Updated July 24, 2020

Skincare products are supposed to keep your skin feeling soft and looking fresh and healthy. But for people with sensitive skin, the products meant to help your skin can actually make it look and feel worse. Most skincare products contain a large number of chemicals and ingredients to smell good, look good, and be effective. Unfortunately, certain ingredients can lead to rashes, irritation, or more serious reactions in people with sensitive skin. If you’re trying to establish a better sensitive skincare routine, keep reading.

woman checking her face in the mirror

Greeley dermatology doctors can provide personalized treatment options and recommendations for those in need of sensitive skincare products. You may also need to be tested for several different skin conditions. Skin disorders such as rosacea and eczema can make your skin break out frequently. There are some medications you can take to control these conditions.

What Products Are You Using?

One of the best ways to help sensitive skin is to avoid products that have certain ingredients. You may be using products that are irritating your skin every day. Even some products labeled as being for sensitive skin may trigger a reaction. Everyone’s skin is different, and while these products may help the vast majority of people, they may not help you. You should always look at the ingredients of any skin care product you buy before using them.

Note that it may take some trial and error to find which ingredients and products irritate your skin. Once you’ve determined the cause of your skin flaring up, you can remove or replace those products to avoid future incidents. For example, you may find that products with fragrances don’t affect you at all but sulfates cause horrible breakouts. You may need to carefully track what products you use and how your skin reacts to them for several months, replacing products as you go, before you figure out exactly which ingredients you need to avoid. You may also want to consider having a medical allergy test done to determine if allergies are to blame.

Here are some common irritants to sensitive skin you’ll want to avoid.

woman testing lotion on sensitive skin


One of the most common ingredients that can trigger a reaction is any kind of fragrance. A product could smell great in the container, but the chemicals that create that scent can cause serious irritation when the product goes on the skin. Synthetic fragrances are made of chemicals, which can easily irritate sensitive skin. And because companies aren’t required to list the many chemicals that are combined to create the fragrance, it’s often impossible to pinpoint exactly which chemical is causing the reaction. Avoid products that claim to have any sort of scent. In some cases, even products labeled “unscented” may have a fragrance to cover up the chemical smell. Look for products labeled “fragrance-free” or “without perfume.”


Another common irritant is dye. Even small amounts of chemical dye to add color or cover the natural color of a product can irritate sensitive skin. Dyes aren’t necessary to the quality of the product and are typically made up of multiple chemicals that can cause redness and clog pores. Dyes are common in products like lotions and body washes, so look for products that are labeled “dye-free.” Hair dye can also cause irritation in sensitive skin and should be avoided because of the large amounts of chemicals in most products.


Parabens are preservatives commonly used in a wide variety of skincare products. They allow products to have a longer shelf life, but they can also be absorbed into the skin and cause a variety of health issues. Parabens can cause irritation to sensitive skin. Look for products that are labeled “paraben-free,” especially in lotions, moisturizers, and makeup. The good news is that many people, including those without sensitive skin, are avoiding parabens, so more products are removing the ingredient.


Sulfates are a type of detergent that are included in many cleansing skin care products, including soap and body wash. Sulfates tend to be too harsh for sensitive skin and can dry it out. Sulfates in shampoo can also cause skin irritation around the hairline and neck. Look for gentler options that are sulfate-free, which include most natural or organic options. Sulfates are typically one of the most common ingredients in cleansing products, so they should be towards the top of the list of ingredients, which makes it easy to know what to avoid.

Essential Oils

Many people view essential oils as a safe choice because they are typically all-natural. However, essential oils contain allergens that can irritate sensitive skin. Some products contain diluted essential oils, but in products with a higher concentration of essential oils, such as acne treatments, the ingredient can be too strong. Common irritants include tea tree, mint, lavender, and citrus oils in highly concentrated doses. Most essential oils are listed individually, so some people with sensitive skin can isolate exactly which oil causes problems and avoid just that specific ingredient.


Skin products that contain alcohol are likely to dry out your skin. In addition to avoiding products that have alcohol in them, you should also watch how many alcoholic beverages you drink. Alcohol causes your body’s tissue to become inflamed. This releases chemicals that cause the capillaries to dilate, increasing the blood flow to the skin. That, in turn, causes your skin to look red. This is why those who have had several alcoholic beverages have a red tint to their skin and feel warm. The pores on your skin also dilate, which can lead to more whiteheads and blackheads. If you don’t properly treat this, it can lead to issues such as cystic acne.

group drinking coffee


Caffeine can cause the same symptoms as alcohol if you drink it frequently or drink large quantities of it. Caffeine is also a diuretic, which causes your body to become dehydrated. Like alcohol, you can certainly enjoy a cup of coffee or a soft drink, but drink caffeine in moderation.

Household Products

In addition to your skincare products, there are other items you use daily that can irritate your sensitive skin. If you start noticing that your skin is red, itchy, or has a rash in certain areas, it could be a reaction to one of these products. Everything from laundry detergent to soap, fragrances, and plants have chemicals that can irritate sensitive skin. Fortunately, many companies have recognized the need for household products that do not contain harsh chemicals and fragrances. A general rule of thumb is to look for products that have the fewest ingredients possible to lower your chance of a reaction or irritation.


Spending long amounts of time in the sun can cause some people with sensitive skin to get heat rash or areas of red, bumpy skin. The best course of action for these people is to avoid being in direct sunlight and to wear protective clothing and sunscreen. Aim for a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 and apply it regularly when you are outside, even on cloudy days. You should also wear a hat to protect the skin on the top of your head, your ears, the back of your neck, and other parts of your face that can be difficult to cover with sunscreen.

Note that your body does need sunlight to create vitamin D, an essential vitamin. You may need to talk to your doctor about taking a supplement to avoid becoming deficient in vitamin D.

Mental Health

Sensitive skincare isn’t always about your body. Your mental health is connected to your hormones, which have a huge impact on your skin. Many people see skin flare-ups when they feel stressed, nervous, or worried. Experiencing a skin flare-up can make people more stressed, which only adds to the problem.

Finding ways to regulate mental health is a great practice for everyone, not just for people with sensitive skin. Find a relaxing activity like yoga or exercise, or practice ways to calm yourself during stressful situations, such as meditation or deep breathing. Taking good care of your body helps your mental health and your skin.

man eating his breakfast


Certain foods and diets can cause reactions throughout the body, and especially on the skin. Many people experience allergic reactions like hives and rashes from certain types of foods that irritate their bodies. If you’re experiencing digestive issues, you may also need to be tested for a food allergy. You could be allergic to shellfish, peanuts, gluten, dairy products, or another common food allergy.

On a lesser level, many people aren’t strictly allergic to certain foods, but they still produce a sensitive skin flare-up. Spicy foods and alcohol are common culprits that can make sensitive skin red and bumpy. Even some very common foods, including tomatoes, cinnamon, vanilla, garlic, and citrus fruits, can cause irritation. If you experience regular flare-ups, try tracking the foods you eat and looking for a pattern between food and flare-ups.


Medication can also impact sensitive skin, so check with your dermatologist before taking any new kinds of medicine. Common medications that can cause rashes include penicillin, drugs made with sulfa, allopurinol, cephalosporins, and medications used to treat seizures. Even common medications such as NSAIDs and general anesthetics can result in hives. Always talk to your doctor and dermatologist when being prescribed new medication and carefully read the information given to you by the pharmacist about potential side effects.


Sweat and the movement of some types of exercise can cause people with sensitive skin to have flare-ups. These flare-ups usually happen during more strenuous activities like running or biking, which cause the blood to pump more through the body and on the face. If exercise causes flare-ups, look for a lower-impact way to get moving, like yoga and swimming. Exercise is important for overall health, including the care of sensitive skin.


Where you live also has a big impact on the state of your skin. Many people experience flare-ups when the air is too dry or too humid. This is especially common with the dry air in Colorado during the winter months when there just isn’t much moisture in the air. Flare-ups can also occur when you move between extreme climates, like traveling from a dry place to a very humid place. Flare-ups can also commonly occur when people get too hot and sweaty during the summer months.

Sensitive skin is affected by nearly everything around it. Flare-ups can occur for a number of reasons, but paying attention to your surroundings and actions around flare-ups can help pinpoint the cause and lead to a potential solution. For specialized recommendations and sensitive skin options, be sure to visit your local dermatologist.