How to Care for Sensitive Skin

Introducing my personalized skincare consultation service. Please fill out the form below to begin your journey to flawless skin.

Please enable JavaScript in your browser to complete this form.
What would you like help with?
What issues are you looking to address?

Sensitive skin is not technical a skin type, it is actually a term used to describe a skin condition that occurs when skin easily is irritated, becomes sore and tender, and often is reactive to external factors like topical cosmetic and skincare products. Some people are born with a tendency towards skin sensitivity and a weakened skin barrier, but some develop it during periods of their life, the good news is that it can be controlled. Many potential triggers exist including fluctuating hormonal levels, lack of sleep, dietary choices, exposure to pollution, changes in weather and extremes of temperatures.

Skin sensitivity and allergies are a result of the immune system’s overreacting to substances that can be harmless. An allergen can trigger the immune system to release chemical substances such as antibodies that result in allergy symptoms like itchy, red rashes on the skin. Most allergins work in a cumulative way, so patch testing is not always a reliable way of knowing if a product is likely to cause issues.  How irritating an ingredient is likely to depend on how high up it is on the ingredient list it is, the greater the concentration of any ingredient it contains, the greater the chances your skin will become irritated.  This however can only be used as a guide as below 1%, ingredients can be listed in any order, so undesirable ones are often put near the end of the list to disguise the amount in the product.

In this post, I have put together some commonly encountered topical irritants that are best to avoid or reduce to decrease the chances of sensitivity, in the next post we will focus on how to heal sensitivity and what skincare routines can help.

What Skincare Ingredients are Potential Irritants?

There has been a lot of hype about certain skincare ingredients being toxic and causing disruption to the endocrine system.  While a lot of the “research” used to make these claims is often misinterpreted or refuted, many rumours remain. My aim is not to contribute to the fear of chemicals with this list of ingredients I personally look for and try to avoid.  Instead, I have presented this as a way of educating what ingredients have been scientifically found to cause irritation to the skin or be detrimental to the environment.  As someone who has previously experienced dermatitis, and who has easily sensitized skin, I use this list as a way of eliminating products from my routine if I react, or as a way to make informed decisions when purchasing new products, and I hope you can do the same.


Fragrance is a mix of aroma compounds. If fragrance is listed in the ingredients, it has been added to change the smell of the product and imparts no skincare benefits. The way most fragrance ingredients release scent is through a volatile chemical reaction, that can be incredibly sensitizing to the skin. This is true of both natural and synthetic fragrances.

Any fragrance is only legally required to be labelled in cosmetic products within the EU if present at concentrations above 10 ppm. In addition, perfume is an umbrella term for hundreds of different chemicals, so finding the exact ingredient that caused an allergy can be impossible.

The American Academy of Dermatology reported in skincare fragrances are the leading cause of allergic reactions. The types of reactions include dermatitis and rashes, and about 35% of people experience migraines or respiratory problems after exposure. Any added fragrance is, in my opinion, completely unnecessary at best, and very irritating to the skin at worst.

Look for: Fragrance, Perfume or Parfum.


Alcohols are sometimes added to skincare and cosmetics to improve the consistency and feel of a thick and heavy formulation. The process of alcohol evaporating gives certain formulas (like sunscreens or foundation) a quick-drying effect. This effect is why they are so detrimental to the skin when evaporation they dry out the skin’s natural moisture leaving the skin dry and vulnerable to irritation.  In addition, they alter the balance of bacteria on the skin and can disrupt the sensitive microbiome. As alcohol is such an effective antimicrobial additive, you will (hopefully) never see alcohol in a product that contains a live probiotic, as it would kill any beneficial bacteria in the formula.

When reading an ingredient list, the presence of alcohol is not necessarily a red flag. The term ‘alcohol’ relates to a large group of compounds that contain a hydroxyl group (-OH). A different class within this group is the fatty alcohols, which includes cetyl, cetaryl, behenyl and stearyl alcohols. They are higher molecular weights and tend to be a waxy consistency. When added to formulations, they are helpful emulsifiers, helping to hold oil and water in suspension. Generally, they do not cause skin irritation and can act as emollients by retaining moisture within the skin.

Look for: Ethanol, SD alcohol, Methanol, Denatured alcohol, Ethyl alcohol, Isopropyl alcohol.

Essential Oils:

Essential oils or plant extracts are included as either a functional ingredient, with antioxidant properties or as a fragrance. Reactions can range from contact dermatitis with immediate or delayed hypersensitivity. The range of oils is vast, and the research can be contradictory, so I will leave avoidance as a personal preference for myself.

Some phototoxic essential oils, including bergamot, orange and lemon induce a photo-allergic response when exposed to sunlight.  This makes the skin hypersensitive to UV exposure and can cause redness, discolouration, itching and burning and blistering of the skin. It is recommended to wait 12 hours after applying an essential oil before exposing the skin to sunlight.

This review conducted over an eight-year period found that the most sensitizing essential oils were tea tree, ylang-ylang, sandalwood lemongrass, jasmine, clove lavender and peppermint.


Preservatives are used to prevent microbial growth in personal care products, but can also cause irritation to the skin and are considered to be the second most common cause of cosmetic allergic contact dermatitis. Phenoxyethanol is legally allowed to be used in the EU in concentrations of up to 1.0% in all product categories. Phenoxyethanol is not considered safe for infants and young children to digest, so it shouldn’t be put on skin where an infant might suckle.

Luckily, there are highly effective, gentle preservatives for skincare that will keep unwanted contamination at bay and won’t harm your skin.

Look for: Phenoxyethanol, Methylchloroisothiazolinone (MCI), Methylisothiazolinone (MIT/MI)


Surfactants are non-volatile alcohols that serve several functions but are best known for their use in cleansers and shampoos as foaming agents. Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLS) is one of the most sensitizing ingredients used in skincare products.  SLS can cause dry and flaking skin, allergies, redness, dandruff and eye irritation. It is a harsh detergent that strips the natural oils from your skin and disrupts the skin’s delicate pH balance.

Sulphates also disrupt the number of ceramides (the oil mixture that holds the skin cells together).  This can lead to long-term dryness and premature aging of the appearance of the skin.

Look for: SLS, Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Sodium lauryl sulfate, Sodium dodecyl sulfate.

Formaldehyde Releasers:

While formaldehyde, a known carcinogen has been largely replaced in skincare products, chemicals referred to as formaldehyde-releasers are widely used.  They are included in skincare and cosmetics as antimicrobial and antifungal agents. Formaldehyde releasing preservatives are also known allergens and sensitizers.

Look for: Bronopol, DMDM hydantoin, diazolidinyl urea, imidazolidinyl urea, and quaternium-15, 5-Bromo-5-nitro-1,3-dioxane, Hydroxymethylglycinate.


These are a group of chemicals that make plastics more flexible and durable.  They are used in personal care products to fix fragrances and hold colour, they are potential endocrine disruptors but are not required by law to be listed under US regulations, and are instead referred to as fragrance.

Look for: dibutyl phalate (DBT), dimethyl phatlate (DMP), diethyl phalate (DEP) and fragrance.


Parabens are the most commonly used synthetic preservatives, as they display a broad-spectrum activity against yeasts, moulds, and bacterial contamination. However, there is some controversy surrounding their ability to be absorbed and accumulate within the body where they can potentially act as endocrine disruptors.  The evidence for this is equally as controversial, with many studies looking at oral intake rather than topical application.  The Expert Panel for Cosmetic Ingredient Safety Panel assessed 21 different parabens and concluded that “20 of the 21 parabens included in this report are safe in cosmetics in the present practices of use and concentration described in this safety assessment when the sum of the total parabens in any given formulation does not exceed 0.8%”. This does however not take into account how many different products are being applied to the skin at one time, especially in the context of the 10-step skincare routine.  The takeaway message is to avoid paraben containing products if you are concerned about toxicity.

Look for: Methylparaben, Ethylparaben, Propylparaben, Benzylparaben and Butylparaben.


This is a very popular antimicrobial ingredient found in antibacterial handwashes, hand sanitiser, facewash, and toothpaste. It was banned in some soap products in 2016 by the U.S.A. Food and Drug Administrating after it was linked to several allergies such as skin and eye irritation. It has been shown to enter the bloodstream via the skin and mucosal membranes and may cause hormone disruption in the human body.

In addition to promoting antibacterial resistance in ecosystems, triclosan is considered an environmental hazard as it accumulates in the environment due to its slow rate of breakdown. It is also a potentially toxic substance to marine life and would most likely have a negative effect on the ecosystem.

Look for: Triclosan (TSC), triclocarban (TCC).

Tocopherol (Vitamin E):

A skin reaction following vitamin E exposure is the result of increased levels of histamine in the skin. Histamine is a naturally occurring chemical produced by the body that helps to protect it from infection and disease. Too much histamine causes irritation and inflammation in the skin, leading to skin rashes. This article reviewed PubMed journals and was conducted to review the prevalence of vitamin E-induced allergic contact dermatitis (AED). It revealed that of the 931 cases of ACD,  vitamin E-induced ACD is an uncommon phenomenon and the incidence is low despite its widespread use in skincare products. It concluded that given Vitamin E’s antioxidant and photoprotective properties, vitamin E should remain an ingredient in skincare products, although anyone with a known reaction should avoid this ingredient.

Look for: Vitamin E, Alpha-tocopheryl acetate (ATA), tocopherol or alpha-tocopherol

How common are irritating ingredients in skincare?

The graph below shows the most common potential allergens in 174 of the best-selling moisturizers and highlights how hard it is to find skincare products that contain few or no potentially sensitizing ingredients.

Most Common Potential Allergens in 174 Best-selling Moisturizer Products 

Source: Xu S, Kwa M, Lohman ME, Evers-Meltzer R, Silverberg JI. Consumer Preferences, Product Characteristics, and Potentially Allergenic Ingredients in Best-selling Moisturizers. JAMA Dermatol. 2017 Nov 1;153(11):1099-1105. doi: 10.1001/jamadermatol.2017.3046. PMID: 28877310; PMCID: PMC5710429.

Personally, I refuse to expose my sensitive skin to unnecessary ingredients sensitizing alcohol, fragrance, or essential oils. Skincare companies are listening to the increasing desires of consumers for more transparency in their products, with the knowledge of avoiding harmful ingredients driving the development of more “skin-friendly” products. However, many skincare companies are still adding these ingredients to their formulations, so it falls on the consumer to make informed choices about what products they choose to use on their skin.


  • Amended Safety Assessment of Parabens as Used in Cosmetics, International Journal of Toxicology, 2020
  • Paraben paradoxes in cosmetic formulations: A review.  International Journal of Medical Research and Pharmaceutical Sciences, 2016
  • Consumer Preferences, Product Characteristics, and Potentially Allergenic Ingredients in Best-selling Moisturizers.  JANA Dermatology, 2017
  • Allergens in Cosmetics, U.S. Food and Drug Administration, 2020
  • Phototoxicity of essential oils intended for cosmetic use. Toxicology in Vitro, 2010
  • Consumer Preferences, Product Characteristics, and Potentially Allergenic Ingredients in Best-selling Moisturizers.  JANA Dermatology, 2017
  • Allergens in Cosmetics, U.S. Food and Drug Administration, 2020
  • Contact allergy to essential oils: current patch test results (2000–2008) from the Information Network of Departments of Dermatology. Contact Dermatitis Cutaneous Allergy Environmental and Occupational dermatitis, 2010
  • Sensitive skin: an overview. Indian Journal of Dermatology, 2013
  • Women’s exposure to phthalates in relation to use of personal care products. Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology, 2012
  • Triclosan Exposure, Transformation, and Human Health Effects. Journal Toxicology and Environmental Health, 2018
  • Vitamin E and allergic contact dermatitis. Dermatitis, 2010