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Sensitive Skin Rx: Avoid fragrance, plant extracts, known allergens, and products that aren't pH balanced

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Gentle Products for Sensitive Skin

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By Jean Knight, White Rabbit Beauty

If your skin is sensitive, look for

  • Simple formulas
  • No fragrance and few or no plant extracts or essential oils
  • Formulas without skin allergens identified by dermatologists
  • Proper pH of products

You've likely heard the first two generalizations before, but the specifics may surprise you. Read further for those. You'll also find the list of cosmetics ingredients on the North American Contact Dermatitis Group Standard Allergens List. These are the most common allergens in cosmetics.

Keep in mind that reactions to cosmetics among the general public are rare, even for ingredients more likely to cause a reaction. A study estimates the number at 0.4% of the general population (1). People with sensitive skin, however, can react to many more ingredients than the general public. This article is for you.

Look for Simple Formulas

For sensitive skin, the fewer the ingredients, the better. It's playing the odds: The fewer the ingredients, the fewer the chances of a reaction. Personal care products often have twenty or more ingredients. Ideally, find formulas with ten or fewer ingredients. Ten isn't a magic number; it's just to give you a sense of what "simple" might mean. You can find good formulas with as few as two ingredients!

Formulas aren't always as simple as the label suggests. If the ingredient list includes a plant extract or fragrance, then the formula includes tens to hundreds more chemical compounds that make up those plant extracts and fragrances. Which leads to the next point...

Look for Formulas Without Fragrance or Plant Extracts

When an ingredient is called "fragrance" or "parfum," it usually refers to a proprietary blend of many fragrance chemicals. Fragrances from essential oils are equally complex. Most plant extracts, including essential oils, naturally contain over a hundred chemical compounds. These are not compounds introduced by man; they are what's in the plant. With so many chemicals in fragrances, natural or otherwise, your odds of reacting to the product increase.

Here's an example: In the table below, the first column has the ingredients for a simple, unscented body oil. The second column shows the ingredient list with lavender essential oil added as a fragrance. On the label, this appears as "Lavandula angustifolia (lavender) essential oil," which sounds lovely and simple. Lovely it is, but simple it isn't. See its actual components in the third column.

A Simple Formula Becomes Complicated When Fragrance or Plant Extracts Are Added
Unscented Formula Scented Formula,
as Shown on Label
Scented Formula,
in Detail
Butyrospermum parkii (shea butter) oil Butyrospermum parkii (shea butter) oil Butyrospermum parkii (shea butter) oil
Tocopherol acetate (vit. E) Lavandula angustifolia (lavender)
essential oil
Lavandula angustifolia (lavender)
essential oil, which consists of:
linalyl acetate
(plus at least 10 more compounds)
  Tocopherol acetate (vit. E) Tocopherol acetate (vit. E)

The list shows results from one analysis of lavender essential oil (2), but composition varies by lavender species and regional conditions. The major components are present among all lavender crops, but lesser components can vary, with some present in some lavender crops but not others. Ever wonder, like me, why your face turns beet red and burns with some lavender extracts but not with other lavender extracts? That's why... you are allergic to a component that can be present, but is not always present, in lavender. Unfortunately, you can't tell in advance if a lavender extract will be okay, so probably, like me, you just must avoid lavender. Life isn't fair! I'm using lavender as an example, but variable components are generally the case for all plant extracts and essential oils.

Beyond the basic arithmetic - more ingredients so more chance to react - there is another issue with plant extracts. They come from living things, and so as you can guess, many extract components are biologically active (bioactive). This means they interact with living tissue, normally the plant's. In the lavender example above, bioactive components include linalyl acetate, beta-linalool, camphor, alpha-pinene, beta-pinene, 1,8-cineole, camphene, and others (2).

A bioactive plant component may have beneficial or harmful properties; often it has both. Either way, such a component has a higher chance of interacting with our tissue, and yours may not appreciate it!

Nut/Seed Oils May Be Okay

In the table, the simple formula also includes shea (Butyrospermum parkii) nut oil. This is from a plant, too, but nut and seed oils are mostly fatty acids, which are good for your skin. Shea oil, for example, is mostly oleic, stearic, linoleic, and palmitic fatty acids. Shea oil and other nut/seed oils have other components, too, and some are bioactive. Olive oil and castor oil have had limited reports of reactions (4), but nut/seed oils in general have fewer reports of reactions than other plant extracts. Still, if you have very sensitive skin, you'll want to be careful when trying any new ingredient.

Common nut/seed oils are olive, jojoba, shea, castor, argan, coconut, rosehip seed, grapeseed, pumpkin seed, safflower seed, almond, kukui nut, and pomegranate seed.

Look for Formulas Without Allergens Identified by Dermatologists

The American Contact Dermatitis Society maintains a list of common skin allergens. This list includes the cosmetics ingredients shown in the table below. You'll notice that many of these are fragrances, as you'd expect, and also preservatives.

Preservatives are, by design, bioactive. They are designed to interact with and kill microorganisms that can harm us. They are essential for any product that includes water, which is most products. Their bioactivity increases the chance that we will react to them, too, and for this reason, preservatives in general are one of the more common allergens.

The table includes notes from renowned dermatologist Dr. Frances Storrs of Oregon Health and Science University. Now professor emerita, Dr. Storrs helped me learn about cosmetics ingredients when I started White Rabbit Beauty, an act of kindness I will never forget. She went through this list with me and wrote in key points for some of the allergens. The latest list includes additional allergens, notably more plant extracts as those have become more widely used. I have added notes for some of these new allergens - my notes have an asterisk*.

Cosmetics Ingredients on Standard Allergens List from North American Contact
Dermatitis Group
Ingredient Notes
Preservatives on List
Quaternium 15#1 preservative allergen, formaldehyde releaser
Diazolidinyl urea (Germall II)preservative, formaldehyde releaser
DMDM hydantoinpreservative, formaldehyde releaser
Imidazolidinyl urea (Germall 115)preservative, formaldehyde releaser
Paraben mixsafest preservative
2-Bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol, 0.5% pet. (Bronopol) preservative, formaldehyde releaser
4-chloro-3, 5-xylenol (PCMX) (chloroxlenol)preservative
Methyldibromoglutaronitrile/Phenoxyethanol (MDBGN/PE) (Euxyl K 00)preservative combination (phenoxyethanol alone not common allergen)
Iodopropynyl butyl carbamatepreservative
Fragrances on List
Fragrance mix II (hydroxyisohexyl 3-cyclohexene carboxaldehyde, citral, farnesol, coumarin, citronellol, hexyl cinnamal)mix used to screen for fragrance allergies*
Myroxylon Pereirae Resin (Balsam of Peru)fragrance
Fragrance Mix I (amyl cinnamic alcohol, cinnamic alcohol, eugenol, cinnamic aldehyde, hydroxycitronellal, geraniol, isoeugenol, oak moss absolute)mix used to screen for fragrance allergies*
d-limonenebotanical component used for perfuming/masking, common in natural products*
Majantolesynthetic fragrance*
Carvonebotanical fragrance*
Benzyl alcoholfragrance component, preservative*
Botanicals on List
Tea tree oil, oxidizedbotanical with most reactions
Plants in Compositae family (arnica, calendula, chamomile, yarrow, feverfew, and others [4])patch tests for these are the Sesquiterpene lactone mix and the Compositae mix*
Cananga odorata oil (ylang ylang) 
Lavandula angustifolia oil (lavender oil) 
Jasminum officinale oil (jasminum grandiflorum) 
Mentha piperita oil (peppermint oil) 
Other Cosmetics Ingredients on List
Rosin (colophony)in rosin mascaras
Shellacin mascaras*
P-phenylenediaminein hair dyes
Cocamidopropyl betainemost common allergen in shampoos
Coconut diethanolamide (cocamide DEA)irritant, in shampoos
Dimethylaminopropylamine (DMAPA)in body wash, shampoos*
Amidoamine (stearamidopropyl dimethylamine) in hair conditioners*
Decyl glucosideplant-derived surfactant, in natural facial cleansers, body washes*
Cinnamic aldehydein toothpaste (induces nonimmumologic contact urticaria)
2-hydroxy-4-methoxy-benzophenone (benzophene3)in sun screens
Dl alpha Tocopherolvitamin E
Carminered/pink/purple colorant extracted from beetles, common in natural makeup*
Propolisresin made by bees*
Propylene glycolrare allergy
In the Notes column, notes without an asterisk are by Dr. Frances Storrs. Notes with an asterisk (*) are my notes.

Remember that "more common" is still rare. The Internet is full of warnings to avoid fragrances and preservatives because they are the major cause of reactions. This sounds bad, until you learn that the reaction rates for all cosmetic ingredients, including preservatives and fragrances, are estimated to be just 0.4% of the general population (1). For most people, the ingredients mentioned here will not be a problem. If you have sensitive skin, however, you may be in that 0.4%.

Dr. Storr's note that the paraben mix is the safest preservative may surprise you, given the negative publicity surrounding parabens. Dr. Storr's note relates only to contact dermatititis. Most of the negative publicity relates to parabens being weakly estrogenic. Even in this regard, however, parabens are probably the most misunderstood ingredients in cosmetics. It's too off-topic to go into here, but consider that the American Cancer Society, the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institutes of Health, and the EU's cosmetics regulatory agency have all issued statements confirming the safety of parabens as used in cosmetics. Also, consider that the go-to brand for persons with multiple chemical sensitivities chose parabens as the best option for that highly sensitive and immune-compromised community.

Don't Mess with Your Skin's pH

Skin has a slightly acidic pH, about 5.5. (Quick refresher course: pH ranges from 0 to 14, pH 7.0 is neutral, pHs below 7.0 are acidic, and pHs above 7.0 are alkali). When you see a facial cleanser or toner that says pH balanced, it means it has a pH close to your skin's pH. This is good. Your skin is designed to work at that slightly acidic pH. Be nice to your skin and don't stress it by using products that don't have the proper pH.

Mostly, this means don't use bar soaps, castile soaps, or formulas based on saponified oils. The soap-making process uses lye, and the resulting soap has a high (alkaline) pH, typically 9-10. If you do use a soap, use a pH balanced toner immediately afterward to get your skin back to its healthy pH. If you have sensitive skin, you probably want to minimize the number of products you use, so it's probably easier to find a good cleanser that is pH balanced, making a corrective toner unnecessary.

Suggestions for Simple Products

Many brands have a few products with simple formulas, but it can be like finding a needle in a haystack. Often the products a brand labels for sensitive skin are unsuitable for sensitive skin. Your only avenue is to look at every ingredient list. To help narrow your search, check the Sensitive Skin Care Brands page. That page lists brands with at least a few simple products. Choose the More Info link for each brand to see the names of the simple products. You'll still need to check the ingredient lists, because formulas change frequently in this industry, but this page can help you narrow your search.

For more specific product suggestions, see the article "Hard-to-Find Products."

If you have recommendations for products that have worked for your sensitive skin, please let me know and I'll share them with the community.


(1) Katherine A Biebl and Erin M Warshaw, 2006. Allergic contact dermatitis to cosmetics. Dermatol Clin. 2006;24(2):215-232, vii

(2) Elena S Serban, Sonia A Socaci, Maria Tofana, Simona C Maier, Marius T Bojita, 2010. Chemical composition of some essential oils of Lamiaceae family. Farmacie Clujul Medical 2010 vol. lxxxiii.

(3) Dr. Duke's Phytochemical and Ethnobotanical Databases

(4) Alexander R Jack, MD, Patricia L Norris, MD, and Frances J Storrs, MD, 2013. Allergic contact dermatitis to plant extracts in cosmetics. Semin Cutan Med Surg 32:140-146.

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