Ingredients to Avoid for Sensitive Skin

How does you know if your skin is sensitive? Given that sensitivity can show up in many ways on the skin, the answer to this question is not simple. For example, if you touch Cassandra’s skin, it gets very red, but she can handle a lot of pain. For some people, sensitivity means being very reactive to certain ingredients or allergens. While for others, it means natural redness, flushing, or rosacea. Sensitivity can also bring on stinging or burning. What’s even more complex is that sensitizing ingredients vary, meaning that there are some things that are fine for some and bad for others.

Let’s review some of those common culprits by going through a skincare routine. To begin with, many cleansers tend to have fragrances. However, not all fragrances are bad, but our point of contention is the word “fragrance.” Contrary to common knowledge, the word “fragrance” on an ingredient label can indicate multiple ingredients. Therefore, we won’t always know what’s in a “fragrance.” More simply, when “fragrance” is listed on a bottle, it can have a blend of several things. Fragrances are often custom mixes put together by cosmetic or fragrance chemists.

Moreover, there are also unscented products, but a lot of people don’t know that “unscented” is actually a scent that can be used to deafen the natural smell of a product. And if you do have sensitive skin, the “unscented” aspect might be something that can cause irritation, redness, breakouts, or hives. That’s why people who do have sensitive skin should probably stay away from fragrance, and look for “fragrance-free” rather than “unscented” products, especially if you have a fragrance allergy. Fragrance allergies require diagnosis, and real fragrance allergies happen in about 2-5% of the population. Fragrance allergies develop over time, and if you’re sensitive to fragrances, it’s best  just to play it safe and avoid fragrances altogether, including essential oils. 

So, what is an essential oil vs a fragrance?

Essential oils can vary in their effect on the skin. The effect largely depends on what the essence or essential oil is. Rather than just acting as a fragrance, sometimes essential oils provide benefits like omega fatty acids. However, essential oils like cinnamon, eucalyptus, or lavender are likely to irritate people with sensitive skin. And even things like tea tree or rose oil can irritate the skin. Since the definition of “sensitive” will always vary from person to person, the best thing you can do is find cleansers that don’t have fragrances. 

A few of Cassandra’s inexpensive top picks are from The Inkey List and The Ordinary. 

The Ordinary Squalane Cleanser - $7.90


The one from The Ordinary is better for drier to combination skin. It’s a good squalane cleanser, but Cassandra doesn’t exactly love it for oily prone skin. 

The Inkey List Hyaluronic Acid Cleanser -$9.99


Cassandra really likes this hyaluronic acid cleanser from the Inkey List, and if you have acne, this salicylic acid cleanser does fabulously. 

The Inkey List Salicylic Acid Ace + Pore Cleanse -$10.99


All of these cleansers are inexpensive, affordable, and fragrance-free, but some luxury ones can also fit the bill. Paula’s Choice has a few good ones, but upon shopping for Luxury cleansers, make sure you’re looking at that ingredient list. If you see anything that says “essential oil” or “fragrance,” that’s what you want to avoid. Look out for things like limonene, hexyl cinnamal, or geraniol. These are technically fragrances that could cause irritation. Here are a few more ingredients that are known to be sensitizing.

  • Cinnamon
  • Eucalyptus
  • Lavender
  • Tea Tree
  • Rosemary
  • Rose
  • Limonene/ linalool
  • Geraniol
  • Orange/citrus

Toners and Essences. 

Another common culprit for sensitive skin is alcohol, an ingredient often found in toners and essences. Denatured alcohol, SD alcohol, or isopropyl alcohol is often what’s used to clean surfaces and the skin before you get your blood drawn. While these types of alcohol can be used in skin care to cleanse, they can burn, sting, and cause flush when used on sensitive skin. However, not all skincare alcohols are problematic. In chemistry, anything that has an OH group at the end is considered an alcohol. OH groups can be a fatty alcohol or hydrating alcohol etc. So, not all alcohols are bad, but if you do see denatured or alcohol SD within the first three ingredients in a product list, perhaps avoid it. This is typical with makeup setting sprays, but again, if you’re sensitive or prone to breakouts, that’s probably something that you want to avoid.

However, some toners and essences don’t include stripping alcohol.

The Pyangkul is one of Cassandra’s favorites, and it has membranaceus root extract which is actually very hydrating and soothing. While essences tend to be a bit more hydrating, toners often include actives. Exfoliating actives are common to toners, but sometimes we have to tread lightly with exfoliating actives and sensitive skin. Yes, salicylic, glycolic, and lactic acid are wonderful for exfoliation and brightening the skin, but they can cause irritation even to acne.

Moreover, some anti-acne or anti-wrinkle products can irritate because they work by causing minor damage to the skin barrier. Naturally, this is not always the best for sensitive skin. That’s why it’s important to patch test your skincare. If you have sensitive skin and are prone to irritation, you need to patch test everything. 

For instance, while your skin may fare well with salicylic acid, glycolic acid has a much smaller molecule and may be sensitizing for you. Additionally, glycolic acid is water-soluble while salicylic acid is oil soluble. As a result, they can perform very differently on people’s faces. So, if you have sensitive skin, you want to be careful with acids. Now that being said, not all acids are irritating or exfoliating. You can opt-in for a polyhydroxy acid which is much more gentle on the skin. Another example is hyaluronic acid. Although we call it an acid in chemistry, it's not exfoliating, and it doesn't damage the skin barrier in the way glycolic acid would. While it’s true that hyaluronic acid can irritate super sensitive people, it normally depends on what environment you're in, or if you're using other hydrators along with it.

Physical Exfoliants

Because chemical exfoliants or acids may be irritating to sensitive skin, you may consider using a physical exfoliant. Many physical exfoliants contain walnut shells, peach shells, and apricot pits which can be very irritating to the skin. If you have sensitive skin, avoid abrasion. However, if you like the feeling of a physical grit or texture, there are peeling gels that peel and ball upon themselves. There are no rough or jagged edges. This scrub from HaruHaru is not one of Cassandra’s favorite products, but it’s a very gentle way to exfoliate if you are someone who likes physical exfoliation. Rice powder is very gentle as well. 

HaruHaru WONDER  Black Rice Soft Peeling Gel - $20.30

Also, Dermalogica has a Daily Microfoliant that’s very gentle. 

Dermalogica Daily Microfoliant, Powder exfoliant - $62

As long as you're not doing physical exfoliants every day, they can be fine for sensitive skin.  


Sometimes chemical/organic sunscreens can be irritating for sensitive skin. On the other hand, physical/mineral sunscreens tend to flashback or give a pasty look. While chemical sunscreens often blend elegantly into the skin, these sunscreens can cause a reaction. Chemical sunscreens often have ingredients that end in “o-n-e” like benzone. These aren't going to be volatile for everyone, but it is important to figure out which sunscreens sting or work well. Do they sting if you have an open acne blemish or lesion? Do they just sting in general? For Cassandra, certain sunscreens sting her blemishes. Although you can still have a reaction to physical sunscreens, you’re less likely to. 

Furthermore, one thing that’s becoming more and more common in sunscreens is phenoxyethanol. It’s a type of alcohol that’s used as a preservative. Even though people really dislike them, parabens are also used to preserve products. They are not inherently bad as they prevent things like mold and bacteria from growing in them. Because consumers have started to demand paraben-free products, brands started finding new preservatives. That’s where phenoxyethanol came in. Phenoxyethanol is normally used in concentrations of up to 1%. It’s an aromatic alcohol that might cause flushing within the first 30 seconds. But then, it evaporates off the skin, and that’s why it stops burning soon after application. 

COOLA Organic Mineral Matte Sunscreen SPF 30 Sunblock - $36

If you do have allergies, make sure you patch test products with phenoxyethanol, and in general, we would recommend getting a bona fide allergy test if you have sensitive skin.

 Coverphoto cred: Gettyimages