How to Buy Products for Sensitive Skin

Do you find that some cosmetics leave your eyes red and irritated? Do some moisturizers actually dry out your skin instead of hydrate? Are you all too familiar with blotchy rashes left on your legs after a bubble bath?

Then you, my lucky friend, are part of the sensitive skin club.

But Rebecca, you’re saying, I’m not lucky. This sucks a lot and it feels like my body hates me.

Fear not! Because there is one angle from which you can look at this as a positive thing.

Your body is forcing you to start reading labels and be conscious about what you’re putting on your skin!

Consider this nature’s way of politely asking (through redness and irritation) you to select products with slightly kinder ingredients. Luckily, there are lots of options out there.

So what kind of reaction are you having?

There are two types of reactions you could have to a product on your skin.

The first one, which is less severe, is?irritant contact dermatitis. Basically irritant = your skin gets annoyed, contact = from putting something on it, dermatitis = which gives you a rash. You can tell that you’re having this type of reaction because it will be pretty well localized?just where you applied the product that bothers you.

The second kind of reaction, which is a bit more dramatic, is?allergic contact dermatitis. This means that rather than just being irritated by the product, you’re full blown allergic to something in it. Your reaction to it will manifest in other places – for example, if you applied a cream to your face that you have an allergic reaction to, you could get a rash on your face, neck, and chest. You could also get hives, which is a rash’s itchier cousin.

Figuring out what kind of reaction you’re having could be important if you’re finding this happens a lot, and you’re having a hard time narrowing down what the problem is.

And if you’re fancy,

and have a great health care provider, you could even go see a dermatologist for a skin allergy test.

A test works like this: a part of your body (often your back or arm) is cleaned off and a common allergen is applied in a small test area. They can test many allergens at a time. For a wide range of allergens test (for instance, food allergies, pollen allergies, etc) they will prick you with a tiny needle to see if your skin reacts to the allergen sample. For some topical products (like cosmetics or creams), they can apply a sample of that product and cover it for 72 hours. Afterwards in either case, you look for redness or irritation in the skin.

Easy enough, right? It might seem like a lot of hassle to go through, but if you’re suffering from eczema or psoriasis or other persistent problems, it’s worth considering. I haven’t tried it myself yet, but I’m really curious!

Let’s talk common irritants.

Most people with sensitive skin are reacting to the same things in their products. Usually, these are preservatives.

Most products we buy shelf-stable in the store have preservatives in them. Why? Well, for obvious reasons: they last longer, they can sell more while wasting less. From a business point of view, they make sense.

But our skin doesn’t exactly need chemical preservation the way that the products do. Preservatives inhibit the growth of bacteria and other contaminants. But our bodies are host to millions of colonies of good bacteria that probably don’t appreciate being meddled with. When a product irritates us, it throws off the body’s natural chemistry.

Besides preservatives, fragrances are the other most common irritant. Commercial products don’t usually use natural scents (like soaps that use essential oils, for instance), and instead rely on synthetic fragrances that are often alcohol based — read, super drying.

So here’s a list of some terms to look out for.

I’m not going to include the entire list here, because it’s almost a full page. But you can hop on over here to a wonderful website for the American Contact Dermatitis Society and check out their PDF on core allergens. It’s updated every year, and includes Science! Cool!

Off hand, though, here are some of the things you should take into consideration:

  • formaldehyde (preservative)
  • nickel and cobalt (metals)
  • Myroxylon pereirae (Balsam Peru, used for fragrance)
  • Neomycin sulfate (antibacterial)
  • Quaternium 15 (preservative)
  • Isothiazolinones (antibacterial and preservative)

Remember that sometimes extra syllables can be added to the beginning or end of these terms to further specify the kind of chemical. This means that at a glance, you might think the irritant isn’t actually an ingredient. But?Chloromethylisothiazolinone, for example, is just one kind of substance in the isothiazolinone family.

But what about products labeled “for sensitive skin” or “dermatologist tested”?

The truth is, that while these labels might be good starting points for finding agreeable products, often this labelling is unregulated. Anyone can put those terms on their product.

The important thing is to continue to read labels. If there’s an ingredient you don’t recognize, take ten seconds and look it up on your phone to see what it does, why it’s in the product, and whether its a known allergen.

You can also read many guides online to buying particular products for sensitive skin or eyes. This means that (usually) some other brave soul has gone out there and tried out a bunch of options for you.

As a case study, let’s break down this mascara.

Fun fact: I once used a generic eyeliner (Wet n Wild, tbh) on my waterline and my eyes swelled shut for a day. It’s never happened since, because I became super picky about what I put on and in my eyes.

The brand Physicians Formula claims to be 100% natural and hypoallergenic. I say “claims”, as there is always someone out there who still won’t react well to a product designed to be safe.

Their mascara is fairly widely reviewed around the internet as being great for people with sensitive eyes. No dryness, no tears, no redness.

(Also, I’m definitely not sponsored for this product. I will include an affiliate link to buy it on Amazon later on, but I have no connection to the company).


Citrus Aurantium Dulcis (Orange) Fruit Water
Iron Oxides
Microcrystalline Cellulose
Glyceryl Stearate SE
Jojoba Esters
Copernicia Cerifera (Carnauba) Wax
Tapioca Starch
Oryza Sativa (Rice) Extract
Stearic Acid
Glycine Soja (Soybean) Oil
Olea Europaea (Olive) Leaf Extract
Aloe Barbadensis Leaf Extract
Cucumis Sativus (Cucumber) Fruit Extract
Cellulose Gum
Magnesium Aluminum Silicate
Glyceryl Caprylate
Leuconostoc/Radish Root Ferment Filtrate
May Contain: Titanium Dioxide

Many of these ingredients are organically sourced. The website claims that they are hypoallergenic, cruelty free, gluten free, fragrance free, and ophthalmologist tested. Cruelty free, unless otherwise noted, typically just means not tested on animals. It doesn’t always mean the product is vegan (contains no animal products).

So we see a lot of natural ingredients in this list, which aren’t typically allergens. We have plant extracts (orange, rice, olive, aloe, cucumber), different natural waxes (beeswax, carnauba), and oils (jojoba, soybean).

There are also stabilizers, which bulk up the product: tapioca starch, cellulose gum, and microcrystalline cellulose. Cellulose products are plant-based fibres that can act as stabilizers, thickeners, or emulsifiers. There are?thickeners like magnesium aluminum silicate, which is a mineral derived from clay.?Iron oxide is used to add colour.

In this formula, we have glycerin, stearic acid, glyceryl stearate, and glyceryl caprylate.

  • Glycerin is a basic and somewhat sweet product derived from fats. This could mean animal or plant, but is most frequently from soybeans or palm. It is added to cosmetics to improve smoothness and lubrication.
  • Stearic acid is a fatty acid. Animal fat is highest in this chemical, with the exception of cocoa and Shea butter, which has a higher concentration. Since this product isn’t labelled as vegan, it’s unclear where it’s sourced. Stearic acid is used for softening and for its pearlescent effect.
  • Glyceryl stearate is a product that is formed from a reaction between glycerin and stearic acid. It’s a waxy byproduct that lubricates and also acts as a moisture barrier.
  • Glyceryl caprylate is another byproduct of glycerin, and performs the same general functions as the others here: improving smoothness, retaining moisture, and softening.

Finally, this mascara contains something labelled as “Leuconostoc/Radish Root Ferment Filtrate”. This is the brand’s answer to preservatives. Rather than using chemicals, they have employed fermentation technology as a natural preservative. A quick search on this product suggests that it’s effective at destroying even tough bacteria like e.coli.

So in terms of being a natural product, this mascara pretty well checks out. Here’s a link to it on Amazon if it interests you.

What does this all mean?

Well, I want you to take two messages away from this little lesson.

  1. It’s not realistic to break down the ingredients of every single product out there. It’ll take too much time. But familiarize yourself with some key terms and make a habit of reading labels to build your competence.
  2. Manufacturers can often make whatever claims they want on their labels, but they can’t lie about the ingredients list. Trust that above all.

If you’ve stuck around through this whole long article, let me know in the comments your struggles with sensitive skin! Have you found some holy grail products that really seem to work for you?


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I'm Rebecca, a Nova Scotian writer, designer, and entrepreneur. This website is my personal blog and creative hub. I hope you find something cool and inspiring here!

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