How Sensitizing Ingredients Hurt Skin


In This Article:

We cannot stress this enough: sensitizing, harsh, abrasive, and fragrant ingredients are bad for skin—really, really bad. Daily application of skincare products that contain sensitizing ingredients is a major way we unknowingly do our skin a disservice!  

Sensitizing ingredients are so bad because they can lead to visible problems you wouldn’t be seeing if you switched to non-irritating products--those packed with ingredients that replenish and soothe skin.

We can help you learn what to avoid so you can regain the beautiful skin that has been in retreat because of the daily beating it takes when you use products with sensitizing ingredients!

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Sensitizing Ingredients Can Make Oily Skin and Breakouts Worse

Oily, breakout-prone skin is especially susceptible to the effects of sensitizing ingredients. When problem ingredients (see the list below) aggravate skin’s surface, a chain reaction can occur that makes oily skin worse, possibly triggering more breakouts.

Not treating oily, breakout-prone skin gently is practically a guarantee of making matters worse. All you really want is to curb excess oil and control the breakouts and clogged pores, but the wrong products can make this impossible.

Alcohol (denatured or SD) is always one of the top offenders we see in lots of skincare products, but next in line is fragrance. Surprisingly, fragrance can be sensitizing whether it’s natural or synthetic. Essential oils always get a pass at being helpful for skin but the research shows that isn’t the case. Alcohol and fragrance-free are the first steps toward the gentle care all skin types—especially oily or breakout-prone—need.

Sensitizing Ingredients Can Make Dry Skin Worse

Dry skin is just as susceptible to the effects of sensitizing ingredients as any other skin type. The difference is that instead of skin becoming oilier, it becomes drier, visibly flaky, and can look dehydrated and dull. We’re certain that’s not what anyone wants from their skincare products!

Many sensitizing ingredients (including denatured alcohol and fragrance mentioned above) quickly dehydrate skin’s surface, leading to a feeling of tight, drawn skin. With ongoing use, sensitizing, drying ingredients can rob skin’s surface of the replenishing ingredients it needs to stay smooth, supple, and hydrated. If you have dry, flaky, dehydrated skin, switching to non-irritating products can make a visible difference, often overnight!

All Skin Types, Be Gentle!

In order to get and keep the beautiful skin you want, treating skin gently is the best habit to begin! Doing so maintains a smooth and radiant surface, helps skin better defend itself from environmental damage, reduces excess surface oil, and can minimize the look of pores.

We know you will see dramatic improvements to your skin simply by avoiding products with problematic ingredients and learning to be gentle. This list also includes not pulling or tugging at skin, a bad habit that can hasten loss of firmness that makes skin (especially around the eyes) look older, not scrubbing or abrading skin, not using hot water, and avoiding anything that makes your skin tingle.

Avoid The Following...

The list below is a mini cheat sheet you can keep in mind when shopping for skincare products and using them at home:

  • Overly abrasive scrubs (such as those that contain aluminum oxide crystals, walnut shells, fruit pits, or pumice)
  • Toners containing known sensitizers denatured or SD alcohol, menthol, peppermint and witch hazel
  • Scrub mitts (think Buf-Puf) and loofahs
  • Facial masks containing fragrant essential oils and polyvinyl alcohol
  • Facial cleansing brushes unless the brand offers an ultra-soft brush head for sensitive skin
  • Bar soaps and bar cleansers, which are just too drying regardless of the claims
  • Any product with a strong, wafting scent, whether the source of the fragrance is natural or synthetic
  • Cold or hot water (lukewarm is ideal)
  • Steaming or icing the skin
  • Picking at skin

Common Irritating Ingredients to Avoid

  • Ammonia
  • Arnica
  • Balm mint
  • Balsam
  • Benzalkonium chloride
  • Benzyl alcohol
  • Bergamot
  • Camphor
  • Cinnamon
  • Citrus juices and oils
  • Clove
  • Clover blossom
  • Coriander
  • Essential oils
  • Eucalyptus
  • Eugenol
  • Fennel oil
  • Fir needle
  • Fragrance (natural or synthetic)
  • Geranium
  • Grapefruit
  • Horsetail
  • Isoeugenol
  • Lavender
  • Lemon
  • Lemongrass
  • Lime
  • Linalool
  • Melissa (lemon balm)
  • Menthol
  • Menthoxypropanediol
  • Menthyl lactate
  • Mint
  • Oak bark
  • Orange
  • Papaya
  • Parfum
  • Peppermint
  • Rose oil
  • Sandalwood oil
  • Sodium C14-16 olefin sulfate
  • Sodium lauryl sulfate
  • TEA-lauryl sulfate
  • Thyme
  • Wintergreen
  • Witch hazel
  • Ylang-ylang

The Best Skin of Your Life Starts Here: The same type of in-depth scientific research used to create this article is also used to formulate Paula’s Choice Skincare products. You’ll find products for all skin types and a range of concerns, from acne and sensitive skin to wrinkles, pores, and sun damage. With Paula’s Choice Skincare, you can get (and keep) the best skin of your life! See Paula's Choice Products for Sensitive Skin.

About the Experts

Paula Begoun is the best-selling author of 20 books about skincare and makeup. She is known worldwide as The Cosmetics Cop and creator of Paula’s Choice Skincare. Paula’s expertise has led to hundreds of appearances on national and international radio, print, and television including:

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The Paula's Choice Research Team is dedicated to busting beauty myths and providing expert advice that solves your skincare frustrations so you can have the best skin of your life!

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