Sensitive skin can be pretty fussy about what products you use on it, especially when it comes to facial care. This can be made even more difficult if you have sensitive skin that’s acne prone, since most products labeled for treating acne can cause even worse irritation than products that aren’t labeled for this use.
However, there is hope. It really just comes down to figuring out what ingredients are most likely to cause irritation to your skin, and looking for facial products that do the same job minus those ingredients. This article aims to assist those with sensitive skin with figuring out what ingredients may be causing their sensitive skin grief, and also gives suggestions on products you can try that I have personally found to be very sensitive skin friendly.
Common Irritating Ingredients to Sensitive Skin
- sodium lauryl sulfate – You may find this under other names like “laureth sulfate” or “laureth”, but they’re pretty much all the same. This ingredient is a harsh detergent commonly used in all forms of cleansing products, from facial washes to shampoo to hand and dish soap. It’s valued for its rich lather and surfectant action, but since it’s so strong it can cause a lot of irritation to skin, especially since it has drying properties. This is probably the #1 ingredient that is most prone to irritating sensitive skin, and since it’s so common, it can be quite difficult to find products that don’t contain it.
- lye – Also known as sodium hydroxide and potassium hydroxide, this is most commonly found in hard soaps, although it can be found in some liquid cleansers as well. At its best use, lye helps form a chemical reaction which produces glycerin – a very skin friendly humectant that is very moisturizing. However, when not utilized properly or when the glycerin is removed from the soap (a very common practice among manufacturers), lye can cause serious irritation and drying to sensitive skin.
- camphor/menthol – This is a very easy ingredient to identify even without looking at labels most of the time since it is used to create a cooling/tingling sensation on the skin and open up pores. For those with normal skin, this can be very desirable, but it can be a huge nightmare for someone with sensitive skin, causing extreme irritation to the point of even burning.
- benzoyl peroxide – This is most commonly found in acne treatment products. It tends to irritate sensitive skin due to its extreme drying properties.
- salicylic acid – This is also most commonly found in “beta hydroxy” and acne treatment products. Since it’s not nearly as drying and harsh as benzoyl peroxide, some with milder sensitive skin may find that they can easily use products containing it with minor irritation. However, if you’re having major issues and you’re using a product containing this, it’s a likely culprit, since it also is a mild corrosive that eats away at the top layer of skin (which is why it’s commonly found in blackhead and dull skin treatment products).
- citric acid – Also called hydroxycaprylic acid and hydroxycapric acid, you will often find products that utilize these ingredients claim to have “alpha hydroxy acids”. Like the “beta hydroxy” products, they too claim to brighten skin and treat blackheads and acne… they may additionally claim to reduce the appearance of wrinkles and discolorations. Alpha hydroxy products tend to be a lot harsher than beta hydroxy products as they tend to be more corrosive and remove more skin. If you have issues with beta hydroxy products, you are well advised to steer clear of alpha hydroxy products as well, because they are even more likely to cause burning and irritation.
- exfoliants – Products containing these will often use things such as ground walnut shells or tiny plastic beads to provide exfoliating action, removing the top layer of skin. Another common form is an abrasive pad. Abrasion and sensitive skin simply do not mix. If you feel you are not removing enough dirt and dead skin, your best bet is to skip these products and simply wash your face twice instead of just once each session – once to cleanse oil and makeup, a second time to help remove any built up gunk in your pores and/or dead skin.
- tricoslan – This is an anti bacterial ingredient that can be very drying, irritating sensitive skin. Most commonly found in cream based cleansers, its usage is fading out due to its questionable nature in regards to reducing bacteria, but can still be found in a lot of products.
- parabens – These generally don’t seem to be an issue for most sensitive skin, but there is a significant enough number of people whose skin gets irritated by them that makes them worthy of mention as a possible cause to skin irritation.
- mineral oil – While not so much a skin irritant, this is a common ingredient in skin care products that are labeled for sensitive skin that many complain causes them break outs. If you’re using a sensitive skin product and find that you have acne issues, this is the first ingredient I would recommend looking out for to cut out of your skin regimen.
Sensitive Skin Friendly Ingredients
- aloe – This is probably the most sensitive skin friendly ingredient I know of. Aloe is capable of not only moisturizing (and makes as good of a choice for it as glycerin), but it also can help with healing/nourishing your skin and even gives some cleansing action. An added benefit is that it is quite adept at soothing irritated skin… which is part of why it’s used to treat sunburn.
- glycerin – As previously mentioned, this is a very sensitive skin friendly ingredient that moisturizes your skin without clogging any pores. Especially impressive is that it also draws moisture to itself, making your skin more capable of drinking in more h2o. Glycerin heavy soaps (which unlike lye soap are almost always clear) make excellent cleansers that are less prone to irritating sensitive skin.
- oatmeal – Oatmeal is infamous for soothing irritated skin and itch, which is why it’s a common remedy for skin irritating ailments such as eczema and chicken pox.
- chamomile – Chamomile is a very soothing ingredient that has been found to be a natural anti-inflammatory and helps speed wound healing.
- green tea – If you’re interested in an ingredient with anti aging properties, this is the one to go for. It is rich with anti-oxidants, which go a long way to protect your skin from free radicals (pollution, sun damage, etc). Green tea is also very soothing to the skin, much like aloe.
- cucumber extract – This is also very similar to aloe in its soothing and cooling properties, and also helps hydrate skin in a similar fashion to aloe and glycerin.
- clay – There are a lot of different varieties to choose from, but clay is practically irreplaceable for those who have oily and/or acne/blemish prone sensitive skin. It’s great at purging pores, tightening up pores and skin, and blotting up excess oil.
- sulfur – Sulfur makes a great replacement for acne medication such as benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid… it’s not nearly as irritating or drying.
- jojoba oil – This natural oil comes closer than anything else to mimicking the oil your skin produces, and is great for conditioning/nourishing and moisturizing dry skin. And since it is so close to your natural body oils, it’s not very likely to irritate skin or clog pores.
- tea tree oil – In small amounts, this essential oil is great at combating acne. In large amounts though it can irritate and/or sting skin though since it is so potent,
so if you use the stand alone essential oil as an additive to other products, it is vital that you only use a few drops per container of product.
- witch hazel – This natural astringent is probably the only ingredient I can recommend as an astringent for sensitive skin that won’t dry out or irritate it. It also gives a cooling effect akin to what manufacturers commonly use camphor and menthol for.
- corn meal – This is probably the best ingredient to use for exfoliating your skin and controlling oil without irritation.
- avocado oil – Extremely lightweight with a slight “dry” effect, avocado oil is very skin friendly and nourishing without leaving behind greasiness or heaviness. It’s also good about not clogging pores. I highly recommend this to those with sensitive, oily skin that may find jojoba oil just adds to their oily skin issues.
Suggested Facial Care Products for Sensitive Skin
Mind you, this list is only a few suggestions to get you started on your search for the perfect combination of skin care products to compliment your sensitive skin, and should by no means be taken as a definitive list of all that’s out there. These are just reasonably priced products I have used over the years that I found complimented my sensitive, blemish prone skin nicely.
- Neutrogena Transparent Facial Bar – This is an oldie but a goodie… a classic cleanser that I remember being around all the way back in my childhood, when my mother (who also has sensitive skin) used it. It’s a glycerin based facial bar that contains no fragrance, detergents, dyes, or hardeners, so it’s exceptionally gentle while being deep cleansing and clean rinsing. Best used for oily, combination, and normal skin.
- Olay Sensitive Foaming Face Wash – While this cleanser does contain sodium lauryl sulfate and citric acid, the amounts are minuscule enough that they’re unlikely to bother sensitive skin. The primary active ingredients in this are aloe and glycerin, so this facial wash is great at hydrating as it cleanses. Best used for normal and dry skin.
- e.l.f. Mineral Face Cleanser – This is an awesome nourishing and gently exfoliating powder based cleanser with all kinds of sensitive skin friendly ingredients, including aloe, green tea, jojoba, and oatmeal. The ingredient list is almost entirely compromised of natural ingredients as well. Best for dry, normal, and combination skin.
- e.l.f. Essential Zit Zapper – The only salicylic acid/camphor containing product I can confidently recommend for sensitive skin. It contains a reduced amount of salicylic acid compared to most medicated acne treatments (1% vs. the standard 2%), as well as a significantly smaller amount of camphor (it’s the last ingredient listed), and mostly relies on tea tree oil for its acne fighting action. The main base ingredient is witch hazel, which soothes and cools the skin in this unique gel formula.
- Cetaphil Gentle Skin Cleanser – This is an old basic favorite among many people with sensitive skin. It features a reduced amount of sodium lauryl sulfate to create an extra gentle lotion like formula. I should mention however that there is a downside to this particular cleanser, perhaps due to its age on the market: it is very heavy on parabens, so if you happen to be one of those whose skin becomes irritated by these, you may want to steer clear of it. Best for dry to normal skin.
- Simple Replenishing Rich Moisturizer – This moisturizer provides deep, penetrating moisture without being greasy or heavy. While it does contain a small amount of sodium hydroxide, this doesn’t seem to be in a large enough amount to be irritating (and I should know considering it’s one of the most irritating ingredients to my skin). Best for dry, normal, and combination skin.
- Olay Complete All Day Moisturizer With Sunscreen Broad Spectrum Spf15 – This is the only facial moisturizer with sunscreen in it that I’ve came across that is friendly to my sensitive skin (and doesn’t cause breakouts either). Hydrating without being greasy or heavy. Best for normal, combination, and oily skin.
- Neutrogena Oil-Free Moisture, Sensitive Skin – Another good lightweight moisturizer that won’t irritate skin or clog pores/aggravate acne. Best for combination and oily skin.
- Queen Helene Mint Julep Masque – A classic favorite of mine for battling acne naturally, this bentonite clay and sulfur based masque is excellent at purging pores, minimizing pores, tightening skin, absorbing excess oil, and battling blemishes. Those sensitive to parabens may want to note it does contain a small amount of methylparaben. It can be used to spot treat break outs or as a weekly/bi-weekly preventative treatment.
- St. Ives Apricot Cleanser Blemish-Fighting – This exfoliating cleanser is gentle enough for everyday use on sensitive skin thanks to its utilization of corn meal as its exfoliant instead of walnut powder or small beads. It also helps to keep skin hydrated with glycerin and apricot extract. While I generally don’t recommend most salicylic acid containing products for sensitive skin due to how harsh and drying they can be, this particular formula makes good use of that ingredient by pairing it with hydrating and gentle ingredients so it doesn’t dry out or irritate the skin. Best for combination and oily skin.
I don’t really feel like this article is complete without mention of oil cleansing, a little known but popular method of facial care that involves scrapping the cleansers and moisturizers for homemade oil based formulas. Due to its simplicity in structure and strict use of skin friendly oils, this is perhaps the best method of facial care that I know of for sensitive skin, and it works for any skin type (yes, even acne prone skin!).
You can start out with a base mixture of half castor oil and half jojoba oil for normal skin. Add more castor oil for oily skin, and more jojoba oil for dry skin. Alternatively, oily skin sufferers can use avocado oil instead of jojoba, and dry skin sufferers can use olive oil instead of jojoba. If your skin is acne prone, you can make this formula battle blemishes by adding a few drops of pure tea tree oil to your formula.
Once you have your formula mixed, it’s best (though not necessary) to prep your skin for its application by steaming it to open up your pores either in the shower or by applying a wet, warm washcloth for 10-15 minutes. Then apply the oil mixture to your face and massage it as you would any normal face wash. When you’re done, use warm water and a washcloth to remove it. If you want, you can make your pores close back up afterwards by splashing cool water on your face.
This technique is the best possible for purging dirt from your pores and removing blackheads, as well as moisturizing and nourishing your skin without having to use any moisturizer. Those with oily skin may find an added bonus of reduced oil production during the day due to this method helping to balance the skin’s oil production, since your skin will recognize the reduced need to produce oil (in contrast, using drying products on it may convince your skin that it just needs to produce MORE oil, counter acting the intended effect of drying it out).