By Kristin Limoges

Published on July 13, 2018

sensitive-skin-2.jpg Pin It
Illustration by Phuong Nguyen
Pin It
Illustration by Phuong Nguyen

If you’re skin was irritated, you’d know it, right? Maybe not: Irritation can show up in sneaky ways on skin, from the obvious red, swollen, hivey reactions, to the less noticeable dryness and small, rash-like bumps. “Some cases are mild and almost unnoticeable,” says expert aesthetician Athena Hewett, founder of Monastery Made.

But even just a few days of minor irritation can lead to long-term effects. “Irritation is​ a major causative factor in skin aging since irritants activate enzymes​ to break down collagen fibers ​leading to ​lines and loss of elasticity,” says ​dermatologist Dr. Loretta Ciraldo, and co-founder of Dr. Loretta skincare. “If irritation is long term, ​it can cause new blood vessel formation, as well as stains and hyperpigmentation on our skin​.” All that irritation can also cause textural changes, like roughness or dryness in the skin, and that can lead to worsening of lines, wrinkles, and sagging, too, says Dr. Loretta.

So what is causing it and how can you avoid it? You can start by avoiding the most irritating ingredients, which appear in a lot of common products. Here’s what to look out for, especially if you’ve got sensitive skin or any of the above signs:

  • Artificial colors (often listed as the color or with numbers and letter​s​, such as ​Blue 1, Green 3, etc)
  • Artificial fragrance (often listed as parfum) and detergents
  • ​Alcohols
  • Sulfates​ (sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate)
  • Some preservatives, and especially parabens​
  • Benzoyl peroxide
  • Hydroquinone​ and kojic acid
  • Formaldehyde

Other ingredients Dr. Loretta and Hewett listed are polyethylene glycol and PEG compounds, propylene glycol, petrolatum, triclosan, methylisothiazolinone, methylchloroisothiazolinone, and ethanolamines (MEA/DEA/TEA). Hewett also notes that everyday products like retinols, salicylic acid, and peroxides can be irritating for some, too. “Some natural irritants can be terpenes like linalool, pinene, limonene—these are naturally occurring in certain flowers plants and spices, like lavender for example and citrus—as well as other natural irritants, like charcoal, fruits, and sugar acids,” says Hewett.

And two ingredients often seen as helpful—alcohols and detergents—can also lead to a lot of issues, says Hewett. “Alcohols give your skin that tight feeling, but tight means dehydrated,” says Hewett. “Detergents give your skin that super soft feeling, but that means that the pH of your skin is actually at an unhealthy level.”

And to make matters more confusing, ingredients won’t outright always say “alcohol” or “detergent,” but there is a way you can quickly analyze if a product has either. “Detergents typically have the word ‘sulphate’ in them. Sulphates = detergent = bad. Another bad detergent is cocamidopropyl—it’s derived from petroleum, palm oil, and coconut oil. My easiest tip is to look for words that end in ‘yl’ or ‘ol’. These are solvents (alcohols). For example ethyl, isopropyl, methanol, benzyl, ethanol. Bad. Bad. Bad.”

If you want to take it further to investigate potentially irritating ingredients though, you have to quickly glance at your ingredient list for irritants. And the long list of ingredients on products can be super confusing, but there are tips to quickly scan the back of a label to see exactly what a product has hiding inside it.

Start at the top, but go to the bottom

“Start at the top of the list,” says Johanna Peet, founder of transparent skincare line Peet Rivko. “Ingredients are listed in descending order—the first ingredient is the highest percent ingredient in the product.” Hewett says to focus on the first three, because they are what make up the majority of the product.

But make sure to look at the entire list of ingredients, especially those closer to the bottom of the list, where most “inactive” ingredients are. Most of the irritants listed below are considered inactive, and don’t need to be listed upfront or at the top. Dr. Loretta created her skincare line in part to bring more awareness to the ingredient list; she calls out the active ingredients on the front of the packaging. “We ​have formulated​ ​our line with the knowledge ​that inactive ingredients do often cause many unwanted changes in our skin, so become a label reader,” says Dr. Loretta

Deceptive names aren’t necessarily dangerous

To make things more complicated, “some plant-based ingredients have confusing sounding names which can sound toxic when in fact they are safe, clean plant derivatives,” says Peet.

“Brands follow the INCI (International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients) labeling standard and​ list ingredients, using scientific names,” says Dr. Loretta. For instance, jojoba oil would be listed as “Simmondsia Chinensis (Jojoba) Seed Oil.” This can make an ingredient list crazy hard to read.​

Unfortunately, FDA regulations regarding product labels are super outdated and archaic, making it really hard for customers to understand what’s actually in their products, says Peet. This was part of the inspiration for Peet Rivko products. To simplify things, they have clearly listed each ingredient on all bottle labels and their website, as well as each ingredient’s exact plant source in layman terms. “This allows our customers to easily scan a product and know the source for each ingredient without having to do any extra Googling,” says Peet.  

Know the terms

Commonly used label words like “natural,” “hypoallergenic,” “alcohol-free,” and even “dermatologist-tested” are not regulated by the FDA. Brands can choose to use them in any way they wish on any type of product. “For example, 99 percent of products that say ‘alcohol-free’ contain alcohol, they just don’t contain certain alcohols,” says Hewett. If you’re questioning the ingredients, look for those offenders above, and in extreme cases, check with your dermatologist.

Keep on caring for your skin:


Everything You Need to Know About Caring for Sensitive Skin
This Doctor Wants To Make Botox and Lasers Obsolete
A Plastic Surgeon Answers All Our Burning Questions