Sensitive Skin, Allergies, Fragrance, & Cosmetics

Posted by Leighton "Lee" T. on

Sensitive Skin? You're Not Alone.

Itching, burning, or redness are signs of sensitive skin. But what is it really? According to WebMD, dermatologists look for 1) skin reactions such as pustules, bumps, or erosion; 2) very dry skin; and 3) skin blushing or flushing. In another article, they define it as “the skin condition of people who easily break out in rashes and get blotchy, itchy, or stinging skin in response to products or the weather.” Dermatologist Dr. Zoe Draelos states, in an article in Dermatology Times, that while the term defies a technical or medical definition, the types of people who “sensitive skin” products are made for include: sufferers of rosacea, atopic dermatitis, or cosmetic intolerance syndrome.

Being a manufacturer of skincare products, I can assure you that some people most certainly do have a sensitivity to something in cosmetic formulations. In the rest of this article, I will discuss what the common thread is and what you might want to avoid if you think you have sensitive skin.

The prevailing wisdom regarding sensitive skin is mixed. Some experts believe it is just a marketing term. Others believe that it may well have a physiological cause. But all agree that sensitive skin is becoming big business and a growing issue with some sources citing 60% of women claiming to have sensitive skin.

What Causes Sensitive Skin to React?

The #1 reason your skin will react to a cosmetic formulation is… fragrance. Period. Full Stop. The End. No, really, that’s basically it. An allergic reaction to fragrance is the leading cause of any irritation due to a cosmetic formulation.

And believe it or not, it’s actually normally caused by a natural ingredient. Yeah, that’s right, synthetic fragrance ingredients are less likely to cause a reaction. But…formulations with fragrance oil as the scent cause me problems. Well, the truth is, fragrance oil is just a generic name for any and all fragrances. And for the most part natural ingredients make up the bulk of the fragrance oil as it’s vastly cheaper to use readily available, but known allergens, such as clove, cinnamon, nutmeg, rose (geraniol), jasmine, and oak moss. The other big fragrance allergen is a synthetic lily of the valley, but I’ll probably never use it, so… The point being, it really doesn’t matter whether a fragrance oil or essential oil only blend is used to fragrance a product. But if it’s essential oil only, you can ask what essential oils were used and avoid the known dermatitis causing ones. Tea tree oil is another known allergen.

The #2 cause is an allergic reaction to a specific ingredient in the cosmetic. Which is why the FDA requires any cosmetics to be labeled with the list of ingredients in descending order of prominence. So people can make sure they aren’t putting a known allergen on their skin. Formaldahyde is probably the biggest one. Unfortunately, it is used as a preservative, and it is highly effective, so it’s hard to avoid if you want to use a lotion or other water based product.

What to Do About It

Like all things I will write about, the takeaway is “your mileage may vary”. But just because you’ve experienced an allergic reaction to one cosmetic, doesn’t mean you have sensitive skin. You could simply be allergic to one of the fragrance ingredients. And believe it or not, a LOT of people are allergic to some of those ingredients in my above list. Cinnamon is a very common allergen, as is clove. Oakmoss is prohibited in Europe because a significant portion of people are allergic to it. And these are all fairly common fragrance compounds used to make many fragrances.

Try unscented products first. Your sensitive skin could be caused by one or several volatile fragrance compounds. This is the most common cause of dermatitis. If that’s still not enough, try eliminating any water based products like lotions. The preservatives used to keep bacteria and fungi away are also volatile and may be irritating your skin. Instead, use things like whipped butters or body oils. Now, I don’t currently sell either of those, but my unscented shave oil can be repurposed as a body oil.

Dry Skin Might be the Cause

Dry skin may be causing your irritation. When your skin is dry, the top most layer starts to flake off. The lower layers are starving for water and your skin becomes red, irritable & peeling. The obvious treatment is to use a moisturizer. The less obvious treatment is to stay hydrated and drink more water. While a heavy duty moisturizer like my Blue Collar Hand Balm can work wonders and help soothe dry & irritated skin, it cannot add water to your skin, it can only keep it in and soothe your skin. So, drink up!

If You're Still Suffering from Dermatitis

If none of the above helps, it’s time to consult an expert. You’ll need to narrow it down to whether it’s the soap you’re using or any additional moisturizing products. It could be that your skin is extremely dry (eczema). Or it could be sensitive to soap/detergents and you need to use very low cleansing formulations like Cetaphil’s gentle cleanser.

grooming sensitive skin

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