Skincare Ingredients to Avoid If You Have Sensitive Skin

Curated by Claudia Shannon / Research Scientist / ishonest

First things first: so what, exactly, creates irritation? It turns out, the answer is incredibly simple. "The majority of the time, it’s the person’s use of harsh products that causes irritation,” Rouleau says. And the solution? “Simply put, avoid using irritating ingredients and your skin will be less irritated!” Which ones should you avoid? And which should you embrace?

The number one ingredient that Rouleau suggests weeding out of your routine? Alcohol. Many toners and creams have alcohol, which delivers a quick-dry finish, but might also sap your skin’s moisture levels, leading to irritation and itchy, uncomfortable skin.

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It’s also important to avoid synthetic fragrance, which can react with skin, causing inflammation and potentially weakening the inner layers of skin. Luckily, there isn’t really a need for perfume in skincare, so opt for fragrance-free formulas.

There are countless reports questioning the safety of sulfates—the ingredients that create lather in everything from face wash to toothpaste—such as ammonium lauryl sulfate and sodium lauryl sulfate. The jury is still out, but we do know they cause irritation. It won’t be easy, but try avoiding them for a few weeks and you may end up with healthier skin. (Start by swapping an oil or cream cleanser into your routine!)

The tiny granules in your favorite natural scrub? Their irregular shape may make them too harsh for sensitive skin. Keep using them on your feet, elbows, and knees, but try opting for a gentle, gommage peel for your face instead.

There are two main types of sunscreen: chemical and physical. The former uses hard-to-pronounce chemical ingredients (like avobenzone, octinoxate, and oxybenzone) to reflect UV rays—which is fine for normal skin!—but might cause problems for sensitive skin. If that’s you, try opting for a physical, or mineral, formula. We like La Roche Posay’s Anthelios 50 Mineral ($34) for face and Kiss My Face’s Natural Mineral Sunscreen SPF 40 ($17) for body.

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You already know that sipping green tea has many health benefits, but it’s also great when used topically. The green tea in this natural formula is rich in antioxidants and helps with skin circulation—and shouldn’t cause irritation! Try Boscia’s Green Tea Oil-Control Mask ($34) or Eve Lom’s Moisturiser ($68).

Like green tea, white tea is also great for skin when used topically, since it’s gentle and natural antioxidant with anti-inflammatory benefits. Try Rouleau’s own Age Defense Moisturizer SPF 30 ($38): it’s a 100 percent mineral sunscreen with green and white tea.

Have easily irritated, dry skin? Sunflower oil is high in vitamin E and helps to repair moisture your skin’s moisture barrier. We like Rouleau’s Phytolipid Comfort Cream ($59) for a rich moisturizer, and Dr. Jackson’s Natural Products Face Oil ($83) for an oil option.

Similar to how chamomile tea calms an upset stomach, it may also soothe skin! Try Malin + Goetz multi-purpose Chamomile Treatment Oil ($68)—you can use it on your body, hair, and face!

The plant extract has soothing and anti-inflammatory benefits when applied to skin, and is often found in serums and moisturizers. We like Clarins Beauty Flash Balm ($49) or First Aid Beauty’s Anti-Redness Serum ($23).

Stallings AF, Lupo MP. Practical uses of botanicals in skin care. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2009;2(1): 36-40.

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