But even just a few days of minor irritation can lead to long-term effects. “Irritation is a major causative factor in skin aging since irritants activate enzymes to break down collagen fibers leading to lines and loss of elasticity,” says dermatologist Dr. Loretta Ciraldo, and co-founder of
So what is causing it and how can you avoid it? You can start by avoiding the most irritating ingredients, which appear in a lot of common products. Here’s what to look out for, especially if you’ve got sensitive skin or any of the above signs:
- Artificial colors (often listed as the color or with numbers and letters, such as Blue 1, Green 3, etc)
- Artificial fragrance (often listed as parfum) and detergents
- Sulfates (sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate)
- Some preservatives, and especially parabens
- Benzoyl peroxide
- Hydroquinone and kojic acid
Other ingredients Dr. Loretta and Hewett listed are polyethylene glycol and PEG compounds, propylene glycol, petrolatum, triclosan, methylisothiazolinone, methylchloroisothiazolinone, and ethanolamines (MEA/DEA/TEA). Hewett also notes that everyday products like retinols, salicylic acid, and peroxides can be irritating for some, too. “Some natural irritants can be terpenes like linalool, pinene, limonene—these are naturally occurring in certain flowers plants and spices, like lavender for example and citrus—as well as other natural irritants, like charcoal, fruits, and sugar acids,” says Hewett.
And two ingredients often seen as helpful—alcohols and detergents—can also lead to a lot of issues, says Hewett. “Alcohols give your skin that tight feeling, but tight means dehydrated,” says Hewett. “Detergents give your skin that super soft feeling, but that means that the pH of your skin is actually at an unhealthy level.”
And to make matters more confusing, ingredients won’t outright always say “alcohol” or “detergent,” but there is a way you can quickly analyze if a product has either. “Detergents typically have the word ‘sulphate’ in them. Sulphates = detergent = bad. Another bad detergent is cocamidopropyl—it’s derived from petroleum, palm oil, and coconut oil. My easiest tip is to look for words that end in ‘yl’ or ‘ol’. These are solvents (alcohols). For example ethyl, isopropyl, methanol, benzyl, ethanol. Bad. Bad. Bad.”
If you want to take it further to investigate potentially irritating ingredients though, you have to quickly glance at your ingredient list for irritants. And the long list of ingredients on products can be super confusing, but there are tips to quickly scan the back of a label to see exactly what a product has hiding inside it.
Start at the top, but go to the bottom
“Start at the top of the list,” says Johanna Peet, founder of transparent skincare line
But make sure to look at the entire list of ingredients, especially those closer to the bottom of the list, where most “inactive” ingredients are. Most of the irritants listed below are considered inactive, and don’t need to be listed upfront or at the top. Dr. Loretta created her skincare line in part to bring more awareness to the ingredient list; she calls out the active ingredients on the front of the packaging. “We have formulated our line with the knowledge that inactive ingredients do often cause many unwanted changes in our skin, so become a label reader,” says Dr. Loretta
Deceptive names aren’t necessarily dangerous
To make things more complicated, “some plant-based ingredients have confusing sounding names which can sound toxic when in fact they are safe, clean plant derivatives,” says Peet.
“Brands follow the INCI (International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients) labeling standard and list ingredients, using scientific names,” says Dr. Loretta. For instance, jojoba oil would be listed as “Simmondsia Chinensis (Jojoba) Seed Oil.” This can make an ingredient list crazy hard to read.
Unfortunately, FDA regulations regarding product labels are super outdated and archaic, making it really hard for customers to understand what’s actually in their products, says Peet. This was part of the inspiration for Peet Rivko products. To simplify things, they have clearly listed each ingredient on all bottle labels and their
Know the terms
Commonly used label words like “natural,” “hypoallergenic,” “alcohol-free,” and even “dermatologist-tested” are not regulated by the FDA. Brands can choose to use them in any way they wish on any type of product. “For example, 99 percent of products that say ‘alcohol-free’ contain alcohol, they just don’t contain certain alcohols,” says Hewett. If you’re questioning the ingredients, look for those offenders above, and in extreme cases, check with your dermatologist.