If your skin skews sensitive skin, the thought of testing new products is downright frightening. You never know what’s going to cause flare-ups, red spots, rashes, stinging or another weird reaction.
But just because you have sensitive skin, doesn’t mean the whole skincare game has to be a struggle. You just have to know which ingredients you should steer clear of.
We spoke to skin expert and founder of Skin Virtue, Nina Gajic, and asked her to tell us some of the main no-no’s when it comes to taking care of sensitive skin.
But before we dive in, it’s important to know if you’re actually dealing with sensitive skin or just some irritation. Let’s take a look at some common signs of sensitive skin.
If you find that active products like retinol and vitamin C always cause stinging, redness or other reactions, this could be a sign that you have sensitive skin.
“Sensitive skin is prone to inflammation and adverse reactions. If you have sensitive skin you will notice your skin is easily irritated and reactive, the symptoms can range from redness, itching, stinging, burning, peeling and flaking skin. You may also be experiencing more breakouts than usual,” explains Gajic.
Sound familiar? Gajic said there is a way to determine the type of sensitivity you’re dealing with - however, self-diagnosis isn’t exactly easy.
“To determine the type of sensitivity you are dealing with, you need to figure out if you are having an allergic or an adverse reaction,” she said.
“To be able to identify this, you need to assess the response (the reaction), confinement (the area in which the reaction is present) and the developmental timeframe of the reaction (i.e. how fast or slow did the reaction take to manifest), as well as investigate what products or ingredients you were using. This is not a simple task as both allergic and adverse reaction can be experienced simultaneously and can occur from many sources.”
Our advice? See a dermatologist to properly diagnose your skin. Because more often than not, you’ll attempt to treat your sensitivity, without knowing you’re exposing your skin to the very ingredient that is irritating you in the first place. And the more your skin is exposed to a particular ingredient, the more it sensitises the skin. No good.
So, what is actually causing the irritation on your skin? Well, it turns out the answer is pretty simple.
“The most common contributor to both allergic and adverse reactions is fragrance, soaps, detergents solvents and an impaired skin barrier,” said Gajic.
“To best treat sensitive, irritated and allergic skin, always choose brands that formulate with the least irritating ingredients available.”
Here’s a list of ingredients you should avoid if you have easily irritated skin. While there’s a long list of things that may cause a potential reaction, these are the most common ones to look for.
According to Gajic, fragrance is considered the most common irritant in cosmetic products and can be allergenic regardless of whether it is naturally or synthetically derived.
“Fragrances are a complex mixture of various scent substances, and anyone of us can be sensitive to one of these substances,” she said.
So, should we just opt for fragrance-free formulas, instead?
“Often products listed as ‘fragrance-free’ are formulated with ‘alternative’ fragrances that do not need to be labelled as fragrance. These alternative ingredients can be more irritating than regulated fragrances.”
“I like fragrances and we do include them in our Skin Virtue formulations (other than eye creams). However, to be safe we utilise allergen-free fragrances, as they are least likely to trigger reactions. ‘Allergen-free fragrance’ means simply that the fragrance does not contain any of the 26 substances recognised as allergens by the current regulations.”
So, instead of looking for products that are ‘fragrance-free’, opt for products that are ‘allergen-free fragrance’.
“This way you will know that you are applying a product that is least likely to provoke a reaction, or if you know you are allergic to fragrances (i.e. you cannot use perfume) then it is best to avoid them all together.”
If you suffer from sensitive skin, Gajic said propylene glycol is another ingredient you might want to avoid.
“In my experience, propylene glycol is an irritant and has shown to induce allergic reactions. If you become allergic to this ingredient you’ll likely show signs of contact dermatitis that include patches of redness or a rash with or without hives,” explains Gajic.
This sounds… not good.
“It is an irritant and has been implicated in contact dermatitis and can inhibit skin cell growth and damage cell membranes, causing rashes, dry skin, and surface damage - everything we want to avoid.”
Our advice? Ditch it from your skincare ingredient list.
“I have personally seen the positive effects of removing this ingredient from our formulations,” said Gajic.
This ingredient is most commonly used in acne-fighting products, however what you might not know is that it is incredibly harsh on the skin barrier and way too strong to use on sensitive skin types (and any other skin type, for that matter!).
Benzoyl peroxide works by drying out pimples, and basically strips the skin of moisture. Meaning? Not a good time for people with skin prone to irritation and inflammation.
If you have sensitive skin but also experience breakouts and acne on the regular, Gajic said to look for soothing and calming ingredients, such as marine active laminaris saccharina or botanical edelweiss extract – both have anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial and antioxidant activities.
Lactic acid is another great option for those with sensitive skin types – it’s a gentle acid that will help clear your skin without messing with your skin barrier. However, just be sure not to go overboard and stick to lower concentrations.
When it comes active ingredients, vitamin A is known as the gold standard. However, it’s also known to cause irritation to the skin - and there a few specific forms you’re better off avoiding.
“Vitamin A can be tricky,” said Gajic. “According to strength, retinoic acid (a prescription vitamin A) is the most potent form. Once applied to the skin it has a direct effect, and it also has the highest potential for irritation.”
“Retinaldehyde and retinol are next in line. Within the skin, they only need one enzymatic conversion to turn into retinoic acid. The downside is that they take some time to ‘adapt to’ and can cause flaking and scaling, as well as photosensitivity and transepidermal water loss (TEWL) in the skin. They are also quite irritating and not tolerated well by sensitive or allergic skin.”
So, does that mean vitamin A is a total no-go? Well, not necessarily – not all types of retinoids are equally irritating.
Gajic said to look out for retinyl palmitate – a different form of vitamin A that converts to retinol and retinoic acid. It’s basically just a less-potent version that won’t mess with your sensitive skin.
“It is the least irritating form of vitamin A, which makes it more comfortable to be applied daily and consistently without concern of irritation. Therefore, your skin is receiving a gentler form of vitamin A without the ‘adapt to’ phase or uncomfortable side effects of its more potent rivals.”
Despite the antioxidant being such a powerhouse ingredient for free radical defence and anti-ageing, vitamin C is another active ingredient that may cause irritation and skin sensitivity – often resulting in red bumps and itchy skin.
So, finding a gentle form of vitamin C in the right concentration is super important.
Gajic said for dry and sensitive skin types, look for ingredients such as ascorbyl tetraisopalmitate and ascorbyl palmitate, as these will be less irritating.
“Ascorbyl tetraisopalmitate is an esterified derivative from vitamin C. It has the highest stability among all vitamin C, it is non-acidic and gentle to use,” she said.
“Ascorbyl palmitate is also a gentle and stable form of Vitamin C with enhanced penetration ability. Both are very effective.”
Over-use of physical scrubs
Going too hard on the exfoliation front is a big no-no for sensitive skin types, and you can end up doing more harm than good.
If you’re over-exfoliating your skin, you’re more than likely to see symptoms such as redness, burning, dryness or dryness. So, it’s best to keep your exfoliation with physical scrubs to a minimum.
“Scrubbing the skin daily is just not necessary, nor it is any more effective than scrubbing once or twice a week. The skin has a natural renewal cycle of approximately 28 days, and exfoliation helps to support this natural biological cycle (by breaking down oil, debris and dead surface skin cells),” she said.
So, how often should you exfoliate?
Well, according to Gajic, once to twice a week is more than sufficient. “Even if the exfoliant is gentle, it is best to not over do it.”
Just make sure you steer clear of abrasive facial scrubs (such as those with apricot kernels) and instead look for exfoliating products that are gentle and safe for sensitive skin (Skin Virtue’s Pure Exfoliating Mask - Skin polishing Peel is a good option).
If you find yourself tempted to over-exfoliate your skin on the regular (you crazy thing!), you might be better off incorporating a chemical exfoliator into your routine – specifically those that hero hydrating and soothing ingredients.
Other ingredients to avoid include preservatives, parabens, sodium laurel sulphate (the stuff that makes your cleanser or shampoo foam) and mineral oils.
“We are all individuals and what works for one person might not work for another - so it’s best to go slow and steady when incorporating specific products into your routine,” says Gajic.
“If you are trying something new, introduce one product at a time and if your skin shows no signs of sensitivity, then you are ready to move on to another product.”
Do you have any tips for ingredients to use and avoid when it comes to sensitive skin? Please share your idea's with me at email@example.com