5 Allergens & Irritants to Watch Out for in Skincare Products

by | Updated: January 4th, 2019 | Read time: 5 minutes

You’ve been there time and again. You buy a new beauty product in hopes it will work wonders, only to wake up to red, itchy, blotchy skin. Many will attribute this reaction to skin sensitivity and simply stop using it. However, this reaction could be a symptom of a deeper issue—an allergy to one or more of the product’s ingredients.

Did you know that the more you are exposed to an allergen, the more likely it is that you will react to it? It is estimated that the average woman uses 12 personal care products daily, which encompass 168 unique ingredients. The average man uses six personal care products daily with 85 unique ingredients.1 Considering that many beauty product are formulated with known allergy-inducers, this greatly increases the risk for an adverse reaction.

Woman Reads Cosmetic Ingredients on Beauty Products to Help Avoid Contact Dermatitis | Vitacost.com/blog

What is contact dermatitis?

When your skin is reacting to something cosmetic, the reaction is called contact dermatitis, which is split into two categories: allergic and irritant. Allergic reactions involve the immune system, while irritant reactions stop at the surface.

Allergic contact dermatitis occurs when something comes into contact with your skin and causes an immune system response by triggering inflammation. Symptoms of this reaction can range from itchy, red bumps to plaques distributed in areas that experienced the most exposure to the offending allergen. This type of reaction can occur on any part of your body, but it normally appears on the upper part of the body, such as your face, neck and ears.

The other type of dermatitis—irritant contact dermatitis—can cause long-term damage to the skin. Symptoms of intense burning and stinging can occur, the skin can appear red and irritated; and in severe cases, skin blisters can appear, especially if you’re scratching. This reaction can occur anywhere the product was applied.

If you’ve experienced either of the reactions described above, keep reading for a breakdown of the most common irritating ingredients you’ll find in skin care. The next time you’re shopping for new beauty elixirs, you’ll know what to look for on the label.

1. Artificial fragrances

Fragrance doesn’t just apply to perfumes. Did you know there are over 3,000 different fragrances used in all types of beauty products?2 Those who are allergic to synthetic fragrance may suffer from reactions such as skin swelling, itching and rashes. One little-known fact: Fragrance ingredients can sometimes even be found in products labeled “unscented,” because companies use fragrance chemicals known as masking agents to cover the scent of the product’s formulation. If you find that you’re sensitive to synthetic fragrance, look for products labeled “fragrance free” or ones that only get their scent from natural sources.

2. Preservatives

Mass skincare manufacturers default to formulating with preservatives, including parabens, urea and formaldehyde, because they’re cheap and stable. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re good for your skin. The most common preservatives to look for on the label are parabens, imidazolidinyl urea, Quaternium-15, DMDM hydantoin, phenoxyethanoil, methylchloroisothiazolinone and formaldehyde. These ingredients prevent bacteria buildup, making products last longer. Unfortunately, they can also cause allergic reactions like swelling or hives in a percentage of people that come into contact with them regularly. It can be difficult to find skin care that doesn’t contain these preservatives, but the options are out there! If you’ve experienced a reaction to any of these preservatives before, keep an eye out for labels that clearly say they’re free of preservatives.

3. Sulfates

Products that “suds up” like cleansers, shampoos and soaps most likely contain sulfates, an additive to cleaning products that cause a foaming action when combined with water. This emulsifies grease and oil, making it easier to wash them away. Though sulfate-based cleansers can effectively clean the skin, they can also strip away essential oils and cause irritation, redness and increased dryness. You’ll see these on the ingredient label as sodium laureth sulfate and sodium laurel sulfate. So if you’re experiencing chronic skin reactions – rashes, blemishes or eye irritation – you may want to give sulfate products a break.

4. Chemical sunscreens

Chemical sunscreens use ingredients like oxybenzone, octinoxate, octisalate and avobenzone, which absorb ultraviolet light, turning it into heat and then releasing it. Due to the chemical nature of these ingredients, they can inflame sensitive skin. However, if you have sensitive skin, it’s crucial to protect it from the sun’s harmful rays as UV exposure can irritate skin even further. If you’ve found that chemical sunscreens cause a reaction, try physical sunscreens that use mineral-based UV blockers, such as zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. Since the minerals in these sunscreens sit on top of the skin to create a physical protective barrier, they are easiest to tolerate.

5. Gluten

If you have gluten sensitivity or celiac disease, you may think you need to avoid skincare products that contain gluten, but the Celiac Society disagrees: “Gluten molecules are too large to be absorbed through the skin. If you’re having a reaction to a personal care product (for example, a moisturizer or sunscreen lotion) that contains gluten, you may be allergic to one or more of the other ingredients.3” Unless the product in question is used on the lips or in the mouth, there is no need for concern.

Adding a new product to your routine can be tricky if you have sensitive skin or known allergies. The more you know about ingredients, the easier it will be to sidestep potential adverse reactions. If you cut these common ingredients out of your routine and continue to experience reactions, please consult with your dermatologist who will be able to provide detailed information on safe-to-use skincare alternatives.


1. Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database. Available at: http://www.cosmeticsdatabase.com/research

2. Scheman A, Jacob S, Zirwas M, et al. Contact Allergy: alternatives for the 2007 North American contact dermatitis group (NACDG) Standard Screening Tray. Dis Mon 54(1-2):7-156 (2008 Jan-Feb).

3. A Glutton for Gluten: Should Skin Care Be Gluten-Free? http://www.dermalinstitute.com/us/library/25_article_A_Glutton_for_Gluten_Should_Skin_Care_Be_Gluten_Free_.html