That pricey cream might be intended to give you a soft, smooth, wrinkle-free complexion, but for some people, it could cause skin irritation: itching, a rash or redness. How can you tell before you buy the bottle? While everyone’s skin tolerates different ingredients and products in their own unique manner, there are some skincare ingredients that the experts agree are more likely to cause skin irritation than others. “Those who have sensitive skin are usually more apt to have problems or concerns with these ingredients,” says dermatologist Dr. Michael Gold, founder of the Gold Skincare Center in Nashville. Here are the most likely culprits when it comes to causing skin irritation.
Artificial fragrance: This is the most common skin irritant according to our experts, who say chemically created scents often cause red, itchy allergic reactions. Despite their irritating potential, “they’re still commonly used by companies to cover up unattractive odors,” says Annet King, director of global education at Dermalogica’s International Dermal Institute. Essential oils are a somewhat safer and more natural alternative for scenting skincare products, but they must be used with care: Several essential oils can also cause irritation when applied topically.
Artificial color: Some of the dyes and pigments used to color skincare and cosmetic products are known to cause skin irritation like blackheads, congestion in the skin and atopic dermatitis. According to King, FD&C reds are especially problematic, as is carmine, a red pigment made from crushed beetle scales that is often found in lipstick and eyeshadow. Mineral pigments are a suitable alternative that’s less likely to irritate even the most sensitive skin.
Pure lanolin: This moisturizing ingredient (which is obtained from the sebum of sheep) tends to cause skin irritation in those who are prone to eczema, though our experts say it can cause rashes and allergic reactions in anyone. Plant and nut butters and other botanical oils are typically just as effective at hydrating skin, without the high risk of negative reactions.
Preservatives: Preservative ingredients serve an important function in personal care products: They kill potentially harmful bacteria, prevent the growth of yeast and mold, and generally prevent spoilage. There are currently many preservatives in use, though some cause more skin irritation than others. EDTA, for example, keeps products stable after exposure to air, but may cause contact dermatitis. Sodium borate, a derivative of boric acid (an ingredient that has been phased out of many products because it was so irritating to skin) can also cause skin sensitivities. Parabens are another potentially irritating preservative that have also been linked to cancer. If you want to avoid chemical preservatives, there are a few natural options that are safe and effective: vitamin E and grapefruit seed extract are the most common.
Alcohol: High-grade, purified cosmetic alcohols are used in many products as a base (instead of water) for delivering ingredients to the skin’s surface. While SD Alcohol 40 (or SDA-40) is certainly gentler on the skin than rubbing (ethyl) alcohol, it can still cause skin irritation, especially for those who have particularly sensitive or dry skin. Try to avoid this ingredient and look for alcohol-free formulas if your complexion tends to be one or the other.