This should be obvious but it’s worth repeating:

Your skincare routine should be helping your skin not making it worse!

So if the stuff you’re using is causing your skin to break out, turn red, sting, burn or become irritated, itchy and/or inflamed — it makes sense to part ways, right?

Yes it’s a pain cycling through different products trying to find something that actually works for you.

Unfortunately, for all of us out there with sensitive skin this is an even bigger problem than usual because practically anything even mildly irritating can set our skin off.

That’s why we created this list of the most common skincare ingredients that irritate skin and you should avoid.

We can’t stress enough how important it is for those with sensitive skin to check the ingredients list in the products they buy! If you know what your skin likes and doesn’t like you won’t have to do any more second guessing about what it will or won’t react well with.

Helpful Tip: The closer the ingredient is to the top of the list, the higher its concentration in the product and the more damage it’ll do if you react negatively to it.

So…. what should you stay away from?


Synthetic fragrances are a real problem. They’re easily one of the most irritating and completely unnecessary ingredients found in most skincare products. Sure they might make that cream or lotion smell terrific but you aren’t using it for the smell are you? You just need something that works.

We’re honestly surprised how common it is to still find fragrances in products even though so many people have skin which reacts negatively to them. Fragrance free products are the way to go. Unfortunately, even products marked as “unscented” sometimes aren’t really so because they simply use chemicals called masking agents to help eliminate the true odor within the product.

Make sure whatever you’re using is labeled or clearly states that the product contains absolutely no fragrances of any kind (yes easier said than done but google might help you out here).

Plant Extracts

Certain ingredients derived from plants for whatever reason just don’t react well with some people’s skin.

These mostly come in the form of added “essential oils” such as lavender and eucalyptus which some people respond well to and others do not. We plan on coming out with a post soon on essential oils to further clarify any confusion but just be aware that it’s important these types of ingredients are properly diluted meaning they’re mixed with something called a carrier oil to reduce their strength otherwise they’ll wreak havoc on your skin.

(Note: this is more of a problem with DIY skincare because most brand products are properly diluted and contain the correct concentrations.)

If you find they work well for you or aren’t making things any worse then keep using them. Not everyone reacts the same, so it’s important to find what YOU react best to.

Again, this doesn’t mean every ingredient that comes from a plant or is an essential oil is bad. In fact there are plenty that do wonders and we’re pretty big on using products that contain natural ingredients.

Just remember that natural doesn’t necessarily mean better. Don’t fall for empty claims made by companies using “natural” as a buzzword to get you to buy their product. Do your research and read the ingredient list before you buy!


Commonly found in most toners and astringents and used as a preservative, alcohol excessively dries out skin by removing moisture which greatly increases the chances of your skin becoming irritated. Well hydrated skin is elastic and is much more resistant to cracking or getting that tight feeling you get after using a strong cleanser.

This is really more of a problem if the product contains too much alcohol. Again, the higher up it is on the ingredient list, the more alcohol it contains and the greater the chances your skin will become irritated.

Important Exception: There is such things as “good” alcohols. These are found mostly in moisturizing products and they include cetyl alcohol, stearyl alcohol, and cetearyl alcohol. These are of a “fatty” type and it’s unlikely they’ll cause any skin irritation.

The bad kind is ethanol, SD alcohol 40, SD alcohol 30, and other variations of the word alcohol and a number.

As another general rule, if the ingredient ends in an -ol, it’s a form of alcohol.

Most Sunscreen Ingredients

Look at your sunscreen’s ingredient list. Does it contain oxybenzone, octocrylene, octinoxate and/or avobenzone? These are some of the most common irritants found in chemical sunscreens that absorb into your skin. But not only are they skin allergens, some of them like oxybenzone are also hormone disruptors and affect your body in ways you really don’t want your sunscreen to.

We’ll make this simple for you: Look for products that contain zinc oxide or titanium dioxide instead. These are called mineral or physical sunscreens and they’re superior compared to chemical sunscreens in actually doing what they’re supposed to do which is…. well… protecting your skin from the sun!

Yes most mineral sunscreens will leave a thin white coat behind so you won’t be winning any beauty contests while wearing them but they are far superior at getting along with your skin than sunscreens with the chemicals listed above.


The infamous sufate family which include sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), sodium laureth sulfate (SLES), and ammonium lauryl sulfate (ALS) among others are all known to be overly harsh and irritating ingredients. These ingredients are commonly found in cleansers and are responsible for the foamy lather you get after massaging them over your skin.

We don’t even recommend these for normal skin so sensitive skin types should definitely steer clear — they’re simply too drying and they severely disrupt your skin’s pH balance. More on why that’s a bad thing here.

Lemon Juice

Hear that? It’s the sound of thousands of pinterest, youtube and tumblr users groaning.

Yes, lemons are great for food but not always so great for your skin. Why? The pH of lemon juice is way too low (around a 2 on the scale) meaning it’s too acidic to make it viable for effective skin care.

Your skin hovers around a 5.5 on the scale. Anything too high above or too far below isn’t good. Citric acids in general (another example being limes) create more problems than they solve and it’s better to avoid them completely especially by those with sensitive skin.

Yes, using lemon juice and other citric acids can help solve hyperpigmentation problems but you’re better off using something less irritating (there’s plenty of other, safer options — Vitamin C serums for example).

We think this is a case of one blogger or person pushing something as a remedy and then others copying what they did or taking it as a fact without trying it for themselves until a whirlpool of misinformation is created and everyone keeps repeating the bad advice to each other. We really aren’t sure why using lemon juice is parroted so much as good advice but it needs to end!

Some irritating ingredients can only be found through experience and by experimenting for long enough. For example, benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid are both probably the most common and recommended acne treatments around but a significant portion of people find their skin really just doesn’t work well with them. A lot of AHA exfoliators in general like glycolic acid, also give people problems.

In almost every case, there are alternatives. For example, you can replace glycolic acid with lactic acid if your skin is overly sensitive or benzoyl peroxide with sulfur. We always offer alternatives when we discuss treatments for ‘Skin Woes’ because not everyone is the same!

If there’s three things you learn after reading this post, let it be these three:

  1. Read the ingredient list
  2. Do your research
  3. Find what works well for YOU and your skin, because everyone is different

What do you think? Have a specific ingredient that irritates your skin?  Let us know in the comments.

Those of us who suffer with sensitive skin have to be more careful with the types of skincare products we use. Learn about the most common ingredients found in cosmetics and which you should avoid to stop irritation, redness, and breakouts.