and its niche is for those with oily skin but for sensitive skin, it can cause inflammation” says Dr. Mark.
And though solvent-type alcohols can improve the efficacy some products, they can pose some serious discomfort for those with reactionary skin types. “When people talk about alcohol in skin care, they are likely referring to ethanol, which can be drying and irritating. Think: hand sanitizers, which are typically 60 to 70 percent ethanol,” says Dr. Skotnicki. Only a small amount of solvent-type alcohols are needed to make the product dissolve in water easily, but unfortunately, they can strip some of your own skin’s water in the process so for this reason, we’re calling them a bust.
What to shop: Innbeauty Project Down to Tone, $26
That decadent whiff of citrus may be appealing to your senses, but your skin may say otherwise. Turns out fragrances are the most common cause of both allergy and irritation from skin care and hair care, according to Dr. Skotnicki. “When you see ‘fragrance’ on an ingredient list, it is typically a mix of 10 to 30 ingredients that are not on the label,” she says.
And if you’re layering multiple products with “fragrance” on the ingredient list (as we so often do), your skin can break out or become itchy. Thankfully for those with eczema, rosacea, sensitive, and acne-prone skin, the skin-care industry has opened its arms to a slew of fragrance-free brands (though, there’s still a long way to go).
What to shop: Kate Somerville DeliKate Calming Face Cream for Sensitive Skin, $80
Essential oils are touted for their anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties (not to mention they can be calming and restorative on particularly stressful days), so what gives? Simply put: they’re too complex for sensitive skin—sorry, folks. Essential oils are all of the “essences” of a plant—they’re not just one chemical. In fact, they can contain numerous chemicals (we’re talking, in the dozens) and can be extremely trying and allergenic for those with sensitive skin types.
“Even though essential oils have a positive connotation, those with sensitive skin are more likely to have a reaction to anything including it,” says Dr. Mark, adding that they’re typically found in both anti-aging products and products geared for dry skin.
What to shop: Juice Beauty Stem Cellular Anti-Wrinkle Eye Treatment, $50
Both experts agree that there’s really no other option for sensitive skin when it comes to sunscreens: Mineral blockers are the way to go. “Mineral sunscreens are safer, more stable, less likely to cause allergic reactions, and block out the full UV spectrum,” notes Dr. Mark. In sensitive skin types, chemical sunscreens can cause stinging (ouch!) and even true contact dermatitis. Conversely, zinc oxide is actually a go-to ingredient for diaper rash in infants, so it has the ability to soothe even the most irritated complexions while blocking the sun’s rays.
What to shop: Coola Full Spectrum 360° Mineral Sun Silk SPF 30, $42
If you have rosacea (a skin condition that many with sensitive skin have), here’s a dermatologist’s strategy for calming redness:
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