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Skincare Ingredients to Avoid If You Have Sensitive Skin

May 05, 2020

Sensitive Skin Can Mean Trouble- Here's What To Look For

If you have sensitive skin, you’re most likely equal parts cautious and meticulous when it comes to your skincare routine. You’ve tried a million products—some have worked, and some have caused major issues. You’ve had bad reactions, mild reactions, and maybe no reactions—hallelujah! But in order to protect sensitive skin, it’s important to know what ingredients you should be avoiding in skincare products. Knowing what ingredients have adverse affects on sensitive skin will allow you to maintain healthy, radiant skin without the “trial and error” process many of us torture ourselves with on a daily basis. 

Sensitive skin affects around 60% of the population, which means many of us are constantly searching for skincare products that won’t cause inflammation, eczema, redness, dryness, and itching. Understanding what exacerbates your sensitive skin is the first step in finding the right products that work for you. Let’s get started.


According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), fragrance is one of the biggest factors in contributing to cosmetic contact dermatitis. Scented lotions and creams can react with skin, causing inflammation and a weakening of the inner layers of skin. Unfortunately, avoiding products with fragrance is a bit more difficult than one might think. The beauty industry has been given a “free pass” when it comes to fragrance. Whereas most ingredients in skincare products are labeled individually, such as Melaleuca Alternifolia (tea tree oil), fragrance is simply labeled as “fragrance.” While that little word may not seem harmful, in actuality, it can mean a whole lot of trouble. Why? Because the FDA exempts skincare companies from divulging what exactly goes into their fragrance cocktail. 

And more often than not, fragrances in skincare products contain a vast array of synthetic chemicals designed to do one thing—smell good. What you don’t know is that many of these chemicals that go into making your skin smell like strawberries or vanilla or watermelon can actually contain allergens that cause rashes, irritate skin, and lead to worsening skin conditions. But how do you protect yourself? Simple—choose products that are fragrance-free and made with natural, non-synthetic ingredients. But beware—just because a product says “unscented” doesn’t mean there isn’t “fragrance” in it. So make sure to double check that ingredient list and find yourself products designed specifically for sensitive skin  that include ingredients beneficial to your skin like Vitamin A and carrot root.


Parabens have been a buzzword in the skincare industry for years now—and not in a good way. Parabens are synthetic chemicals derived from petroleum based compounds and are used as a preservative in skincare products to enhance and lengthen shelf life. Recently, there has been much debate over whether or not parabens are harmful to the human body as a whole. Some say they can lead to endocrine problems, reproductive complications, and even cancer. While there is no definitive answer as to what harm parabens can inflict on the body, it is agreed that they can pass through skin and be absorbed into the bloodstream. The FDA currently believes there is no real hazard to your health by using products with parabens in them—but if you have sensitive skin, you should steer clear regardless. Many people with sensitive skin or underlying skin issues, like psoriasis or eczema, have an adverse reaction to products with parabens, leading to painful irritation and more complicated dermatological issues. The verdict may still be out on parabens—but as far as sensitive skin is concerned, look for products that are paraben-free and made with ingredients less likely to cause an allergic reaction. 


Lets start with what sulfates are. A sulfate is a salt that forms when sulfuric acid reacts with another chemical, and is a broader term for other synthetic sulfate-based chemicals like sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and sodium laureth sulfate (SLES), two compounds produced from petroleum and plant sources, like coconut and palm oil, to create a lather in skincare products. Similar to parabens, the effects of sulfates haven’t been studied enough to determine whether or not they are harmful to the inner workings of the human body. But what we do know, is that sulfates can irritate skin—and if you already have sensitive skin, that means you should be using sulfate-free products and cleansers with natural ingredients like grapefruit and green tea extract, and a natural astringent and disinfectant like apple cider vinegar, to clean and protect skin. It’s important to note that lather is a non-essential element when it comes to washing your skin—it’s the combination of proven, natural ingredients that lead to a healthy, clear, and youthful complexion. Opt instead for a mildly foaming, natural face wash to deep clean without stripping your skin dry.

Physical Exfoliants

There’s a fine line when it comes to safely exfoliating your skin. With physical or manual exfoliants, many people end up scrubbing their skin too hard, scraping away more than just the top layer of dead skin cells and breaking blood vessels underneath the skin in the process, resulting in inflammation and irritation that can be likened to a first degree burn. If you have sensitive skin, make sure to avoid being too harsh on it. Opt instead for an exfoliating sponge or other gentler products with natural ingredients, like kiwi and lychee extract, and gentler versions of retinol, like retinyl palmitate. But be careful about how much pressure you apply while exfoliating. The idea is to gently remove the outer layer of dead skin cells—not strip the skin off your entire face!

Certain Essential Oils

Essential oils are extracted from the flowers, bark, stem, leaves, roots, and fruits of a variety of plant species, and are the volatile essences of plants that create a perfumed fragrance.

While essential oils can be beneficial for many people with normal skin, those with a sensitive outer shell should be wary when applying these substances directly to their skin. Essential oils contain allergens like Isoeugenol, Farnesol, and Hydroxyisohexyl 3-cyclohexene carboxaldehyde, which are not only impossible to pronounce, but also can lead to inflammation, especially in people with sensitive skin. Instead of using high concentrations of essential oils to treat your skin, opt for a product that includes low percentages of natural and organic ingredients combined with other beneficial elements that will help soothe your skin while simultaneously generating and maintaining a healthy complexion.  

If you have sensitive skin, there’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to enjoy a holistic and wholesome skincare regimen. All it takes is finding the right products designed specifically for your skincare needs to create and maintain healthy and beautiful skin. 

Savy Guthrie has been a PA working in dermatology for 17 years and has worked in medicine for 20 years overall.  She has treated tens of thousands of patients, helping them achieve healthy, beautiful skin. 

Savy Guthrie is a dermatology PA with 17 years of patient care experience and is the founder of Theoderma Skin Care.

Savy with her dog






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