What to avoid if you have sensitive skin

Finding beauty products that don't bring you out in angry blotches can be tricky. A good place to start is avoiding these six common irritants, says Tory Frost 

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By Tory Frost on

If you’re skin’s sensitive, buying new beauty products can be a total – literal – pain. Streaming eyes, blotches, dryness, stinging, redness, itchiness, tightness and spottiness can all be symptoms. They usually appear because the upper barrier of sensitive skin is either naturally weak or compromised (say, after an allergic reaction), making it super easy to irritate.

The bad news is reading the front of a bottle isn’t much help. Terms like "hypoallergenic", "dermatologically tested" and "suitable for all skin types" mean diddly squat – if you want to avoid irritation, you need to read the ingredients. Here are some common culprits – try eliminating them one by one, or check products you’ve reacted to in the past to find your kryptonite.

6 things your skin can react to


Fragrance can irritate sensitive skin and is also a common allergen (allergic reactions are more extreme, like burning, hives or extreme itching, and you should consult a doctor – you may need an antihistamine or topical cream). The good news is beauty brands are getting better and now often advertise as fragrance-free, making your choices easier. Clinique, for example, doesn’t use fragrance in any of its products. I also like Avène and La Roche-Posay.

Essential oils

It’s easy to think anything "natural" is gentle. Not so. Essential oils are used to add scent or attempt to treat or soothe skin, and can even be found in "fragrance free" lines. Used in small quantities, they are listed towards the end of the ingredients, and citrus (including orange, neroli and bergamot) mint and even camomile are key offenders – avoid limonene (lemon), linalool, citronellol, hexyl cinnamal (camomile) and benzyl benzoate (a floral), or anything marketed as natural that also smells really strong.

Mineral oil

I once tried baby oil as body lotion and came out in all-over bumps like a plucked chicken – it’s pretty much pure mineral oil. Cheap synthetic, petroleum-based oils are designed to keep in moisture, but can be known to trap dirt or sweat, causing clogging or rashes, and can trigger acne. Look for petroleum, petrolatum or paraffin towards the top of the ingredients list. Shea butter can cause a similar reaction.


Ethanol is a form of alcohol that helps products feel weightless, but can also be drying and further damage the skin’s barrier. Avoid products where isopopol alcohol or alcohol denat is listed. (Cetearyl alcohol is not ethanol – it is a fatty alcohol and a good moisturiser in small amounts. Confusing, I know)


Sodium Lauryl Sulphate (SLS) and Sodium Laureth Sulphate (SLES) are foaming agents that can cause dryness, tightness, spots and even sores. I’d avoid any foaming face wash, whether you’re sensitive or not, as they strip natural oils. If you find your scalp or forehead are sensitive or spotty, try an SLS-free shampoo.


If you’re bright red, blotchy or skin stings after showering, turn down the heat and keep your face out of the water. I find my skin will react to almost anything if it’s all hot and bothered, so cleanse with hand-warm water at the sink instead – and never, ever scrub.

Three of the best for sensitive skins 

No mineral oil, essential oil, SLS, alcohol or synthetic fragrance.


Gentle enough for your face (it contains none of the above) and cheap enough for your whole body. It can also help ease some skin conditions, like eczema, rosacea and psoriasis, when used alongside a prescription.


Fragrance-free, essential-oil-free and super-light, so ideal for acne-prone and oily skin. I find this really comforts after a flare-up.



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