If you’ve got sensitive facial skin, you probably don’t need to be told: your skin is particularly susceptible to irritation and inflammation. Because of this, it’s all the more important to make sure you’re applying kind and gentle plant-based ingredients, not harsh chemical formulas. Sensitive skin can appear anywhere on the body, but on the face – where skin is already more fragile – it can be the most obvious and uncomfortable (think flaking, redness, rashes and sensations of burning and stinging).
Those suffering from chronic cases of these symptoms typically have an ultra thin epidermal barrier, leading to increased water loss and more noticable responses to pollution, irritants, and chemicals than those with ‘normal’ skin. The barrier protecting sensitive skin – a hydrolipid film made up of both H2O and natural oils – is super finicky. It requires a very specific PH balance as well as balance of healthy bacteria, sufficient lipids, and healthy skin cell shedding processes. If any of these systems aren’t quite right (usually due to a disruption in enzyme activity), the results can turn into chronic sensitivity.Which Skin Care Ingredients Should Sensitive Skin Types Avoid?
If your skin checks any of the boxes above, it’s likely you have sensitive skin (don’t shoot the messenger!). In order to protect it, minimize symptoms, and encourage a healthy and hydrated glow, it’s important to stay away from certain ingredients that will cause flare ups and irritation. Cleansers are some of the top offenders, with harsh chemicals and surfactants that can dry or strip the skin. Here are the six top cleanser ingredients to avoid for sensitive skin:
Benzyl alcohols are often included in cream cleanser formulas, used as a solvent and also as a preservative. They should definitely go on your ingredient watch list: the synthetic version, which you’ll find in most conventional personal care products, is made by mixing benzyl chloride with sodium hydroxide. Both chemicals are intensely irritating and are so dangerous that they’ve even been linked to premature infant deaths. They’ve also been shown to act as a skin sensitizer and allergen in numerous research trials.
Sulfates of all kinds should be a major red flag. Sulfates are used as a foaming agent in cleansers, and chemically work to cut through oil. Some are derived from petroleum, raising their carcinogenic and endocrine disrupting risks, plus they over-strip your skin of natural lipids, leaving it prone to cracking, dryness, and absorptions of pathogens and allergens. There are a variety of chemicals that fall under the sulfate umbrella: sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate are two of the most common, both of which can build up in your body with continued use.
Physical exfoliants can be a helpful skincare add-on for those of us dealing with thick skin, rough texture, or ultra congested pores. But if you have thin and fragile skin, using physical exfoliants – products with microbeads or rough scrubs – can leave you with inflammation. Typically exfoliation (which is designed to stimulate skin cell turnover) shouldn’t be the focus of sensitive skin. And if you do feel like you need to buff away dryness or flaking once a week, stick with an ultra gentle konjac sponge paired with a gentle cleanser, and make sure you do any exfoliating after a DIY steam so that your pores are open.
High concentrations of Glycolic Acid are something you’ll see in formulas for at-home exfoliating kits or peels. While everyone's skin is different, and glycolic acid can be helpful for stimulating skin cell turnover in aging skin, it’s important to opt for ultra-low percentages of glycolic acid as well as plant-based versions if you’re suffering from sensitive skin.
Due to the fact that glycolic acid molecules are so tiny, they’re rapidly and deeply absorbed by skin, particularly by thin and fragile skin that has a compromised epidermal barrier. This means that a little goes a long way, and that high concentrations of glycolic acid can actually risk turning into a chemical burn if your skin can’t tolerate it. And if you DO want to give it a try, always look for glycolic acid derived from sugar cane or fruit sources, and remember that all acids are not created equal (gentle vegan sources are best)!Go for Gentler Ingredients — Natural Are Best
If you’re looking for a face wash for sensitive skin, make sure you’re avoiding or at least staying aware of the ingredients above, and opting whenever possible for soothing plant-based ones. Specifically cucumber water, coconut water, rose hydrosol, and glycerin are great for strengthening and calming irritated skin.
Some sensitive skin is intermittent or arises in response to external factors like sunburn or extreme weather, whereas other sensitive skin points to chronic dermatitis. And then there’s the question of skincare habits. Continued use of harsh chemicals can sometimes leave us with what looks and feels like chronic sensitivity, but that can actually be remediated through making smart switches. Hop over to our Sensitive Skin 101 guide for a full breakdown of habits to get into (and out of)!