11 mistakes you're most likely making if you have sensitive skin.

If you're a lass with sensitive skin, you know how frustrating it can be. There's so many cool products kicking around the beauty streets these days (the brands! The packaging! The potential shelfies!), yet your skin literally s**ts itself if you even so much as whisper the words 'new product'.

It sucks.

Watch: Just on the topic of skin, here's 7 ways to improve yours while sleeping. Post continues below.

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Knowing where to start in protecting your sensitive skin from redness, irritation and flaking (yum!) can be intimidating.

You end up aimlessly flailing around the non-flail-safe aisles of Chemist Warehouse, feeling like you need a science degree to be able to figure out what won't irritate your skin.

Listen: Leigh takes us on the road to recovery and shows us how using too many actives can lead to a chemical burn. Post continues below.

So, to take the guesswork out for you, we hit up dermatologist Dr Katherine Armour from Bespoke Skin Technology and asked her what folk with sensitive skin should avoid at all costs.

Hang on a minute. How do I know if I actually have sensitive skin?

Good question! Gold star for you, Helen.

"This is the six million dollar question!" Dr Armour tells us. Apparently sensitive skin is not actually classified as a medical diagnosis (she's pretty upset about it, too), so it can be a tricky thing to pin down.

"In her textbook 'Cosmetic Dermatology', the eminent and very well-published US dermatologist, Dr Leslie Baumann, describes sensitive skin as "a condition characterised by hyper-reactivity to environmental factors. Individuals experiencing this condition report exaggerated reactions to topical personal care products that may or may not be associated with visible symptoms."

Dr Armour said if you find that your skin has reduced tolerance to products applied to the skin (like if retinol or vitamin C always makes your skin feel all stingy and irritated) or your skin freaks out to changes in the environment (e.g. when the weather gets cold) - congratulations, you have sensitive skin.


"Environmental factors which may cause symptoms in those with sensitive skin include hot water, excessive heat or cold, humidity, and UV light," said Dr Armour. "Symptoms reported in those with sensitive skin include burning, stinging, and itching. These may be accompanied by visible redness."

Sound familiar? 

Okay, cool. Sounds like me. What should I avoid?

"This is a pet topic of mine, as every day at work I see patients using skincare products which are contributing to their existing skin sensitivity," said Dr Armour.

Poor little lambs.

Here's what skincare ingredients and products Dr Armour reckons you should avoid (or, approach with caution) if you have sensitive skin.

1. Foaming cleansers.

Do you have a foaming cleanser you use every morning and night? Cute! Throw it in the bin.

"My preference is always for gentle cleansers. But, if you have sensitive skin, it’s crucial to avoid foaming cleansers," said Dr Armour. "The surfactants that generate foam can disturb the epidermal barrier, leading to dryness and irritation."

That's everything you don't need for your skin.

We feel like you're going to be offended that we ever brought this up, but we're going to say it anyway: OBVS DON'T EVER USE SOAP. 

"Please never, ever use standard soap on your face. Our skin has an acidic pH of roughly 5.7. The alkaline pH of soap strips the precious acid mantle of our skin."

2. Toners.

"No one needs a toner – ever!", said Dr Armour.

Image: Giphy 


"For so many years we were programmed that we were taking great care of our skin if we followed the 'cleanse, tone, moisturise' dictum. 'Cleanse, moisturise with actives, sunscreen' would be a better replacement."

Why the hate on the toners? Well, they actually don't really do anything but strip the moisture out of your skin - which is a pretty mean thing to do to a face that needs every drop of hydration it can get its little hands on.

"Toners often contain alcohol or other ingredients which dry out the skin barrier. This is the last thing you need if you have sensitive skin. There is perhaps a limited role for AHA containing toners in those with very oily/breakout prone skin. But, that isn't us ladies with sensitive skin."

3. Physical exfoliants.

"If you have sensitive skin, your epidermal barrier is often very easily upset. So, the last thing you want to be doing is rubbing granular material onto that delicate barrier."

Those chunks of walnut shells or microbeads just ain't doing anything for your sensitive face. They're WAY too rough. Not only will you end up experiencing heaps of irritation, but you can end up causing even more inflammation that you had before - especially when it comes to acne-prone skin.

"I still remember being drawn as a teenage to the St Ives Apricot scrub, despite the fact that every time I used it, my face would become red, dry and angry."

The ol' St Ives Apricot Scrub. *Shudders*. Anyone else remember tearing off a whole layer of skin with that stuff? 

So, what's the go here? Do we just skip the exfoliation part, Dr A?

"If your skin is dry, rough, sensitive, and a little scaly, you don’t need an exfoliant. Rather, you need a gentle cleanser and an appropriately nourishing moisturiser."


4. Sodium lauryl sulphate and SLES.

Sounds like something straight out of a textbook, but this is basically the stuff they put in shampoos and cleansers to make them foam. 

And it does crap all for your delicate little face. So, make sure you stay away from the stuff.

"These are cleansing ingredients which may cause irritation in sensitive skin," adds Dr Armour. 

5. Methylisothiazolinone (MI) and methylchloroisothiazolinone (MCI).

Again, looks like we're in year 10 Biology - but these two ingredients are shady preservatives that will seriously mess with your skin. 

"These preservatives were previously widely used in personal care products as they are very effective antimicrobials. Unfortunately, they are also potent 'contact allergens', which means they are a common cause of contact dermatitis."

Yep. NASTY. 

Just remember though, these will not be listed explicitly on the ingredient list as 'preservative', so look for these very long and complicated names above.


Very sneaky, we know.

Image: Giphy 

"While MI and MCI have largely been removed from personal care products (like moisturisers, shampoos and cleansers), they are still lurking around," said Dr Armour.

"I'd advise checking that your products don’t contain these preservatives - particularly if you are buying online from overseas. MI and MCI can cause skin issues in anyone, but particularly those with sensitive skin."

6. Fragrance.

She's a biggie on the irritation front. Fragrances are often used in skincare formulations to maximise the whole self-care experience, but they can really f**k with sensitive skin - especially the wrong types of fragrances. 

"A common cause of irritation and contact allergy – there’s just no need for it in skincare," said Dr Armour.

7. Essential oils.

They sound super sweet and innocent, but essential oils are highly concentrated essences that can cause a heap of irritation. 

"Yes, they are 'natural' and smell oh-so-good, but in a dermatologist’s world they are a common cause of allergy and stinging if you have sensitive skin."

8. Some sunscreens.

While sun protection is a non-negotiable, some formulations might have you feeling hesitant about applying it daily. Ingredients in some chemical sunscreens are not great for sensitive skin and can trigger flare-ups, irritation or inflammation. 

"I wouldn't be prescriptive about this, as some chemical sunscreens are very well-tolerated in those with sensitive skin. However, if you have struggled to find a sunscreen that doesn’t sting, I'd stick with a physical sunscreen – based on zinc oxide or titanium dioxide," suggests Dr Armour. 


Luckily, you're not strapped for options. Sunscreen in 2021 is looking cooler than ever - so you're bound to find one that works for your skin type.

"There are plenty of elegant physical sunscreens available now that don’t leave a white cast. Foe example, Invisible Zinc and Lean Screen by Ultra Violette are fabulous options."

9. AHAs, BHAs and PHAs.

Ahh - skin acids. Your sensitive skin hates these too. 

While these powerhouse ingredients are the absolute JAM for combating everything from skin ageing and congestion to breakouts and textural changes (basically everything you could ever ask for in a skincare product) - they rarely team well with sensitive-prone skin.

Image: Giphy 

"The traditional alpha-hydroxy acids, or AHAs (think glycolic, lactic, mandelic acid), and the beta-hydroxy acid or BHAs (like salicylic acid) often sting and burn in those with sensitive skin," said Dr Armour.


"The good news is that the newer generation of AHAs, PHAs (polyhydroxy acids) achieve the benefits of AHAs, without the burning and stinging."

Hooray! So, what's the deal with PHA's?

Well, basically they penetrate the skin more slowly, causing less irritation. So, while they may work a lot slower than AHAs and BHAs, they won't burn a layer of your skin off. 


"Not only do PHAs look after our important skin plumping fibres in the dermis, they also help to restore skin barrier function. Examples of PHA ingredients include gluconalactone, and lactobionic and maltobionic acids. These are a good anti-ageing option in those with sensitive skin."

10. Vitamin A.

Fact: Vitamin A is like the favourite child of the skincare family. It's the over-achiever. The gold standard. Does everything your little heart desires. So, you can only imagine how bloody annoying it is that your sensitive skin just can't get used to it.

"These multi-tasking superstars are beloved by dermatologists and skincare afficionados worldwide. However, I’d approach with caution if you have sensitive skin, and start with over-the-counter options, as these are lower in potency than prescription retinoids," said Dr Armour.

So, prescription retinoids are a no-go. These guys are way too strong. Instead, look for really low concentrations - and introduce them into your routine super slowly to avoid flare-ups.

"Used inappropriately, retinoids can cause stinging, burning, redness and peeling. But, if used in a low concentration to induce tolerance, and introduced carefully, you may be able to tolerate a topical retinoid if you have sensitive skin," said Dr Armour.

Still unsure? Seek some advice from your dermatologist. "Tips such as how often to apply your retinoid, and using appropriate moisturisers and niacinamide to improve tolerance, can really help."

11. Vitamin C.

Vitamin C is a L-E-G-E-N-D. It does all kinds of cool stuff like tackle uneven skin tone, rough texture, fine lines, acne scars, general dullness etc. etc. The bad news? Sensitive skin is, like, a bit weird around vitamin C.

"This well-known ingredient combats most woes we may have with our skin. However, in certain formulations and in high concentration, it can be quite irritating," said Dr Armour.

Wa-wa-wait! Don't be sad! That doesn't mean you can't use vitamin C - you just need to keep an eye out for a particular form of vitamin C that works better on sensitive skin. 

"For dry and sensitive skin, magnesium ascorbyl phosphate, a water soluble vitamin C, can be a good alternative to this ingredient, as it is less irritating."

See? Told ya. Just make sure you use a lower concentration though.

"I'd recommend beginning with a concentration no higher than 10 per cent. Concentrations of 15-20 per cent can be used in those who can tolerate it," adds Dr Armour.

Feature image: Getty

Do you have sensitive skin? What does your skincare line-up look like? Share with us in the comment section below.