Building A Skin Care Routine For Sensitive Skin: Replace This With That

Mar 23, 2023by Heather Smith


Do you have sensitive skin but don't know where to start when building a skincare routine? Finding the perfect products that won't irritate your skin can be daunting. But don't worry! We've got you covered.

With this guide, you'll learn how to create a skin care routine for sensitive skin just by swapping out the "standard" ingredients used by many people. These swaps are gentle and effective so your skin can be its brightest.

What is Gentle Skincare?

This might seem like it should be obvious, but not all people with sensitive skin realize that's what they're battling with.

If you're stuck in a cycle of acne breakouts, redness, itch, and irritation, you may have a damaged skin barrier. After focusing on a healing period, you'll need to re-design your entire skincare routine to be more gentle.

Here's the TL/DR summary to get you started:

A gentle skincare routine is specifically designed to care for easily irritated skin by using products and techniques that minimize the risk of causing redness, inflammation, or damage. The routine emphasizes mild, soothing ingredients and avoids harsh chemicals or abrasive materials, but it still focuses on being effective!

They key steps include:

      1. Mild, non-soap cleansing with lukewarm water
      2. Infrequent, gentle exfoliation with something soft or a mild acid
      3. Toning can be skipped, but should be hydrating if still used
      4. Serums and actives should focus on calming, anti-inflammatory, and hydrating effects and avoid irritants like retinol and glycolic acid
      5. Moisturization is essential and should be done daily even if you have oily skin
      6. Sun Protection is also critical and shouldn't be skipped
      7. Additional Tips:

        • Patch test new products
        • Don't start more than one at at time
        • Limit exposure to environmental stressors
        • Work closely with a dermatologist or skincare expert
        • Check for hidden issues. Sometimes things like the humidity in your environment can make everything worse
Best and Worst Ingredients for Sensitive Skin

Ready to start building a skincare routine that works for your sensitive skin?

Let's get started!

#1 Replace Traditional Cleansers With an Oil Cleanser

The oil cleansing method is perfect for sensitive skin since it won't strip away your natural oils or cause irritation.

Oil cleansers come in many forms, including liquid washes, balms, and creams. You can opt for one that best fits your routine, depending on your preference and needs. No matter what type of oil cleanser you choose for your sensitive skin, it will be much gentler than traditional methods like soap-based products, which are stripping and will disrupt the surface pH balance of the skin.

If you find your skin doesn't feel "clean" enough or there's an oily residue that is too much for your liking, follow up with a gentle, non-soap cleanser that is designed for sensitive skin (this is what people mean by the term "double cleansing." We also have some simple product recommendations in our free e-book about healing your skin barrier.

#2 Replace Abrasives With a Konjac Sponge

Figuring out the world of exfoliants is extra hard for people with sensitive skin. Start by switching out any large-particle abrasives (apricot kernel, pumice stone, walnut shells, etc.) for a konjac sponge

A konjac sponge is made from the root of the Asian konjac plant and is known for being incredibly gentle. Its soft texture makes it ideal for exfoliating without causing damage. It's also biodegradable and antibacterial, which makes it a great choice when considering environmental impact and going zero waste with your beauty routine.

Abrasives Konjac
Exfoliation Micro tears and damage Soft and gentle
Hydration Stripping Cell sloughing without stripping, net result is improved hydration
Risks Damaged barrier, infection, pH imbalance (anti-bacterial, just dry between use)
Ecology Ensure microplastic microbeads are not in use! 100% biodegradable 


The thing about konjac sponges is that they don't have that feeling that you're scrubbing your skin. Some people really enjoy this sensation. You can still try using a gentle face scrub with some abrasive elements, but opt for particles known to be non-damaging, like jojoba beads or bamboo powder.

#3 Replace Retinol With Bakuchiol

Retinoids are a double-edged sword for those with sensitive skin: they are very effective, but often the degree of irritation they cause is so bad you just can't keep using them.

Fortunately, there is an alternative to retinoids that won't sacrifice your skin's health: bakuchiol.

We've written extensively about Bakuchiol and the science behind it. Bakuchiol is a natural plant-derived alternative that has been shown to have comparable benefits for anti-aging and anti-acne, without the irritation of traditional retinol.

For those with sensitive skin, bakuchiol is an ideal substitute for retinol. It reduces inflammation and redness as effectively as certain synthetic retinoids and boasts antioxidant properties that protect the skin from free radical damage.

When building a skincare routine for sensitive skin, bakuchiol should be your go-to choice over traditional retinol. Not only will it provide you with all of the same benefits, but it will do so without causing additional irritations or side effects.

Bakuchiol serums come in all different forms, but as long as the concentration is more than 0.5% (and it's the pure, extracted form), you'll see the benefits.

#4 Replace L-Ascorbic Acid With Tetrahexyldecyl Ascorbate

Tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate is a stabilized form of Vitamin C that can help reduce inflammation, improve collagen production, and improve hyperpigmentation without causing irritation. It's gentler than L-ascorbic acid, which can be too harsh for people with sensitive skin types.

Partly because we can't pronounce it, we call tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate "Vitamin C Oil." Traditional L-ascorbic acid is not oil soluble, but THD-ascorbate is, which makes it much better (up to 8x better) at penetrating the outer layers of the skin. Once inside, this precursor molecule gets converted back to active Vitamin C.

When used regularly in your skincare routine, it can help reduce inflammation and promote healthy cell turnover while diminishing the appearance of wrinkles and fine lines. The chemical structure makes this an excellent and unique ingredient to include in a brightening Vitamin C oil serum.

#5 Eliminate Fragrance (don't replace it!)

Switching to fragrance-free or scent-free products is very important when building a skincare routine for sensitive skin.

When shopping for a new product, start by reading the ingredients list. If the list includes any added fragrances or essential oils, put it back on the shelf and look for something else. Pay attention to the words 'fragrance-free' or 'unscented' on product labels, so you know exactly what you're getting.

Synthetic fragrance vs essential oils can be debated forever in the natural skincare world. It's actually true that some natural essential oils are much more irritating than synthetic fragrances because of their underlying aromatic and volatile compositional makeup.

Some essential oils are thought to be beneficial for sensitive skin, but still approach these with caution unless you're certain they aren't sensitizing for your own skin.

#6 Replace Glycolic Acid With PHAs

When it comes to skincare, especially sensitive skin, it's important to make sure that you're using the right ingredients. Glycolic acid is often used in skin care products, but it is usually too harsh for sensitive skin. That's why PHAs are a great alternative. They are still effective chemical exfoliants but are more gentle and more hydrating.

The main  difference between these two types of acids is their size. Glycolic acid molecules are much smaller and can penetrate deeply, while PHAs have larger molecules that remain on the surface of your skin. PHAs also have more humectant properties that help keep your skin hydrated and nourished.

#7 Replace Benzoyl Peroxide With Gluconolactone

Benzoyl peroxide, while great for treating acne, can cause irritation and dryness when used too frequently. There is some research evidence that gluconolactone (a PHA) is comparable for the acne-fighting effects, but much more tolerable for sensitive skin.

#8 Replace Salicylic Acid With Willow Bark Extract

Salicylic acid is another effective ingredient for treating acne, but it can also irritate sensitive skin. A good replacement for salicylic acid is willow extract. It helps cleanse pores and clear skin with fewer side effects.

Willow extract contains natural anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties. It's also a great source of antioxidants to help reduce the appearance of wrinkles and other signs of aging.

In addition to its anti-inflammatory properties, willow extract also has astringent qualities that help to tighten pores and provide a smoother complexion. It also helps balance the production of sebum, which can help control shine and prevent breakouts. 

#9 Replace Alcohol-Based Toners With Hydrating Toners

Alcohol-based toners can be harsh and drying. If you're looking for something gentler that still offers the same benefits, then hydrating toners are your best bet.

Here are 3 reasons why these natural toners are better for those with sensitive skin:

      • Hydrating toners replenish moisture in the skin: Unlike alcohol-based toners that strip the skin of its natural oils, hydrating toners contain humectants like glycerin, helping to draw moisture back into the skin and giving you a more balanced complexion.
      • Hydrating toners soothe inflammation: Unlike astringent alcohol-based toners that can irritate your skin further, natural toners contain calming ingredients like aloe vera or chamomile, which can help reduce any redness or irritation caused by sensitivity.
      • Hydrating toners prep your skin for other skincare products: Natural toner helps restore pH balance and create an ideal base for all your other skincare products to work their magic!

    Look for ingredients like cica (gotu kola, Centella asiatica) over witch hazel and other more stripping astringents. 

    #10 Replace Preservative A with Preservative B

    Preservatives are necessary in any skincare products that contain water. Some are more or less likely to irritate skin, but none are universally "safe" for every skin type.

    If you have highly sensitive skin and seem to still be reacting no matter what you try, consider switching to waterless products so that you can completely eliminate preservatives for a while. If your skin heals, then you can slowly reintroduce and test your favourite lotions and creams in an orderly fashion to test if the preservatives were a factor in your irritation. 



    Sensitive Skincare FAQ

    How Often Should I Do A Skin Care Routine For Sensitive Skin?

    The frequency of skin care routines for sensitive skin can be tricky to get right. The key is finding a balance between caring for your skin and avoiding overdoing it. With this in mind, here are five tips to help you find the best routine:

        • Start slow by introducing one product at a time. This helps you understand how your skin reacts
        • Use gentle, fragrance-free products that won't irritate your skin
        • Cleanse once a day in the evening only; use plain water in the mornings
        • Incorporate a weekly exfoliant or mask into your routine. Once a week is a safe starting point for exfoliation when it comes to gentle skincare
        • Don't forget SPF! Lots of debate about chemical vs mineral, bottom line - use what works for you and don't skip it

    Are There Any Natural Ingredients That Can Help With Skin Sensitivity?


    Soothing oils such as sunflower, almond or jojoba oil help improve skin health and provide an extra layer of protection against irritation. Natural emollients like shea butter have anti-inflammatory properties that restore moisture and reduce redness. Here's a list of the best face oils for irritable and sensitive skin

    Herbal remedies such as chamomile or calendula can be applied directly to the skin to soothe irritation and reduce discomfort. There are also active ingredients that can be helpful, like bisabolol and allantoin.

    Does pH balance in Skincare Matter?


    The pH of your acid mantle is very important to skin barrier function. If you have sensitive skin it can become a big issue. Look for skincare products with proper pH to help keep your microbiome healthy

    How Can I Heal a Damaged Skin Barrier?

    We've written extensively about this topic including a free downloadable e-book. Here is a quick summary to preview, but click the image to read our whole article. 

    How to heal a damaged skin barrier - article and infographic by bareLUXE Skincare



    Are There Any Special Products Marketed For Sensitive Skin?


    The key is that you want to see how the brand "proves" it. Was there any allergy testing performed? What are the ingredients (hint: if you see a "sensitive skin" product with fragrance, be very skeptical).

    As an example, we developed a sensitive skin face oil that acts as a skin barrier serum. It's gentle, and it's been patch tested by volunteers. That doesn't guarantee you won't react to it, but it's a good place to start. With very carefully selected ingredients, active botanicals, and rigorous elimination of fragrances, many people find it soothing and effective for their angry skin.

    Are There Any Lifestyle Changes I Should Make To Help With My Sensitive Skin?

    The first step in managing sensitive skin is understanding what might be triggering flare-ups. Incorporating more anti-inflammatory foods into your diet, such as fatty fish or leafy greens, may positively affect your skin's health. Additionally, reducing stress levels could keep inflammation at bay.

    In terms of specific skincare practices, some people find avoiding certain ingredients in their products helps reduce irritation. Something like Tea Tree oil can become more sensitizing the longer you use it. 

    If you have significant rashes, redness, irritation, or itching/hives, or if you have any oozing/crusting or deep pustular acne, always start with a proper assessment by your primary care physician or a dermatologist.

    Can I Use Niacinamide with Sensitive Skin?

    Niacinamide is one of those ingredients that should be well tolerated, yet some people just cannot use it. Always start with patch testing. Also, start with a lower concentration product (1-2%) at first if you're worried.


    Gentle skincare can be a bit of trial and error, but if you do things in an organized and staged fashion, you shouldn't end up regretting your routine.

    The good news is that you can create an effective routine tailored to your needs with the right knowledge and products. Natural ingredients like aloe vera, chamomile and oatmeal can help reduce sensitivity and soothe irritation, while special products formulated for sensitive skin can provide additional benefits.

    Making lifestyle changes to reduce stress and eliminate trigger foods can also help keep your skin balanced. And if needed, treatments such as light therapy or chemical peels may be beneficial in further relieving sensitivity.

    By taking the necessary steps to build a personalized skin care routine for sensitive skin, you'll be able to reap the rewards of healthier-looking, more radiant skin.

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    About the Author

    Dr. Heather Smith developed her love for skinimalism and clean beauty years ago when she began making home remedies for her newborn's eczema. She is an expert in natural ingredients and active botanicals and has now launched bareLUXE Skincare - a full line of effective oil serums. She dedicates this blog to consumers who are researching ingredients and working to make their beauty ritual more natural and sustainable.


    This content is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not intended to provide medical advice or to take the place of such advice or treatment from a personal physician. All readers/viewers of this content are advised to consult their doctors or qualified health professionals regarding specific health questions. Neither Dr. Smith nor the publisher of this content takes responsibility for possible health consequences of any person or persons reading or following the information in this educational content. All viewers of this content should consult their physicians about their skincare concerns and routines.