Everyone knows that sunshine and cigarettes can damage skin, leading to cancer or premature aging. But have you ever thought about the effects of substances we intentionally apply to our skin daily?
Like the ultraviolet radiation in sun rays and carcinogens in cigarettes, irritants in commonplace personal-care products from shampoo to makeup can damage skin, too. Beauty expert and author Paula Begoun, aka “the cosmetics cop,” writes:
I cannot stress this enough: Irritation and inflammation are bad for skin – really, really bad. We do many things to our skin in an effort to improve it, yet often use an assortment of irritating skin-care products … [that] generate an irritant or inflammatory effect.
Avoiding irritants, on the other hand, can help improve skin, she says:
Treating skin gently encourages normal collagen production, maintains a smooth and radiant surface, and helps skin protect itself from environmental stressors.
The first step to avoiding skin irritation and inflammation is learning their triggers. So we’ve rounded up some of the most surprisingly detrimental personal-care product ingredients, as well as household product ingredients known to upset skin.
1. Citrus extracts
I recently happened across an article about replacing beauty products with lemon.
I cringed. As delightfully natural and inexpensive as that might sound, citrus juices and oils are skin irritants.
For example, Paula’s Choice rates lemon, lemon juice and lemon oil as “poor,” the lowest of four ratings.
You’re “far better” off eating lemons than applying them to your skin, according to the Paula’s Choice Cosmetic Ingredient Dictionary:
Lemon juice is highly acidic, with a very low pH that’s exceedingly irritating to skin….
Lemon juice applied to skin can cause what’s known as a phytophotodermatitis (PPD) upon exposure to sunlight. Results from this can range from a red rash to brown discolorations, which is ironic given that many people turn to lemon juice to lighten brown spots…. This is due to a volatile fragrance chemical known as limonene, which is abundant in lemon juice.
Paula’s Choice also rates grapefruit, lime, orange and tangerine extracts (as well as the citrus oil bergamot oil) as “poor.”
2. Essential oils
Essential oils are fluids derived primarily from plants. They are used in cosmetics primarily as fragrant additives.
Paula’s Choice says these components often include “a mix of alcohols, ketones, phenols, linalool, borneol, terpenes, camphor, pinene, acids, ethers, aldehydes and sulfur, all of which have extremely irritating and sensitizing effects on skin.”
Like citrus oils, lemongrass and rosewood oils contain limonene and are rated “poor” by Paula’s Choice.
Other poorly rated essential oils include carvone, lavender, lavandin and Melaleuca cajeputi oils.
Not all oils are irritants, however. Argan, avocado, coconut and jojoba are examples of plant-derived oils rated “best” by Paula’s Choice.
Whether it’s the scent of a perfume or cologne or an ingredient in a personal-care or cosmetic product, fragrance is among the most common irritants.
Dermatologist Dr. Audrey Kunin, founder of the DERMAdoctor product line, told Women’s Health that fragrance is “the No. 1 allergen in cosmetics and skin care.”
The magazine reports that citrus, flora and minty scents wreak the most havoc on skin.
Women’s Health reports that Miami-based dermatologist Dr. Marianna Blyumin-Karasik suggests laying clothing down, misting it lightly with fragrance, and then letting the substance dry so it doesn’t irritate your skin.
4. Soaps, cleansers and body washes
The most commonly cited problem with these products is certain chemical cleansing agents, namely sodium lauryl sulfate. Women’s Health magazine reports:
Sodium lauryl sulfate is a harsh emulsifier that is found in body washes, facial cleansers and soap; it rids the skin of dirt and oil while breaking down precious lipids, the glue that binds skin cells together, keeping them resistant to dryness and damage.
Celebrity esthetician Renee Rouleau calls facial cleansers “the No. 1 culprit behind unnecessary irritation” due to detergents like sodium lauryl sulfate.
Dermatologist Dr. Donald V. Belsito, a clinical professor of medicine at the University of Missouri, cited plain soap and water as an issue.
“It’s particularly problematic in today’s germaphobic society because people feel they have to be clean and make no attempt to protect their skin,” he told WebMD.
Astringents and toners aren’t necessarily harmful in and of themselves, but they contain some of the most irritating ingredients – and contain them more commonly than other types of personal-care products.
Paula’s Choice calls out alcohols and menthol in particular. Such alcohols include ethanol, denatured alcohol, ethyl alcohol, methanol, isopropyl alcohol and SD alcohol.
The National Rosacea Society counts such ingredients among the most common irritants for people with the skin condition rosacea.
The society suggests first testing new products on a patch of skin on an area like the neck. If a product irritates you, make a note of its ingredients.
Regardless of whether you have rosacea, note where irritants like alcohols appear in an ingredient list. Federal labeling laws require manufacturers to list ingredients “in descending order of dominance,” meaning the first ingredient constitutes a greater portion of the product than any other ingredient.
UVA and UVB radiation from the sun can lead to two of the most feared and hated maladies: cancer and wrinkles.
Certain compounds in sunscreens that protect against harmful radiation can cause an allergic reaction, however.
Para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA)-based chemicals are the most common culprit, according to WebMD, which recommends switching to a PABA-free sunscreen if you develop an allergy.
Parents magazine cites the ingredient oxybenzone. For babies older than 6 months, the magazine recommends a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 that’s made with naturally occurring minerals like titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, which are less likely to inflame skin or sting eyes.
7. Household cleaners
Perhaps you wear gloves while washing dishes to keep your hands from getting dried out or otherwise irritated by dish detergent. But what about while using all-purpose cleaners, laundry detergent, window cleaners, furniture polish, drain cleaners or toilet disinfectants?
WebMD reports that such products are not intended for skin and contain chemicals that can irritate skin. Belsito recommends wearing protective gloves when using any of these household cleansers.
8. Fabric softener and dryer sheets
These household products can also itch and irritate the skin.
“You see rashes in places that are covered by clothing and relative sparing where the clothing is not,” New York-based dermatologist Dr. Amy Newburger told WebMD. “That’s a big giveaway.”
Belsito recommends fragrance-free liquid fabric softeners.
Are you surprised by how any of these products can affect your skin? Would you change your shopping habits because of it? Share your thoughts in the “Comments & discussion” section below or on our Facebook page.