8 Skin and Makeup Products That Won't Inflame Sensitive Skin
Got hives? These creams, powders, and potions let skin heal — not irritate it further.
“I’m breaking out in hives!”
If you’re yelling this metaphorically, strictly for dramatic effect, to describe a reaction to a minor life annoyance, this story’s not for you. For those with the real-life dermatological condition, those itchy, red, or skin-colored welts mean it’s critical to use skin-care products and makeup that don’t further flare your skin.
Hives or urticaria (chronic hives) occur when something you apply, ingest, or experience tells your immune system to release a cascade of inflammatory markers, creating swollen weals on your skin. Triggers can include anything from a specific food, medication, or ingredient in your cosmetics to physical stimuli like cold weather or an emotional pileup of stress. Hives on the face can be accompanied by swelling of the eyelids and lips, and possibly even the airways, says dermatologist Forum Patel, M.D., of Union Square Laser Dermatology. This is also known as angioedema.
The eye area is a particular problem zone for LupusChick founder and editor Marisa Zeppieri-Caruana, who frequently gets hives, so she has to be careful about what products she uses on her face. Hives also affect her arms, legs, and stomach.
Ingredients That Trigger Hives
Moisturizing, soothing, and anti-itch ingredients can be helpful in tempering hives, says dermatologist Sejal Shah, M.D. But preventing the angry welts is more about what ingredients to avoid. Often, your skin will quickly let you know what’s a no-no. Zeppieri-Caruana, for example, always tests new beauty products before slathering them all over. “Whether it is lotion, face cream, or shampoo, I do two test spots on different areas of my skin and wait a few hours to make sure there isn’t any reaction,” she explains.
You may also want to see a dermatologist for an allergy test, as hives generally indicate an underlying allergy. “It is certainly possible that ingredients in cosmetic products can cause an allergy,” says Adarsh Vijay Mudgil, M.D., an assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai. When he and his team perform allergy patch testing on patients, they check for 80 of the most common allergens, and each patient has their own unique sensitivities. Meaning: what causes a reaction in one person may be perfectly fine for another.
That said, there are several common ingredients that often lead to skin sensitivity or rashes, says Dr. Patel. These include:
Methylchloroisothiazolinone and methylisothiazolinone (MCI and MI, for short), widely used preservatives in face wipes and baby wipes
Parabens, which include methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben, and heptylparaben: found in antiperspirants and also used as preservatives in cosmetic products
Thimerosal, in eye-drop solutions
Cocamidopropyl betaine, a surfactant in shampoos and soaps
How to Choose Hives-friendly Beauty Products
Whether you have hives or are just generally sensitive to products, Dr. Patel says it’s best to limit yourself to the essentials—cleanser, moisturizer, and sunscreen, and a few makeup basics. Particularly with skin products, they should all be fragrance-free: Along with preservatives, “fragrances are often to blame for hives,” says dermatologist Howard D. Sobel, M.D., founder of Sobel Skin. Check the product label for the specific term “fragrance free,” because even products that say “unscented” often contain a fragrance to cover up chemical odors. Beyond that, here’s what to look for in specific formulas:
No to soap, yes to water-based and moisturizing, to “help your skin retain its water content without clogging pores” says Dr. Sobel.
Try: CeraVe Hydrating Facial Cleanser ($15, ulta.com), a gentle wash spiked with hyaluronic acid, a humectant that draws moisture into the skin and helps restore its protective barrier.
Skip potentially irritating silicones and essential oils, and look for a product that is highly moisturizing. Zeppieri-Caruana uses argan oil in lieu of lotion. For her dry skin, “I prefer thicker products that stay and get to work,” she says. A few things to keep in mind, though: “While argan oil is hailed for its restorative properties, it’s best to use it in its purest form to avoid an allergic reaction,” says Dr. Sobel. How do you know whether you’ve got the pure stuff? Scan the ingredients label for “argan oil” or “argania spinosa kernel oil”; there should be no fragrance, preservatives, or water included. And since argan can degrade in sunlight, you need UV-impervious packaging—so either an opaque container or dark glass bottle.
Try: Drunk Elephant Lala Retro Whipped Moisturizer ($60, sephora.com)—its mousse-y texture feels lightweight but deeply hydrates, while its fermented green tea pacifies touchy skin — or Acure Seriously Soothing Coconut Argan Oil ($20, amazon.com), Zeppieri-Caruana’s pick.
You want an SPF of 30 or higher and physical, mineral sunscreen ingredients, like zinc or titanium, which sit on top of your skin rather than absorb into it, says Dr. Sobel. (Chemical ‘screens—such as oxybenzone, avobenzone, and mexoryl — are more likely to provoke your complexion.)
Try: First Aid Beauty Ultra Repair Pure Mineral Sunscreen Moisturizer Broad Spectrum SPF 40 ($30, sephora.com), which has both zinc and titanium and can double as your daily moisturizer, cutting down on the number of products you have to use. It also contains colloidal oatmeal, which “doesn't help resolve hives but can certainly help reduce itch and discomfort,” says Dr. Mudgil.
Dr. Sobel likes mineral foundations, as they’re free from talc, mineral oil, alcohol, preservatives, and fragrances. “They are a smart option for those prone to breakouts or who have sensitive skin,” he says.
Try: Jane Iredale Liquid Minerals Foundation ($55, ulta.com). First apply it all over; then, on areas of redness, “use the excess product that thickens around the cap like a concealer,” says makeup artist Ashleigh Ciucci. Pat gently to blend.
As in foundation, talc is the enemy. Seek out powders with few to no chemicals.
Try: Juice Beauty Phyto-Pigments Flawless Finishing Powder ($28; ulta.com), which contains tapioca starch and rice powder, “so it’s super gentle,” says Ciucci.
Ciucci recommends using cooler-toned blush in the plum or mauve family, which works on any skin tone to bring color to the face without emphasizing the redness of the hives.
Try: Lily Lolo Burst Your Bubble Powder Blush ($20, lilylolo.us), a fragrance- and talc-free option.
Phrases like "hypoallergenic," "dermatologist-tested,” and "nonirritating" are no guarantee that you skin won’t freak on you. Your safest bet is a fragrance-free pick without a gigantic list of ingredients.
Try: Dove Unscented Derma Series Body Lotion ($11, target.com. With no parabens, sulfates, or synthetic dyes, this fast-absorbing stuff is specifically formulated for sensitive, itchy skin.
In Case of Emergency
The reason Zeppieri-Caruana became a regular patch-tester? She was talked into a “great” face wash at a beauty counter—and used it the day before her wedding. “My entire face broke out in hives and it took a good amount of Benadryl, ice packs, and about 12 hours to calm it down!” she says. Benadryl can be sedating, so it may not be the best choice before an important event, notes Dr. Mudgil. “Claritin or Zyrtec are better options should your skin erupt from a skin product,” he says. And, of course, if nothing’s helping, get to a doctor.