Sensitive skin can be difficult to manage. It can be temperamental with what sets it off, sometimes even a hypoallergenic brand will cause a reaction, and sometimes a product not tested on sensitive skins will be fine. Irritation can also show up in many different forms - for some it’s dry, red, sore or cracked skin, for others it’s breakouts.
Here is a list of the 5 main ingredient groups which are often triggers of sensitive skins, and alternatives which should be a much better fit.
1. Fragrance allergens
There are 26 registered fragrance allergens which must be listed separately on any ingredient list (usually at the end). They are most commonly found in essential oils. As these are extracted from natural ingredients, they come as a blend of different molecules, which cannot be separated out (unlike synthetic fragrances which are easier to control). Look out for the names like limonene and linalool at the end of the ingredients list (these 2 are really common but if you are interested in reading the full list, you can find it here).
Sulphates, in particular Sodium Lauryl Sulphate & Sodium Lauryl Ether Sulphate are types of anionic (negatively charged) surfactants, used in foaming cleansers. Their strong negative charge makes them great at removing oils from the skin, but can also lead to the removal of essential lipids from the skin barrier.
If you have sensitive skin, it’s best to avoid these. Instead we would recommend going for a non-foaming gentle cleanser such as Harborist Gel Balm Cleanser.
(this also applies to shampoo & body wash if you suffer from more sensitive/dry scalp or body)
Certain vitamins can be sensitizing and drying to the skin - the most common being Vitamin A (retinoic acid) and Vitamin C (ascorbic acid). These two actives have many skin benefits including reducing wrinkles, evening out skin texture, reducing pigmentation and providing antioxidant protection. Unfortunately they can be too strong for sensitive types, and cause reactions - in particular dryness and peeling (in the case of retinol).
There are some formulas are developed with barrier-supporting ingredients or lipid-carriers to counteract any potential adverse effects, a couple to try if you are set on having these in your routine would be
If you don’t want to risk a reaction, but still want to achieve some of the skin benefits listed above, your best bet is using a non-sensitizing vitamin such as niacinamide (Vitamin B3). It has many skincare benefits including preventing moisture loss through skin barrier support, reducing pigmentation and redness, regulating sebum production and providing antioxidant protection. One of our favourites is Garden of Wisdom Niacinamide Serum
4. Exfoliating acids
This one may be obvious but strong exfoliating acids such as AHAs and BHAs are unlikely to be suitable for sensitive skin types. However, the larger the molecular weight of molecule, the slower it can penetrate the skin, so in the case of acids, this means it causes less adverse effects.
So which acid is best? For sensitive skin types, I would recommend a PHA (poly hydroxy acid) such as Gluconolactone. Not only is this ingredient hydrating in itself, its large molecular weight also means that you can still get many of the benefits (smoother, clearer, more radiant skin), without the irritation or dryness often associated with stronger acids. Our favourite for this is Garden of Wisdom PHA Plus Serum
5. Chemical Sun Filters
Certain chemical sun filters such as Oxybenzone (benzophenone-3) are known to cause irritation in the skin. If your skin is also sensitive to heat and UV in general, you are probably better suited to using an SPF with mineral sun filters. Mineral sun filters, currently just Titanium dioxide and Zinc oxide, form a layer on top of the skin, blocking UV light by reflecting it, so it cannot be absorbed into the skin to cause any damage.
Chemical filters on the other hand work by absorbing into the skin, then as the UV enters into the skin, the filters convert this into heat energy to stop the UV having any damaging effect on the skin cells. This heat energy may not be a good thing if your skin is heat sensitive, so another reason mineral sunscreens may be a better option for you. Our top picks would be:
We hope this has been helpful to you in better understanding more sensitive skin types.
If you would like us to build you a custom regime, please complete our free skin analysis.