The Worst Skincare Ingredients For Sensitive Skin: Avoid These Common Irritants

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This should be obvious but it’s worth repeating:

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

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

Yes it’s a pain cycling through different skincare 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 guide on some of the worst skincare ingredients commonly found in products that you need to avoid.

These are toxic ingredients found in practically everything: cleansers, moisturizers, toners, exfoliants, creams, and various other cosmetics. Some of them are even known to be harmful to your health and are considered carcinogens in higher concentrations. We don’t know about you but we’d rather not put ANYTHING on our skin that is potentially harmful to our health even if it’s considered “safe” at lower quantities.

We can’t stress enough how important it is for those with sensitive skin to check the label on the products they buy! If you know which skincare ingredients work well with your skin and which don’t you’ll be saving yourself a lot of money and frustration.

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 your skin reacts negatively to it.

We ultimately hope this guide can help you choose better products for your skincare routine. Let us know how we did on Pinterest or Twitter (@maxmylooks for both).

Now let’s begin!

The Worst Skincare Ingredients For Sensitive Skin


Did you know that fragrances rank among the top five most common allergens when performing the patch-test? If you don’t know, a patch test is when you apply a small quantity of a product on a small part of your skin to test if you experience any adverse reactions. In the study we linked to above, 10.4% of the participants experienced allergic contact dermatitis when tested with on a fragrance mix.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) which keeps a database of cosmetics, has fragrances rated as an 8 putting it in the “high hazard” category group with irritation and organ system toxicity as its primary concerns.

We’re honestly surprised at how common it is to still find fragrances in products even though they react negatively with so many people’s skin.

Both synthetic and natural fragrances are a problem. They’re easily among the most irritating and unnecessary ingredients found in skincare products. Sure they might make that cream or lotion smell terrific but you aren’t using it for the smell are you? As long as it doesn’t smell terrible you just need something that works for its intended purpose.

Oftentimes the individual ingredients forming the fragrance aren’t even explicitly labeled. You’ll find the words “fragrance” or “parfum” but no mention of what constitutes either one of them. Even products marked as “unscented” sometimes aren’t really so because they use chemicals called masking agents to help eliminate the true odor within the product.

Instead of “unscented” look for the words “fragrance free.” This doesn’t mean that there will be no smell but that no artificial masking agent was added to reduce the product’s natural odor. This method isn’t foolproof but it can help narrow down your options when searching for a product that won’t irritate your skin.

Plant Extracts

Certain ingredients derived from plants, for whatever reason, just don’t react well with sensitive skin.

Essential oils for sensitive skin

These mostly come in the form of added “essential oils” such as lavender, eucalyptus, and other extracts derived from botanicals.

Lavender for example lacks natural protection from autoxidation meaning when the ingredient is exposed to the air it increases the chances of irritation or an allergic reaction on the skin.

We’re coming out with a larger 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.

This is more of a problem with DIY skincare because most brand products are in fact properly diluted and contain the correct concentrations. Just don’t be fooled by products labeled with higher percent concentrations thinking they’re better because they’re stronger.

If you find it works well for you or it doesn’t cause any problems then keep using it. 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 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! The EWG maintains a database of various products along with the safety ratings of their ingredients so you can try searching on there before you buy.

Here’s also a quick list of other (potentially) problematic plant extracts:

  • witch hazel
  • chamomile
  • peppermint, menthol, or any kind of mint


Commonly found in toners and astringents and used as a preservative, alcohol excessively dries out skin by stripping it of its natural 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 greater the concentration of alcohol it contains and the greater the chances your skin will become irritated.

Important Exception: There are such things as “good” alcohols. These are found mostly found 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 is a form of alcohol.

Most Sunscreen Ingredients

Look at your sunscreen’s ingredient list. Does it contain oxybenzone, octocrylene, octinoxate, or avobenzone? Maybe a combination?

The above mentioned are some of the most common irritants found in chemical sunscreens. They quickly absorb into the skin which is why they’re so commonly used. But not only are they skin allergens, some of them like oxybenzone are also endocrine disruptors and affect your body in ways you really don’t want your sunscreen to be affecting it.

Instead, look for products that contain zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. 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. They also won’t absorb into your body as much because the molecules themselves are larger than the pores of your skin (hence the white coat) lessening the chance of any irritation.


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

We don’t recommend these whether you have sensitive skin or not. They’re simply too drying and they severely disrupt your skin’s natural pH balance. The acne causing bacteria, P. acnes, thrives when the pH level of your skin is far from its natural range which sulfates can drastically change.

Lemon Juice and Other Citric Acids

Hear that? It’s the sound of thousands of Pinterest, YouTube and tumblr beauty bloggers groaning.

Lemon oil for skin

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 an effective skincare routine.

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 (other examples being lime, orange, and bergamot) create more problems than they solve and it’s better to avoid them completely especially if you have sensitive skin.

Some people use citric acids to help solve hyperpigmentation problems but you’re better off using an ingredient less irritating. There’s plenty of safer options — Vitamin C serums for example.

We think this is a case of one blogger 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 same bad advice to each other.

We really aren’t sure why using lemon juice keeps getting added as an ingredient to DIY skincare recipes but it needs to end!

Alternatives To Irritating Skincare Ingredients

Some irritants can only be found through experience or by experimenting for long enough. For example, benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid are both probably the most common and recommended acne spot treatments around but a significant portion of the population finds that their skin really just doesn’t work well with them at all. In fact few people know that salicylic acid is the active ingredient in aspirin of which a small percentage of people are naturally allergic to.

A lot of AHA (alpha hydroxy acid) exfoliants like glycolic acid also give people problems. These exfoliants contain small molecules which are quickly absorbed into your skin similar to chemical sunscreens.

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 a sulfur treatment. We always offer alternatives when we discuss products for various skin conditions 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.

We hope you found this guide useful. Sensitive skin is a pain and we know how frustrating it can be finding products that work. Check out our other tips on dealing with sensitive skin here.

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