If you have sensitive skin, then you know all too well how the wrong product can leave your face inflamed, stinging, itching or burning.
As I explained in my sensitive skin tutorial, invisible irritation from our beauty products is actually the most common cause of sensitivity—far more so than allergens, genetics or environmental factors.
It's not surprising when you consider that ingredients lists have been getting longer and ever more complex. And our routines have become more involved, with multiple steps and multiple active ingredients. There's a lot of potential for reactions!
That's why it's so important to choose your products wisely, and I'm here to help.
Below, I'm sharing what I consider to be the BEST skincare products for sensitive skin (or any skin!), all made with as few irritants as possible.
What to Avoid If You Have Sensitive Skin
First, let's recap how to go about choosing sensitive skin-friendly products.
These are the most common irritants for sensitive skin:
- Essential oils
- Detergents (sulfates)
- Drying alcohols
- Witch hazel
- Glycolic acid
- Oxybenzone, avobenzone and other chemical sunscreen filters
- Brushes and scrubs
Depending on your skin, preferences and budget, you may want to be super strict about avoiding all of these, or you may be able to give yourself more leeway here and there.
Often, it's not one product that makes your skin freak out, but an accumulated irritation from using multiple problematic products.
The concentration of ingredients matters as well. A good rule of thumb to keep in mind is that first five ingredients will, on average, compose about 80 percent of the product. Sometimes, irritating ingredients won't pose a problem when they are at the end of an ingredients list, in trace amounts. (So, two of my picks below have essential oil, but as they are specifically formulated for sensitive skin, the oils are very DILUTED.)
In general, less is more. The more ingredients in a product, the more chance it will cause a reaction!
BIOeffect Micellar Cleansing Water
Micellar waters can be great for sensitive skin—in fact, they can even replace your regular face wash, if you like. But choose one that is simple and gentle, like BIOeffect Micellar Cleansing Water. This has been part of my skincare routine for the past while, and I ADORE it. It's fragrance-free and has Sephora's "clean beauty" stamp of approval... and most importantly, it WORKS! It gets off all my makeup and my skin never feels dry or tight afterward.
Of course, Bioderma Sensibio H2O is the OG micellar cleanser, and I love that product, too. (It's also much cheaper!)
S.W. Basics Cleanser
Another cleansing water I'd recommend is the S.W. Basics Cleanser. Get this—it only contains three ingredients, rosewater, vegetable glycerin and tea tree oil. That's it! This product is currently in my morning routine; I just swipe it on with a Shiseido Facial Cotton pad. While rinsing is optional with micellar water, this one you do need to rinse off. It doesn't give me any of the temporary redness that I can get with conventional cleansers, and it leaves your skin ridiculously soft!
Note: The tea tree is an essential oil, yes, but it's going to be well diluted here. So, I still think this formula is worth trying because it's so simplistic!
Peet Rivko Gentle Cleanser
If I had to choose a cream cleanser for sensitive skin, it would be Peet Rivko Gentle Cleanser. It's fragrance-free, sulfate-free, non-foaming and non-stripping. Gentle coconut-based surfactants do the cleaning, while glycerin, propanediol, panthenol, allantoin and aloe vera provide hydration. Plus, this line was created by a woman who has reactive skin herself!
Graydon Super Sensitive Face Foam Unscented Cleanser
If you like the texture of foaming cleansers, but not how dry and tight your skin usually feels afterward, then I have the product for you. Graydon Super Sensitive Face Foam Unscented Cleanser is a foaming face wash specifically formulated for sensitive skin. It is free of sulfates, fragrance and essential oils, and the foam is light and airy, not creamy (thanks to willow bark extract and apple cider vinegar). This is a great choice for summer or anyone on the normal to oily side. I've already gone through a whole bottle!
Avène Tolérance Extrême Cleansing Lotion
Avène Tolérance Extrême Cleansing Lotion is a great drugstore cleansing option. You might be surprised (like I was) to discover that it is free of sulfates, mineral oil, silicones, fragrance and preservatives. There are actually only seven ingredients, including squalane, glycerin and a fatty alcohol. The texture of this one is a milk.
Note: While they say you don't need to rinse it off, I would! And then follow up with your cleansing water of choice, just to make sure your skin is thoroughly clean.
Derma E Sensitive Skin Cleanser
Then there is Derma E Sensitive Skin Cleanser, a milky cleanser in convenient pump packaging. This one, too, is fragrance-free and sulfate-free, and uses plant-derived cleansing agents (it doesn't produce a foam at all). They claim that it will actually reduce redness. I'm not sure about that, but soothing, moisturizing ingredients like panthenol, allantoin and aloe vera can't hurt!
ClarityRx Brighten It 10% Lactic Acid Solution
Not all sensitive skin can tolerate acids, but if you want to give them a shot, I'd go with either lactic acid or a mild salicylic acid. Lactic is the gentlest and most hydrating acid, while salicylic has anti-inflammatory properties. The problem is, most formulas are either too strong for sensitive skin or have other ingredients that may be too irritating for sensitive skin. Except for ClarityRx Brighten It 10% Lactic Acid Solution, that is. I recently found out it contains just water and 10 percent lactic acid—nothing else!
Peet Rivko Exfoliator
For those who like scrubs, my suggestion is Peet Rivko Exfoliator. Unlike most gritty exfoliants, which are too harsh and scratchy on the skin, this one features smooth, round jojoba beads that won't cause damage. It also has oatmeal and rice bran, in a base of glycerin and non-foaming surfactants. Again, no fragrance or essential oils, and you can even use this in place of cleanser!
Foreo Luna 3 for Sensitive Skin
Alternatively, consider replacing your exfoliant with a tool instead! The Foreo Luna 3 for Sensitive Skin is a hand-held silicone cleansing brush that you use in conjunction with your cleanser. Not only does it remove 99.5 percent of dirt and oil, but it also gives you a gentle exfoliation. I've had mine for several years now, and it is one of my most-used skincare gadgets!
Consonant HydrExtreme is my all-time favourite hydrating serum—I've raved about it on this website dozens of times! The first thing you need to know is that it's one of the most minimal formulas around, with only two ingredients: cassia angustifolia seed extract (a polysaccharide) and glycerin. The second thing you need to know is that it outperformed hyaluronic acid in an independent, double-blind clinical trial. It works wonders on all skin, especially sensitive skin and conditions like dermatitis and eczema.
Kristina Holey + Marie Veronique Barrier Restore Serum
Kristina Holey + Marie Veronique Barrier Restore Serum is the creation of a holistic facialist (Kristina Holey) and a skincare formulator (Marie-Veronique Nadeau), whose mission was to develop products that support a healthy skin barrier. (Sensitive skin originates from a compromised skin barrier!) As such, they don't use any fragrance, essential oils or microcidal preservatives like phenoxyethanol. This serum replaces and seals in the skin's natural moisturizing factors (NMF) with ceramides, amino acids and high-molecular weight hyaluronic acid.