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3 Most Sensitizing Ingredients to Avoid in Your Skincare

Even products marketed as green, natural or for sensitive skin can contain the very ingredients commonly known to cause irritation. 

Woman reading ingredient label

There’s so much information circulating right now around chemicals in our personal care products and their potential toxicity resulting in a movement towards clean beauty. Rightfully so, because unless you’re a chemist, it can be difficult to truly understand exactly what’s in your products and if they're good or bad. But today, we’re highlighting 3 of the most common skin sensitizing ingredients that could be lurking in your skincare and other personal care products. 

Whether you have sensitive skin or not, keep reading! Even products labeled 'green', 'natural, ‘hypoallergenic’, ‘dermatologist tested’, ‘for sensitive skin’ and so forth, can still contain the very ingredients that are widely known to cause irritation. By reading this, you'll know exactly what to look for and what to avoid! 

Fragrance, especially synthetic

It’s one of the most common causes of sensitivity and allergic reactions and according to the FDA, fragrance blends are responsible for up to 30% of allergic reactions related to skincare products. 

Even with commercially manufactured products for sensitive skin, you’ll notice they almost always say ‘‘fragrance free’ - it’s usually the first thing to go. But it’s not only found in skincare; a majority of other products we use everyday (household cleaners, hair care, deodorant, etc.) also have fragrance. Typically, it’s synthetic because of their low cost for mass production. However, there’s over 4,000 chemicals, including pthalates, that can be used to make synthetic fragrance oils. Pthalates are typically used to extend aroma, keep formulations liquid or flexible and not all are bad, but some are. The scary thing is, you won't find them or any other chemical in a fragrance on the product label. Fragrance is a class of ingredients currently unregulated by the FDA, meaning that manufacturers aren’t required to disclose ingredients used to formulate a particular scent. 

Why it's best to avoid: Studies are showing some of the chemicals used to make fragrances are known to be carcinogenic, linked to reproductive and developmental issues and respiratory irritation.

How to identify this ingredient: Fragrance, parfum, perfume

skincare laboratory

Sodium Sulfates (SLS) 

Sulfates are a very common ingredient found in skincare, personal care products, household cleaners, among others. They’re surfactants - cleansing agents that bind to dirt and oil while giving products that foaming property or 'suds' & lather we look for in a cleanser. There’s a lot of controversy swirling around sulfates that they're carcinogenic, but there’s actually no research to substantiate these claims. They are however, the harshest of surfactants and well known to be irritating to the skin and eyes. Even more so, if you already have sensitive skin or a condition like eczema or psoriasis. You know that ‘squeaky clean’ feeling that leaves your skin tight and dry? That’s what SLS does, and not what we should be striving for to maintain healthy skin. It's actually a sign that the skin was stripped of its natural moisture barrier. Doing so throws skin off balance & compromises it's normal function, making it more prone to dryness, irritation and redness.  

How to identify this ingredient: Sodium laureth/lauryl sulfate, ammonium sulfate, sulfosuccinates, and taurates. 

The good news: There are vegetable derived alternatives that aren’t nearly as harsh as SLS. Don’t expect them to lather the same, but they’re not any less cleansing. Some common ones to look for include: coco betaine, almond glycerides, and glycerol cocoate. 

Formaldehydes and Formaldehyde Releasing Agents 

If you remember anything from chemistry class, you learned that formaldehyde is a preservative. This potent chemical is actually a gas and used to prevent the growth of mold, fungi or other bacteria, especially in products that contain water. The key thing to know is it won’t be listed by this name on your product ingredient labels. Manufacturers don’t use pure formaldehyde in their formulations, rather a cocktail of chemicals known as a preservative system, many which release formaldehyde gas when metabolized by our bodies. In high concentrations, this chemical is highly toxic and known to be carcinogenic. 

Why it's best to avoid: Overexposure to formaldehyde & it’s releasing chemicals can cause irritation to the skin, mucous membranes, respiratory and gastro-intestinal tracts, but is mostly absorbed and metabolized through our respiratory system. Yes it's known that high concentrations are carcinogenic, although amounts found in our everyday products have not currently been proven to be high enough to directly cause cancer. But why take the risk, when there are naturally derived alternatives? 

How to identify this ingredient: Formaldehyde, formalin, toluene, quaternium-15, DMDM hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea, diazolidinyl urea, polyoxymethylene urea, sodium hydroxymethylglycinate, 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol (bromopol) and glyoxal.

Naturally derived preservatives: Full spectrum vitamin E, rosemary extract, grapefruit seed extract, benzoic acid, sorbic acid, germaben. 

natural ingredients

We wouldn’t be properly doing our part if we also didn’t acknowledge that even natural ingredients can be sensitizing or an allergen to some people. The moral of the story: it's so important to read labels, be your own advocate and listen to your body, regardless of how a product is being marketed!

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