33 Best and Worst Skincare Ingredients for Sensitive Skin | Expert Guide
by Heather Smith on May 05, 2022
What Is Sensitive Skin?
The term sensitive skin is not a medical diagnosis. Instead, it's a general lay term that people use to describe their skin as reactive or less tolerant of cosmetics and skincare products.
It all comes down to the health and integrity of your skin barrier. People with sensitive skin have more frequent episodes of barrier damage in response to triggers that are better tolerated by those with non-sensitive skin.
What Causes Sensitive Skin?
There are underlying medical conditions that cause sensitive and reactive skin - allergies, dermatitis, urticaria, rosacea, eczema, etc. People with sensitive skin are predisposed to developing reactions like contact dermatitis more readily than others.
The symptoms of sensitive skin are described as stinging, itching, burning, and the signs include redness, peeling, and dryness. It's always important to discuss these concerns with your primary care provider or dermatologist if they are ongoing or severe. We've written a comprehensive guide to healing your skin barrier for you to get started.
Why Sensitive Skin Types Should ALWAYS Patch Test
Have you ever been excited about a new skincare product only to try it once and end up with flaky, red skin and swollen eyelids?
Or maybe reading ingredient labels has become a full-time job because there are so many ingredients that have given you bad past experiences.
When a brand advertises its product as dermatologist-tested, hypoallergenic, and non-irritating, the absolute truth is that the product was hypoallergenic and non-irritating for the people involved in the patch testing. Though the information is still valid, it may not apply to you.
It's important to know that brands can make this claim after different testing protocols. Some brands will make this cosmetic claim after having their product tested wholly inadequately. They want to use the claims as a marketing term but spend as little money as possible doing the testing.
For example, we had our bare Essential Barrier Oil tested in an HRIPT (human repeat insult patch testing) on a sensitive skin panel. This means that 50 people underwent repetitive testing over six weeks. Twenty-five people were identified as having sensitive or hyper-reactive skin. Over the six weeks, every person was tested 16 times - wearing the patch each time for 48h. That's 800 different patch-wearing episodes with over 38 000 hours of accumulated time in contact with the skin.
But what does that mean?
It means those 50 people weren't allergic to our product.
It is still a much more valid test than shorter (ie. 24h) protocols. However, when using cosmetics claims as marketing terms, there is no reference standard, so a brand could still claim "hypoallergenic" if they had the product tested once on ten people for 24h.
The only way to know if anything is likely to cause you irritation or not, is to patch test it yourself.
How to Perform a Skin Patch Test on Yourself
When trying out a new product, select a small skin area – we like the inside of your elbow or behind your ear. It's best to use the same location to test the product daily. One day is not likely enough if your skin is reactive because it often takes time to show sensitization. 72h of testing is a reasonable timeframe depending on how worried you are about a reaction. With that said, the American Academy of Dermatology recommends 7-10 days of patch testing, which would be important to follow especially if you are highly allergic to many things.
Allergy testing by an allergist or immunologist is similar. Still, a patch test for allergies will often show an immediate result. This is true if you are patch-testing at home too. For example, suppose you put something on your skin and get immediate or rapid development of redness, swelling, hives, and itchiness. In that case, it's probably an allergy. Never attempt this at home if you're worried about a severe allergy or have had prior reactions like anaphylaxis to skincare products.
When chemical sensitivities are the problem, the damage to your skin barrier will gradually become apparent over multiple use episodes. That's why proper patch testing at home should be done over more than 24h period.
So now that you know what sensitive skin means and how to identify it, here are the 33 best and worst ingredients you might see when reading product labels.
16 Best Ingredients For Sensitive Skin
These ingredients are mild and unlikely to cause irritation for a large proportion of people, even for those with some skin conditions like eczema. These ingredients are felt to help soothe and calm irritated skin and help heal the skin barrier.
17+ Worst Ingredients for Sensitive Skin
There are many ingredients to avoid for sensitive skin. However, remember that your bad ingredient list needs to be individualized. For example, if you're allergic to sunflower seeds, our list above is not accurate for you.
Harmful ingredients for sensitive skin tend to fall into two categories: allergens vs irritants. There is overlap, and it can be hard to tell the two types of reactions apart. You can even have a reaction that's a combination of the two.
An irritant causes physical damage to your barrier. Your skin might burn, sting, itch, or get red where you used the product. You might have blisters or oozing.
An allergen triggers your immune system, and you'll experience more (often immediate) swelling, itching, and hives. Irritants can cause allergies, and allergens can be irritating. This FDA list is handy in helping to learn the names and types of allergens in cosmetics.
- Synthetic Fragrance (check out the FDA list to decode the many varieties)
- Essential Oils
- Some Preservatives: Methylisothiazolinone, Methylchloroisothiazolinone, Diazolidinyl Urea, DMDM Hydantoin, Imidazolidinyl Urea, MDM Hydantoin
- Exfoliating Abrasives
- Exfoliating Acids
- Acne Treatments: Salicylic Acid, Benzoyl Peroxide
- Lanolin (allergen)
- Cleansing Surfactants/Detergents: Sulfates
- Denatured Alcohol
The above lists are a general guidance for things you may wish to look for or avoid if you have sensitive skin. Don't automatically assume that an ingredient is safe or gentle just because it's labelled as natural skincare. Natural isn't always better.
If you're receiving treatment for a condition like acne, talk to your doctor if your skin is irritated or dry. Acne-prone and oily skin can get tricky to care for if you have sensitive skin because so many of the natural remedies for acne can be irritating. This article takes a look at 20 of the best natural ingredients for acne.
Exfoliation is important, even if it ends up on the bad list. There are many options, both mechanical and chemical, that are safe exfoliants. Sometimes it's just a matter of choosing a different ingredient, like polyhydroxy acid, rather than giving up all together.
As you identify your individualized list of good and bad for you, you can adjust and try more things. Remember that allergies and irritants are different but can overlap. Also, remember that skin barrier healing takes time, and specific strategies can help.