Cleansing your skin may be the first step of your morning ritual, but if your skin is on the sensitive side, it’s not as easy as grabbing the nearest bar of soap. If you have sensitive skin—easily irritated by chemicals and fragrances, or prone to redness, rashes and irritation—it’s essential to steer clear of harsh ingredients and opt for gentler cleansing products and methods.
What Is Sensitive Skin?
“Sensitive skin is defined as the occurrence of unpleasant sensations (burning, itching and redness) when the skin is exposed to something that generally should not cause such sensations,” says Viseslav Tonkovic-Capin, dermatologist in Kansas City.
While sensitive skin can often react to certain ingredients in beauty products, environmental factors, stress levels, lifestyle habits and dietary changes are also known to trigger irritation. “The reaction is genetically programmed. The biggest concerns for this skin type always affect the skin from head to toe—not just the face. The skin is either too dry, too oily, heavy in pores or has a variation in color and tone that is not uniform,” explains dermatologist Harold Lancer, founder of Lancer Skincare.
What Ingredients to Look for and Avoid
When it comes to choosing the best ingredients and formulas for sensitive skin, keeping things simple without compromising effectiveness is key. “Avoid complex formulas with ingredients that you aren’t familiar with. There should only be one to three hero ingredients included and the rest should be basics like glycerin, water, etc.,” says Joshua Ross, celebrity aesthetician at SkinLab in Los Angeles. However, it doesn’t stop at figuring out which ingredients work best for your skin; it’s also just as important to consider the quality and purity of these ingredients and products. “You don’t just want hyaluronic acid—you want to make sure it is high-quality hyaluronic acid,” Ross adds.
On the other hand, sensitive skin types should steer clear of ingredients that can often be harsh on skin such as fragrances, parabens, alcohol, sulfates and phthalates. Some active ingredients that are typically tolerated by other skin types must also be avoided if you have highly reactive skin. These include retinol, hydroquinone and certain exfoliating acids.
Instead, opt for ingredients and formulas that improve the skin’s natural barrier and soothe irritation while keeping it moisturized and hydrated, like niacinamide, hyaluronic acid and ceramides. “People with sensitive skin should be looking for [ingredients with] anti-inflammatory properties [such as azelaic acid and panthenol]. You want to reach for formulations that strengthen the skin, balance it and encourage it to act optimally,” says cosmetic researcher and skin care expert Young Lin.
How to Care for Sensitive Skin
“Using fewer products for those who have sensitive skin is the best way to go,” says Dr. Michele Green, dermatologist in New York City. “Find a gentle cleanser that’s not harsh on the skin and a moisturizer that works for your skin. Lastly, always make sure to wear sunscreen to protect your skin from sun damage. Be very cautious when exfoliating—no more than once a week as it can be very harsh and irritating on the skin.”
As a general rule, always perform a patch test before introducing a new product into your skin care routine. “Emulate the recommended use of a product on your inner forearm skin for seven days. If it does not cause irritation or any problem, then it is probably safe to use,” suggests Dr. Tonkovic-Capin.
Here are some tips to remember when caring for sensitive skin:
- Wash your face with pleasantly warm to cool water. “Too cold, and it will not clean well. Too warm, and it will strip natural moisturizers from your skin, causing skin dryness and irritation,” explains Dr. Tonkovic-Capin.
- Use your hands instead of exfoliating cloths. “It’s best to use your fingers because it’ll be gentler to the touch. Avoid using an exfoliating cloth because it can be really harsh on the skin and can cause irritation and redness. As for skin-cleansing devices, if you feel that your skin can handle it, then by all means go for it. Just be sure the brush is gentle and not too rough,” suggests Dr. Green.
- Keep face-cleansing to a minimum. “Sensitive skin should not be washed more than once daily. Preferably only before sleep to wash off any toxins and pollutants that have accumulated during the day,” says Dr. Tonkovic-Capin.
Best Cleansers and Face Washes for Sensitive Skin
Ready to choose your cleanser? Here are our top picks for the best face cleansers for sensitive skin.
SkinCeuticals Soothing Cleanser
Featuring a potent yet soothing formula, this hydrating face cleanser is the best way to pamper sensitive or post-procedure skin with some much-needed TLC. Infused with a highly concentrated blend of glycerin, cucumber extract, sorbitol and orchis mascula extract, it calms and nourishes delicate skin and washes away stubborn makeup residue while still being gentle enough for daily use.
SkinMedica Sensitive Skin Cleanser
Specially formulated for sensitive or inflamed skin, this soothing face wash is packed with antioxidants from vitamin E, safflower oil and cucumber extract to protect skin from free radicals while nourishing and calming any sign of irritation. Because of its soothing properties, it’s also the ideal cleanser to use following laser resurfacing, microdermabrasion or post-chemical peels.
EltaMD Foaming Facial Cleanser
Ideal for all skin types, including sensitive skin, this oil-free, pH-balanced cleanser is infused with bromelain and apple amino acids that gently cleanse and remove makeup residue, excess oil and debris without irritating or stripping your skin of its natural moisture.
iS Clinical Cleansing Complex
Featuring a paraben-, sulfate- and phthalate-free formula, this clarifying face wash lets you achieve a smooth, blemish-free complexion without irritating even the most sensitive and delicate of skin types. Infused with white willow bark and antioxidants from chamomile and centella asiatica, it sloughs away pore-clogging impurities, boosts cell turnover and tightens pores.
PCA Skin Facial Wash
This refreshing cleanser rejuvenates your skin as it washes away dirt, excess oil and makeup residue that builds up throughout the day. Featuring lactic acid, aloe vera and allantoin, it soothes and softens skin while maintaining its pH balance. Its gentle, paraben-free formula makes it ideal for sensitive and rosacea-prone skin.
Eminence Organic Skin Care Calm Skin Chamomile Cleanser
Infused with organic, active botanicals and antioxidants—including chamomile, sunflower oil and grape leaf extract—this ultra-nourishing cream cleanser purifies and rids your skin of excess oil while hydrating and strengthening your skin’s protective barrier. It also features the brand’s exclusive biocomplex of booster antioxidants, coenzyme Q10 and alpha lipoic acid, which helps to refine the appearance of wrinkles and fine lines.
HoliFrog Refining Acid Wash
Just because your skin turns red by the mere mention of exfoliation doesn’t mean you can’t have a smooth, glowing and blemish-free complexion. Featuring a gentle formula that’s infused with glycolic and mandelic acids, tamanu and rosehip oils and Australian caviar lime extract, this serum in cleanser form removes pore-clogging debris, evens out texture and prevents breakouts.