Worried woman examining her skin in the bathroom

10 Ingredients to Avoid If You Have Sensitive Skin

If you’ve got sensitive skin, you probably know how easy it is for your skin to react to certain products. 

While everybody’s triggers are individual, there are some ingredients out there that are much more likely to irritate your skin than others. 

Wondering which ingredients you should be staying away from? 

Here are 10 ingredients to avoid if you have sensitive skin: 


If you have ever looked at some of the new shampoos out there, you have probably noticed that quite a few of them state that they are “sulfate-free”. 

That is because sulfates are an ingredient you want nowhere near your hair, and nowhere near your skin either. 

What exactly are sulfates? 

They are chemicals that are added into skin care products for two main reasons: 

  • They help to create a rich lather 
  • They help with the cleansing process by breaking down and clearing away oils 

For those two reasons, when it comes to skin care, sulfates are most commonly found in cleansers. 

You are probably thinking…

Sulfates don’t sound bad, so what’s the problem? 

Well, to begin with, sulfates are a known irritant. While that may be the case, they have also been considered as safe for use in cosmetics by the FDA.

Sulfates have been shown to cause serious skin irritations, and can also lead to the thinning of the skin. The way in which they break down oils leaves the skin dry and dehydrated too. This may not seem so bad if you have oily skin, but sulfates are also known to be pore-clogging, meaning that they will trigger acne breakouts.

There are many forms of sulfates out there, but the two that you are most likely to come across in skin care products are: 

  • Sodium Laureth Sulfate 
  • Sodium Laurel Sulfate 

Both are worth avoiding whenever possible! 


Most people want their skin care products to last for as long as possible, requiring the use of preservatives. 

When it comes to preservatives, some are much worse than others, with one of those bad guys being parabens. 

Whether you have sensitive skin or not, parabens are something to avoid at all costs. 


Because the products you apply on your skin are absorbed into your bloodstream. Once they are in there, parabens mimic certain hormones within the body, causing severe disruptions to the endocrine system. Parabens have even been found in breast cancer tissue!

There are quite a few different parabens out there, from methylparaben to benzylparaben. However, they usually always have the word “paraben” in their name, making them relatively easy to spot. 

Woman trying out skincare product at the store


So many products out there contain an added fragrance. This does make sense too, because of course you want your skin to smell beautiful! 

However, when you see the word “fragrance” on an ingredients list, stay well away. 


Because “fragrance” is an umbrella term that can cover thousands of different chemicals, meaning that you will never quite know which exact ingredients have been used in the formula for said fragrance. There are actually more than 5000 fragrance molecules out there, and cosmetic companies are able to use as many as they like when putting together their own unique blends. 

The American Academy of Dermatology even states that fragrance is the most common cause of contact dermatitis from cosmetics, ranking it just as irritating as poison ivy and nickel.

However, don’t be tempted to immediately reach for fragrance-free products instead. 


Because these could still contain irritating scent-masking chemicals that are not technically a fragrance.

The only way to know for sure is by thoroughly reading a product’s ingredient list. 

Certain Alcohols

Let’s begin by getting one thing clear – not all alcohols are bad for your skin. 

Some types, such as cetearyl alcohol and stearyl alcohol, can actually be quite beneficial for some, especially those with dry skin. 

However, there are also some alcohols out there that can be extremely irritating and drying.

They help a product to feel lighter, and enable it to absorb into the skin without leaving a greasy feeling behind, but they also quickly trigger sensitivities. 

The bad alcohols break down your skin’s natural protective barrier. This is such bad news for someone with sensitive skin, as their barrier is already damaged. Rather than causing even more harm to it, you should be trying to repair and strengthen it as much as possible, as this will help to cut back on your sensitivities.

Which are the bad alcohols you need to avoid? 

Stay well away from the following: 

  • Denatured alcohol 
  • SD alcohol 
  • Isopropyl alcohol 


If you have sensitive skin, you probably know how important it is to use a sunscreen each and every day. After all, the sun will only exacerbate your sensitivities, making your skin appear redder and more inflamed. 

But what if your sunscreen irritates your skin too? 

If you have experienced this, it is likely due to an ingredient called oxybenzone. 

This is one of the most common ingredients used in chemical sunscreens. It works by absorbing the sun’s UV rays, before converting these into heat energy and emitting them from the body. 

Oxybenzone is a very powerful ingredient, and can quickly irritate sensitive skin. Plus, the heat that it creates in the body can also exacerbate any inflammatory skin conditions you may be prone to, such as rosacea, eczema or acne. 

What should you use instead? 

Go for a physical sunscreen. These are formulated with the use of certain minerals, such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. Rather than absorbing the sun’s UV rays, those minerals simply reflect them away, preventing them from coming into contact with the skin. 

Physical vs chemical sunscreen infographic

Zinc also brings with it a few additional benefits, especially for those with sensitive skin. It boasts anti-inflammatory properties and helps to stimulate skin cell production, both of which should help to keep your skin calm and happy. 

Physical Exfoliants

Exfoliation is so important when it comes to keeping your skin healthy and happy. 

There are two main types of exfoliation out there, with the first being physical exfoliation. 

What is physical exfoliation? 

It basically makes use of an abrasive substance to scrub dead skin cells away from the skin. 

There are some physical exfoliants that everybody should stay away from, such as those made from nut shell powders. These are much too aggressive and harsh for the delicate skin on the face. They often end up causing micro-tears, which lead to inflammation and other skin problems. 

Even the physical exfoliants that are gentler, such as those made from seeds or jojoba, can still aggravate sensitive skin due to the friction caused when scrubbing. 

This is where the second type of exfoliation comes in…

Chemical exfoliation may sound harsh, but it is actually a much gentler option for those with sensitive skin. 

They work by dissolving away the bond that holds dead skin cells to the surface of the skin, enabling those dead cells to then be naturally shed by the body. 

There are several chemical exfoliants out there, and only some are suitable for sensitive skin, so make sure that you explore all of your options fully. Lactic acid, along with fruit enzymes, tend to be a good place to start.

Benzoyl Peroxide

Many people with sensitive skin also experience frequent acne breakouts, leading them to benzoyl peroxide. This ingredient is commonly found in acne treatments, but is known for being extremely drying on the skin. 

This drying effect can seriously aggravate sensitive skin, since sensitive skin really does need all of the moisture that it can get. 

Benzoyl peroxide has also been shown to cause the following in sensitive skin: 

Wondering how else you can treat your breakouts? 

Salicylic acid is a good alternative. However, make sure that you begin with a very low concentration of this ingredient because, again, it can also be drying. Nevertheless, it is also an anti-inflammatory, meaning that it could help to soothe and calm your sensitive skin when used in the right way. 

Glycolic Acid

Remember it was mentioned above that chemical exfoliation was better than physical exfoliation for sensitive skin 

Well, there are quite a few chemical exfoliants out there for you to choose from, but glycolic acid is one that you should avoid. 


Because while it may offer a wide range of benefits, it is known for being irritating to those with sensitive skin. This applies even more if you suffer from rosacea too. 

Although glycolic acid is most commonly used as an exfoliant, don’t assume that other types of products won’t contain this ingredient. Glycolic acid is used in everything from serums to creams, making it important that you check the ingredient lists of all of your products, not just your exfoliants. 


When it comes to skin care, retinol really is quite the superstar. 

It does everything from stimulating the natural production of collagen and elastin to re-balancing oil production and clearing out the pores. 

So, why is retinol bad for those with sensitive skin? 

Because it is an extremely potent ingredient, which is what also makes it so effective. 

Common side effects include: 

  • Redness 
  • Irritation 
  • Peeling skin 

Don’t worry, this doesn’t mean that you need to give up on retinol altogether…

Retinol is just one form of vitamin A, but there are others you could try instead. Although these won’t be as potent as pure retinol, they are still very effective, and have been proven to be much less irritating to the skin. 

One derivative that works quite well on sensitive skin is retinyl palmitate.

It is made by mixing retinol with palmitic acid, making the retinol much gentler. 

Of course, there are also many natural ingredients out there that contain vitamin A too…

Rosehip seed oil is one example, and this botanical brings with it numerous other benefits for sensitive skin. However, there aren’t actually any studies out there that look at how effective these botanicals are when compared to actual vitamin A derivatives, so keep in mind that your results may not be as noticeable as you would like. 

Essential Oils

With natural skin care products becoming more and more popular, essential oils have now become quite a common featured ingredient. 

You are probably thinking…

Essential oils are natural and plant-derived, so what is there to worry about? 

Well, just because an ingredient is natural doesn’t mean that it will be suitable for sensitive skin. 

When it comes to essential oils, each oil contains hundreds of individual compounds. Some of these can quickly trigger irritations. They are also often created with the use of alcohols, which, as mentioned above, can be quite damaging to sensitive skin. 

Of course, not all essential oils are bad. 

The key oils to avoid include: 

Wondering which essential oils are safe to use on sensitive skin? 

Sandalwood, myrrh and patchouli have all been proven to contain absolutely no irritants. 

Botanical oils surrounded by loose thyme stems

There are a few others that are known for having a low amount of irritants, so while you may be able to use these, you should always perform a patch test first just to be safe. These oils include: 

  • Chamomile 
  • Rosemary 
  • Ginger 
  • Nutmeg 
  • Fennel 

Try to also avoid products that contain any essential oils in high amounts. You can usually tell simply by taking a quick sniff of the product – if the scent is overly strong, then there is a high chance that that product will end up irritating your sensitive skin. However, if the scent is light and subtle, you may be okay. 

Sensitive skin can be tricky to deal with, especially when it comes to using new products. However, so long as you make sure that you stay away from the ten ingredients on this list, your chances of triggering an irritation become so much less.