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Ingredients to Avoid If You Have Sensitive Skin

ingredients to avoid for sensitive skin

It only takes a glance down the beauty aisle to know that there is no shortage of choices when shopping for skin care products. That’s because no two skin types are exactly alike. The lucky ones are blessed with smooth, blemish-free complexions, while others battle oily or acne-prone skin.  Some people can use just about any product on their skin without any reaction, while others are more easily irritated. If your skin reacts to a lot of skin care products with breakouts, redness, itchiness, or irritation, you probably have sensitive skin.

sensitive skin

Sensitive skin can be a bother and disrupt even the most vigilant beauty routine. These days, there are a ton of products that are specifically formulated for sensitive skin, and while they often—but not always—work, they can be expensive, and you might have to try several before finding something that works for you. Constant irritation and flare-ups can be frustrating and make you want to throw in the towel. But all is not lost! Having sensitive skin doesn’t mean you can’t have beautiful skin; it just needs a little extra TLC (tender loving care).  Before you head to the drug store and load up your cart with a dozen different cleansers, creams, and moisturizers that claim to be the perfect match for delicate skin, read on to learn about the most common ingredients you’ll want to avoid in your beauty products to protect your sensitive skin and keep it looking and feeling its best.


We all love to smell good, and so we naturally gravitate toward products that have lovely scents. But most of the time those added fragrances don’t offer any real benefit to the health of your skin. In fact, and especially for sensitive skin, they can do the opposite. According to dermatologist Dr. Joel Schlessinger, companies aren’t required to reveal what chemicals are included in their fragrance recipes, and while the label may simply list “fragrance” as an ingredient, that artificial fragrance could in fact “contain 200 or more different chemical or botanical components, and your skin could react to any one of them.” And did you know that there is a difference between “unscented” and “fragrance-free?” When picking out a skin care product, opt for “fragrance-free”, which indicates that no artificial fragrances were added and that any scent in the product occurs naturally from the other ingredients, while “unscented” usually suggests that something—often something your sensitive skin won’t love—was added to cover up those naturally occurring scents.


You’ve probably heard of them, but what exactly are parabens? They’re man-made preservatives widely used in pharmaceutical products to lengthen shelf life and prevent bacteria growth. Seems pretty important, right? Well, yes, but in recent years the discovery of the potential side effects of these preservatives seem to far outweigh any benefit they might have. Truth be told, parabens like benzylparaben, butylparaben, ethylparaben, and isobutylparaben don’t generally cause skin irritation, although they have been known to cause skin inflammation in some people, but they make the list of ingredients to avoid because they mimic excess estrogen in the body, triggering the growth of breast tumors and increasing the risk of breast cancer. If that weren’t enough, they’ve also been linked to male infertility and premature skin aging.

color dye bottles


Like fragrances, the artificial coloring in lotions, soaps, shampoos, creams, and other beauty products make them look more appealing, but the benefits stop there.  These dyes are often comprised of dozens of harsh chemicals and can even be made of coal tar and contain metal salts (like lead and arsenic), all of which can wreak havoc on sensitive skin. They block pores and increase the risk of breakouts, and deposit harmful toxins into your skin. Also found in synthetic hair dyes, these toxins can leave your scalp and hairline dry, itchy and irritated. You can spot synthetic dyes on a product’s ingredient label by looking for the letters FD&C or D&C preceding a name or number—like FD&C RED NO. 40. Avoid these products and opt for those without dyes, or with natural dyes from herbs and plants instead. 


You’re probably not surprised that alcohol made the naughty list of ingredients for sensitive skin. It’s no secret that alcohol has a drying effect and strips moisture from skin, ruining its elasticity and leaving it dry and irritated. While a small amount of alcohol can be beneficial—it removes excess dirt from clogged pores and can help with excessively oily skin—too much of it is almost always a bad thing. A good rule of thumb concerning alcohol in your skin care products: the higher up on the ingredients list, the greater the amount in the product. If alcohol is listed as one of the first five or six ingredients and is followed by a number (like SD alcohol 30 or SD alcohol 40), you can bet that it will dry out your skin and increase the chance for sensitivity. There are some “good” alcohols, like cetyl alcohol, stearyl alcohol, and cetearyl alcohol. It’s important to know the difference, because these “fatty alcohols” rarely cause irritation, act to stabilize other good ingredients in beauty products, and are fine in small amounts for just about any skin type.

man with empty alcohol bottle


Don’t worry, you don’t have to give up exfoliating your sensitive skin to keep it happy. The trick is to ditch the usual, harsh scrubbing exfoliators like sugar and salt, and opt for a more gentle approach. Dr. Schlessinger recommends using chemical exfoliators with amino fruit acids, as they “are derived from the sugar cane bud rather than the stalk and provide better exfoliation with minimal irritation”. You can also try using a peel-off mask to remove dead skin cells and clear out your pores. When using clay masks, use natural muds such as bentonite and kaolin.


Like alcohol, sulfates take their job of cleansing seriously—so much so that they can easily strip your skin of its natural oils and leave it dry and itchy. Sensitive skin is especially vulnerable to irritation from harsh ingredients like sodium laureth sulfate and sodium laurel sulfate. In your search for sensitive skin-loving products, you may notice a few—especially cleansers—that say “sulfate-free” in big bold letters on the front of the bottle. Many cosmetic companies are dumping the sulfates and opting for more naturally cleansing and moisturizing ingredients, like glycerin, that leave your skin fresh and clean without feeling tight and dry.

Chemical Sunscreens

Everyone needs to protect their skin from the sun, even those of us with extra sensitive skin! So why is it that so many sunscreens trigger breakouts and irritation when applied? If you’re frustrated with the way your skin reacts to your sunblock, chances are you’re using chemical sunscreen. Unlike mineral sunscreen, which usually contains titanium dioxide and zinc oxide (minerals that block the sun from but that don’t absorb easily into your skin), chemical sunscreen is made with chemicals like avobenzone, octisalate, oxybenzone and homosalate, which absorb UV rays once they hit your skin. That’s great, except the combination of these chemicals can cause sensitive skin to feel even more dry and inflamed. Chemical sunscreens also break down more easily in the sun and need to be reapplied more often, and they usually contain dyes and fragrances, further exasperating sensitive skin issues.

Tips for Keeping Sensitive Skin Happy

woman with sunglasses smiling

Now that you’re an expert on which ingredients to avoid, here are a few simple tips to help make caring for your sensitive skin a little less daunting. With a little extra attention, even the most sensitive skin can look and feel healthy and renewed.

Tip #1: Less is More

We all want clean, healthy skin, but constantly exposing it to harsh ingredients like sodium, ammonium sulfate, and many types of alcohols can quickly result in dryness and irritation. When using your beauty products, there’s no need to slather on a ton of product. The more you use, the more likely your skin is to have a negative reaction to it. By using just a small amount of cleanser, moisturizer, and other products in your regimen, you’ll still be getting the benefits while protecting your skin from too much exposure to irritating ingredients, and bonus, you’ll be saving money at the same time! Keep your routine simple and your skin will thank you!

Tip #2: Live Well

You may not think there is a connection, but what you eat and drink can have an effect on the sensitivity of your skin. Foods high in added chemicals and preservatives can make your skin feel worse, and you may even notice that your skin breaks out more easily after eating certain foods. Pay attention to your diet, and add healthy, natural foods like fresh fruits and vegetables to your plate. And if you’re a soda drinker, try replacing it with water. This will flush toxins out of your skin and leave it more hydrated and radiant. If your skin is unusually dry, try eating more hydrating fruits like pineapple, cucumbers and watermelon, and stock up of healthful foods like avocados, salmon, olive oil, leafy greens, and almonds, all of which contain vitamins and nutrients that build collagen and help skin retain moisture.

Tip #3: Always Test First

Nothing is worse than trying out a new product only to suffer a painful reaction from it. Resist the temptation to bust open that bottle and immediately use it as directed and give it a test run on a small, inconspicuous area first (try behind your ear or on the nape of your neck). Wait 24 hours to see how your skin reacts before applying it to your entire face or body. This is a type of patch test. Although this takes a little bit of patience but is well worth it if it means avoiding unnecessary irritation. When shopping for new products, take advantage of any samples offered at the store—you may have to make two trips to the store, but you won’t waste your hard-earned money on something that doesn’t work for you.

Pay attention to Elessa Jade from Pursebuzz as she demonstrates how to do a patch test!

Tip #4: Keep it Hydrated

Sensitive skin is more susceptible to harmful elements, so it’s especially important to keep it moisturized. Aside from drinking plenty of water throughout the day, being vigilant about moisturizing morning and evening will protect sensitive skin from exposure to sun, wind and pollution and lock in essential moisture.

Tip #5: Read Labels

You may have to stand in the beauty aisle a little bit longer than you’d like, but taking the time to read up on what’s in the products you are buying can mean the difference between a good and bad day for your skin. Armed with the knowledge of what to avoid on the ingredients list, you can make an informed decision before shelling out the dough on products that won’t agree with your sensitive skin. Don’t always assume that products labeled “hypoallergenic” are a perfect match for you. Read first, and then buy.

Sensitive Skin Can Be Happy Skin

It’s a good idea to know what ingredients we are putting on our bodies, no matter what skin type we may have. But for those with sensitive skin, it’s especially important to be aware of ingredients that have the potential to be aggravating or irritating. This knowledge makes living with and managing sensitive skin so much easier, and puts you one step closer to beautiful, radiant skin.

geneva naturals products

Check out our all-natural products from Geneva Naturals here, which are all Paraben, Sulfate, and Phthalate free. Perfect for sensitive skin!


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