Top 3 Ingredients that Can Irritate Sensitive Skin

What causes your skin to be irritated?

Sensitive skin is a drag, and it may be perpetuated by sneaky ingredients in your beauty products! Even if you think your products are super clean, common irritants can show up even in thoughtfully collected cleansing and makeup products. Beth of Vail, Colorado who suffers from dry and sensitive skin (from high-altitude dry temperatures, and lots of outdoor sun exposure) says she’s tried several expensive skin products. But she still (and frustratingly) experiences irritation regularly when she tries something new — including the latest moisturizer she bought at a natural food store. But she’s not alone, there are thousands of women out there struggling with similar issues. So we consulted one of our favorite internationally renowned dermatologists and author of the bestselling The Beauty of Dirty Skin, Dr. Whitney Bowe, who treats patients just like Beth, daily, for her recommendations of ingredients to avoid. The good news? It’s as simple as reading the label carefully and becoming educated about what you use in your beauty regimen. 

1. Fragrance 

Synthetic fragrances sure do make a product smell good, but don’t let that fool you. When you put fragrances on your body — especially the sensitive, thin skin around your eyes and nose — it can aggravate your skin. “I’ve seen itching and flaky skin result from certain fragrances,” says Dr. Bowe, “but I’ve also seen patients with very sensitive skin be able to tolerate other fragrances with no problems whatsoever.” If you’re not sure which fragrances you skin might react to, Dr. Bowe recommends doing a test spot on your inner arm by using a small amount of product to see if it causes a localized flare up, or working with a dermatologist who does patch testing, which helps identify allergens not identified by blood testing. She also says to be aware of terms like “unscented” when choosing beauty products because they can actually contain fragrances, but carry additional chemicals added to mask them. 

The bottom line to avoid breakouts: “If you want to be super cautious, [look for products that say] fragrance-free over unscented,” she says. 

2. Harsh exfoliants 

In her book, The Beauty of Dirty Skin, Dr. Bowe explains that we over scrub and over sanitize our skin to the point of actually disturbing our skin’s delicate and natural barrier to dirt and oils, which can lead to red, blotchy, stinging skin. Many beauty products contain exfoliants that are billed to remove excess dead skin, but in reality, they can strip much of your body’s ability to protect and heal itself. 

How to heal: Stop 24-7 scrubbing. Instead, to avoid unnecessary irritation and disrupting the skin’s natural microbiome, “I recommend that my patients gently exfoliate no more than twice a week,” says Dr. Bowe. 

3. Gluten

Anything you put on your body can accidentally end up in your body. It might seem basic to point this out, but if you have a gluten allergy or sensitivity from food, you may also want to avoid gluten in your beauty products. “I generally explain to my patients that the primary concern arises from gluten that you might inadvertently ingest, like a lip product or in a product you apply near your lips,” says Dr. Bowe. “Similarly, if you don’t wash your hands after applying a skincare product containing gluten and then you eat a meal [you can ingest it, and react to it].” 

Be conscious of a gluten sensitivity: Basically, translate your gluten-free diet habits to your beauty regimen so you can power on without discomfort.