Ingredients that Irritate Sensitive Skin

When your skin behaves like a 3-year-old — temperamental, cranky and unpredictable — putting your sensitive complexion in time-out just isn’t an option. Regardless of what’s causing your sensitivity (a harsh product, sun or wind exposure, hormone fluctuations, or allergies), some ingredients are able to soothe even the touchiest cases. Read on to find out what to look for on a label, and what to avoid.

Anti-Aging Agents

At the top of the list of ingredients to avoid if you have sensitive skin are glycolic acid and alpha hydroxy acids. “These have a low pH and will irritate sensitive skin,” says Jeannette Graf, M.D., assistant professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York. These acids, along with another common irritator, retinol, are found in many anti-aging products.

You can fight wrinkles and other signs of aging if you follow a couple of sensitive-skin strategies. “Hydrated skin has a healthy barrier and is better able to tolerate stressors,” says Doris Day, M.D., clinical assistant professor of dermatology at New York University Medical Center. “Healthy skin is less sensitive.” She adds that a number of ingredients are known to be soothing and calming, including licorice extract, lavender, feverfew, bisabolol, oatmeal and yeast extracts.

Coddle your skin with hydrating, calming moisturizers before attempting an anti- aging treatment. And instead of jumping into a daily regimen, try using an anti- aging product every other night, or every third night, until your skin builds up a tolerance.

Antibacterial or Deodorant Body Wash

The rest of your body can show signs of sensitivity just like your face does. Deodorant and antibacterial soaps, and even some shower gels, may contain sodium lauryl sulfate, an ingredient that removes dirt and oil — and the protective barrier of your skin. You’ll also want to avoid antibacterial agents, especially in the winter when skin tends to be drier, says Dr. Graf. A hydrating body wash, such as Dove Deep Moisture Body Wash, will keep skin healthy.

It’s not just what you put on your skin, either — it’s how you take care of it. Long, hot showers, excessive hand washing and over-exfoliation with a washcloth or loofah can cause your skin’s barrier to break down, leaving you vulnerable to irritation, says Dr. Day.

Opt instead for shorter, lukewarm showers. If you must use a washcloth, trade it in for a bath poof, which is softer and gentler. For your face, choose a creamy product such as Cetaphil Gentle Skin Cleanser. “The more foaming the cleanser, the more drying it tends to be,” Dr. Day says.


“Fragrance is a known irritator, and as an ingredient, it doesn’t add any benefit to skin care products,” Dr. Day says. That doesn’t simply mean to avoid perfume, but try to use products marked “fragrance-free” whenever possible. Remember, too, that a product described as “unscented” is not necessarily fragrance-free; fragrance may be added to a product to mask its natural scent.

Talc and Mica

The talc and mica used in some powder makeup and bronzers can be a skin irritant. These mineral particles often have rough edges that can cause microscopic tears, which will aggravate sensitive skin. Look at labels — many makeup brands advertise that they are talc- or mica-free.

Chemical Sunscreen

Some ingredients in chemical sunscreen, including oxybenzone, can inflame sensitive skin. However, if your skin is sensitive, it’s crucial to use a daily sunscreen, as sun exposure can irritate skin even further. Be sure to choose the right sun-protection ingredients. Mineral-based sunscreens with zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are the easiest to tolerate, says Dr. Graf.


A spa facial can be anything but relaxing for someone with sensitive skin. It’s especially important to avoid extractions and chemical peels, which may cause redness, peeling and even blistering, says Dr. Day. Opt for a soothing facial, discuss your skin care concerns with your esthetician before you start — and never hesitate to speak up during treatment if something starts to burn or tingle. Alternatively, get a peel at your dermatologist’s office so a medical professional can monitor your reaction more closely. You can also give yourself an at-home facial with a soothing mask like Avène Soothing Moisture Mask, which contains spring water and safflower oil to moisturize and calm your skin.

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