Anyone who has sensitive skin knows how scary it can be — innocently trying a product that your friends claimed changed their lives can change yours in the wrong way and make your face red, inflamed, and flaky.
As someone with life-long, impossibly sensitive skin, I know the game well. To this day, I obsessively patch test all makeup and skincare products while tracking them in a spreadsheet. In this way, I know who’s to blame if one irritates me, the word “rash” being a part of my daily vocabulary — it’s a chore.
After more than 10 years of trying new products and waiting for my face to spontaneously combust immediately after (and with the help of my Korean dermatologist and Taiwanese esthetician), I’ve learned some ins and outs of which products are most likely to make my face hate me. Gentle cleanser? Great. Abrasive exfoliator? Who knows when I'll bounce back from that.
If you too are haunted by sensitive skin, look out for these ingredients.
Don’t panic, I’m not talking about your nightly apertif. Products that contain ethyl or denatured alcohol (like many astringents and aftershave) can dry out skin and affect how it rejuvenates itself, which can be a death sentence to sensitive skin.
However, fatty alcohols, like cetearyl alcohol, don’t have the same effect on the skin as other alcohols due to their chemical structure. The chemical makeup of cetearyl alcohol is different from more commonly known alcohols. In cetearyl alcohol, the alcohol group (-OH) is attached to a very long chain of hydrocarbons (fats). This feature allows fatty alcohols to trap water and provides a soothing feel to the skin.
The Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) Expert Panel has concluded that fatty alcohols, including cetearyl alcohol, are safe for use in cosmetic products.
Some constituents of certain essential oils, like those in bergamot, are transformed into chemicals and enzymes when exposed to sunlight, which can induce a photo-allergic response.
Tea tree, mint, citrus, and lavender oils should be used carefully or avoided completely. Tea tree oil can be safe for skin in diluted doses, but many acne products that contain amounts of tea tree oil that can lead to dryness and irritation. Mint, citrus, and lavender oils all can cause irritation and negative reactions to the skin.
Many skincare products contain fragrance to mask less-pleasant scents that some ingredients may have. Even natural fragrances can irritate sensitive skin. While FDA requires ingredients used in skincare products to be disclosed on the label, fragrance only needs to be listed as "fragrance" not as the ingredients within the scent. Fragrances are generally compounds of many other ingredients so you may never know what's in it. The EU requires all fragrances to list allergens like limonene or linalool if present in high-enough concentrations within the formula.
When you’re looking for fragrance-free products, make sure to pay attention to “fragrance-free” labels versus “unscented” ones. “Fragrance-free” usually means that no additional scents were added to the product, while “unscented” means that an ingredient was added to mask the smell of the product.
(Note: All EVENPRIME products are free of essential oils. EVEPRIME leave-on products like the mist and moisturizer are fragrance-free. The EVENPRIME Cleansing Gel utilizes a synthetic fragrance where allergen components like limonene at low levels where irritation is unlikely to occur. We always suggest to patch test though before using.)
There are two types of sunscreen: mineral and chemical. Mineral sunscreens have two active ingredients, titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, which work by physically blocking UV rays (which is why they’re often referred to as “physical sunscreen”). Chemical sunscreens contain a variety of chemicals, which absorb UV light and release it as heat after a chemical reaction takes place.
Chemical sunscreen have many more active ingredients than mineral versions, which makes the likelihood of irritating sensitive skin higher.
If you have skin that’s easily irritated, using an exfoliator that is too abrasive (physical or chemical) can cause your skin to be immediately inflamed. Although you shouldn’t avoid exfoliating completely — it’s vital to removing dead skin cells and getting that glow — opting for gentler versions is essential in avoiding in any skin flare-ups.
Sulfates can be too harsh for sensitive skin because they can be drying.