Ingredients to Watch Out for if You Have Sensitive Skin

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Everybody’s skin has a natural protective barrier, designed to keep moisture in while protecting the skin from the environment.

However, when this barrier is compromised, which can happen due to a number of different reasons, sensitive skin is the result.

Not sure if you have sensitive skin or not?

A few common signs include:

  • Skin that is easily reactive to different triggers, whether this may be soaps, perfumes, household products or even the environment around you
  • Redness, whether this may be in the form of bumps, rashes or flushing
  • Itchy and tight skin, especially after cleansing or using hot water
  • A stinging or burning sensation when certain products or ingredients are applied
  • Dryness, along with flaking and peeling 

Sound familiar?

If so, you need to be caring for your sensitive skin in specific ways, while avoiding any ingredients that could make your skin react badly.


The majority of skin care products out there will all list fragrance as one of their ingredients, but this is actually an extremely vague term.


Because an artificial fragrance could contain over 200 different chemical components, making it impossible to know exactly what is inside the product you are using.

fragrance-making process

Companies are not required to disclose the specifics of any fragrances that they use, which is why one of the first pieces of advice given by dermatologists to those with sensitive skin is to opt for fragrance-free products.

However, make sure that you do not get confused between fragrance-free and unscented.

Wondering what the difference is?

Fragrance-free means that no additional fragrances have been added to a product, whereas unscented means that particular ingredients have been added to the formula to mask the scent of other, stronger smelling, ingredients.

Certain Botanicals and Essential Oils

Many people assume that because an ingredient is natural, this means that it will be good for their skin.

However, this is not at all true…

While natural extracts may not contain the harsh chemicals that certain synthetic ingredients do, they can still cause a reaction with your sensitive skin.


To begin with, many of the compounds found in essential oils are actually common allergens, such as linalool and citronellol. While this may not be a problem when they are extremely diluted, higher concentrations can really irritate sensitive skin.

Essential oils are also quite a difficult ingredient to keep stable, meaning that their properties can vary significantly from batch to batch, being affected by everything from heat and light to the season of the year.

Of course, there are certain oils that are more likely to cause a reaction than others, and if you do want to try them, you should do this with caution. These are a few essential oils to watch out for:

  • Tea tree
  • Ylang ylang
  • Citrus
  • Mint


Alcohol is quite a broad term that encompasses several different specific ingredients. While some alcohols, such as fatty alcohols, are actually great for your skin, others can have a hugely detrimental effect.

When it comes to the good alcohols, these include cetyl alcohol, stearyl alcohol and cetearyl alcohol. They will rarely cause a reaction with your skin, and help to stabilize the other active ingredients within a product. 

On the other hand, the alcohols you should stay away from are SD alcohol, denatured alcohol, and isopropyl alcohol.

From increasing skin dryness to preventing the skin from healing and regenerating, these types of alcohol can damage even the healthiest of complexions, so you can only imagine the havoc that they can case for those who already have sensitive skin.

You may be wondering…

If alcohol is so bad for the skin, why is it used in so many products?

For a few different reasons. The first is that alcohol enables a product to dry quickly on the skin, meaning that you are not left with a greasy residue after applying a product. Alcohol can also help with the absorption of certain ingredients, but it does this by breaking down the skin’s natural barrier, which is why substances are able to easier penetrate the skin. Since sensitive skin already has a compromised skin barrier, this is something you need to avoid.

For those with oily and sensitive skin, the alcohol in products may seem to initially help de-grease your skin, but it actually has the opposite effect in the long run…

By removing so much of your skin’s natural oils, this then kicks your oil glands into overdrive, stimulating them to produce even more oil than they were producing before.

Liquid Paraffin and Mineral Oil

Liquid paraffin, as well as mineral oil, has been used in skin care for so many years now, but this does not mean that it is a beneficial ingredient, especially for those with sensitive skin. 

Both of these ingredients are derived from petroleum, and, when applied to the skin, form an oily layer over the surface.

paraffin oil

This does have a couple of advantages, as it really does work to prevent moisture from evaporating. It can also help to plump the skin up, which then reduces the visibility of any wrinkles and fine lines, even though this may only be temporary.

However, while those with a normal skin type may be able to get away with using these ingredients, those with sensitive skin should stay away from them.


Because these ingredients have a tendency to block up the pores, while increasing the build-up of bacteria on your skin. When used in small amounts, this may not be such an issue, but the products that contain these two ingredients usually contain them in quite high concentrations.

If you would like to make use of the benefits of these ingredients, without the downsides, make sure that liquid paraffin or mineral oil is at the bottom of the ingredients list, and plant oils, such as almond oil or jojoba oil, are at the top.


Formaldehyde is a chemical that is used in skin care products to prevent the growth of bacteria, and is actually quite a dangerous chemical that should be avoided by everyone, especially those with sensitive skin.

What makes it so dangerous?

The fact that it was believed to be a human carcinogen way back in 1987, and numerous studies since have proved that this chemical is, in fact, linked to certain types of cancer. 

In addition to this, formaldehyde commonly causes allergic reactions, and can also be quite harmful to the immune system.

Sunscreen Chemicals

There is no denying that wearing sunscreen every day is a must, no matter what your skin type may be.

However, the majority of sunscreens out there are chemical sunscreens, meaning that they contain certain chemicals that absorb UV light, converting them into heat before emitting them out of the body.

Many of the ingredients used in chemical sunscreens can actually irritate sensitive skin, and could also potentially cause further cellular damage within the body.

These are a few of the sunscreen chemicals you should try to avoid:

  • Avobenzone
  • PABA
  • Benzophenone
  • Homosalate

Wondering what your other options are when it comes to sunscreen?

The answer is a physical sunscreen. While these do still contain some chemicals, their active ingredients come from natural minerals, zinc oxide and titanium dioxide in particular. Rather than absorbing and converting UV rays, physical sunscreens block and reflect them away, preventing them from entering the skin at all. 

physical vs chemical sunscreen

Of course, there are a couple of downsides to using a physical sunscreen over a chemical sunscreen, with one of the main ones being the white cast that the physical sunscreen formulas can often leave behind on the skin. However, while this may be frustrating, the fact that your skin will react so much better to it will no doubt make a physical sunscreen worth it for you. 


Sulfates are a term for a few different specific ingredients, including:

  • Sodium laureth sulfate
  • Sodium lauryl sulfate
  • Ammonium lauryl sulfate

No matter which sulfate a product contains, you can count on the fact that this is an ingredient likely to irritate sensitive skin.


They have an extremely drying effect, and also disrupt your skin’s natural pH balance. When your skin’s pH balance is off, this then creates the perfect environment in which bacteria thrive, resulting in a whole host of other skin conditions.

Wondering why they are used in skin care products?

Because they help to create a foamy lather, which is why you will usually find them in products such as cleansers and shampoos.

Fortunately, many companies are now realizing that using sulfates in their formulas means that they exclude many consumers, so you will find many more products available now that are sulfate-free.

Benzoyl Peroxide

If you have ever suffered from acne, then chances are that you will have used a product containing benzoyl peroxide to help clear your breakouts.

There is no denying the benefits that benzoyl peroxide can have when it comes to killing acne-causing bacteria, as well as de-greasing the skin, but this chemical is also extremely drying, which can really exacerbate sensitive skin.

These days, many companies include this ingredient in their skin care formulas, even for products that are not designed for oily, acne-prone skin. From cleansers to toners, benzoyl peroxide is becoming more and more widely used, so make sure that you check the ingredients list for it in any new products that you purchase.

Harsh Exfoliants

Exfoliation is key to a healthy complexion, as it clears away the dead skin cells that settle on the surface of your skin, while stimulating your natural cell turnover process.

However, exfoliation can also disrupt your skin’s natural protective barrier, which is something that those with sensitive skin will want to prevent from happening as much as possible.

The only way to do this is to avoid any harsh exfoliants, such as abrasive loofahs, scrubs that contain nuts or fruit seeds, and ingredients such as salicylic acid.

So, what should you be using instead?

Try giving fruit enzymes a try, as these are a great ingredient to exfoliate sensitive skin with. These work by dissolving the glue-like substance that holds dead skin cells, and dirt, to the surface of the skin, meaning that you can then wash all of this debris away.

As an added bonus, the fruit extracts that these exfoliants contain will also be naturally packed with antioxidants and vitamins, giving your skin an extra boost. 

Natural clay masks are another great option, especially when formulated with bentonite or kaolin clay.

Synthetic Dyes

You may not realize that a skin care product contains a dye, especially if it seems to be quite a natural color, but this seemingly-natural color could actually be due to a synthetic dye.

synthetic colors in test tubes

How do you know if a product contains a dye?

It will usually be listed as FD&C, followed by a color and a number, on an ingredients label, with the most common ones being Yellow 5 and Red 40.

These dyes have been approved by the FDA, and while they may not cause any negative reactions in those with healthy skin, people with sensitive skin often find their skin irritated by synthetic dyes.

A few common reactions include:

  • Hives
  • Eczema
  • Psoriasis
  • Asthma

Synthetic dyes can also end up blocking pores and increasing breakouts, while depositing toxins into the skin.

Fortunately, there are plenty of products out there that do not contain synthetic dyes, and opt for natural dyes, that have been derived from herbs and plants, instead.

Sensitive skin can be so frustrating to deal with, and it does take some trial and error before finding products that suit your skin well. However, you need to ensure that you always perform a patch test first when using a new product, applying it to a small area of your skin and waiting for 24-48 hours to see if there is a reaction. If there is not any redness or itching, then you can continue to use the product on the rest of your skin.  

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