Choosing the best moisturizer for sensitive skin is usually a matter of knowing which ingredients to avoid and understanding how to critically read manufacturers’ labels. Even though most moisturizers and lotions are designed, at least on a basic level, to restore skin’s suppleness and to heal dryness, certain additives and elements can actually defeat these goals for people with sensitive skin. Rashes and reactions are common among this subset of people, which has led a number of lotion companies to begin marketing “sensitive” formulations. Not all of these are created equal, though, and a lot of the choice will also depend on your own individual sensitivities. In general, avoiding preservatives and oil-based emollients is a good place to start, and fragrance-free options are usually best, as well. Finding the best option for you is often just a matter of selecting your favorite of a few good options. Trying them out for a few days can help you get a better sense of how your skin reacts and whether you feel the benefits of the promised moisture.
Understanding Skin Sensitivity Generally
People in ever age, race, and ethnic group suffer from sensitive skin, a condition usually described as skin that is less tolerant than most to things like perfumes, chemicals, and even certain fabrics. The extent and severity of sensitivity can vary a lot from person to person, and the triggers can be really different, too. Part of finding a good moisturizer necessarily involves understanding what causes your reactions, and figuring out whether any of the ingredients in a given lotion — even one that’s designed specially for sensitive skin — might aggravate your condition.
Moisturizers can include a multitude of ingredients, including oils, vitamins, botanic extracts, preservatives, fragrance, and sunscreen, all of which can cause irritation to sensitive skin. Irritation can present in the form of itchy skin, red blotches, rashes, or even hives if you’re allergic to certain ingredients. Choosing the best moisturizer for sensitive skin starts with the label. Searching out moisturizers that don't contain triggering ingredients is usually the best way to protect sensitive skin.
Most moisturizers, especially those that are water-based, contain preservatives to stay fresh. Preservatives can cause irritation and allergic reactions in people with sensitive skin. When choosing a moisturizer for sensitive skin, look for ingredients using such words as paraben, EDTA, and methyl. All of these are chemicals that, while generally safe for skin, can cause undue irritation in those with sensitivities. Many synthetic preservatives produce formaldehyde as they break down as well, which not only can cause irritation but may also be carcinogenic.
Lotions that contain natural preservatives such as seaweed and citric acid may help avoid skin irritation. Many manufacturers market preservative-free creams, and this is usually prominently noted on the label. Preservative-free moisturizers may be best for people with highly sensitive skin.
Watch Out for Oils
Oils are common ingredients in moisturizers and are typically used for emulsification, which helps seal moisture into the skin. Lanolin is one of the most common oil ingredients added to moisturizers and other cosmetics. It’s usually derived from sheep wool and is “all natural,” but most dermatologists recommend that those with sensitive skin avoid it. Lanolin is toxic to humans if ingested and, when applied to sensitive skin, can cause rashes. Mineral oil also is commonly used as an inexpensive filler in moisturizers. Mineral oil is a byproduct created when gasoline is distilled from crude oil and can be highly irritating to sensitive skin. Some oils that may be less harsh include aloe, coconut, and Shea butter.
Pay Attention to Fragrance
One of the most common irritants in moisturizers is fragrance. Fragrance is often added in the form of essential oils, so what may look like a natural ingredient may still cause skin irritation. Some commonly used fragrances include bergamot oil, jasmine oil, and lavender oil. Some labels simply list "fragrance" as an ingredient. Those with sensitivities may be safest in choosing a fragrance-free moisturizer, which normally is noted on the label.
Carefully Read All Ingredients
It is important to note that lotions and moisturizers aren’t typically regulated by government and consumer entities the way that most medicines or foods are. Additionally, they aren’t usually subject to much testing, if there is any required at all. Even if a moisturizer labels itself all natural or non-irritating, consumers should still read the ingredient list to make their own judgments.
Try Several Varieties
People with sensitive skin typically have different levels of sensitivity, so you and a friend may react differently to various moisturizers — even those specifically designed for sensitive skin. It might be best to try a few types before deciding on one. Many companies offer free samples to try over a period of days to see if any negative reaction occurs. You may be able to get samples from cosmetics counters in department stores or pharmacies, and company websites often have these sorts of promotions, too. Try a few out and decide what feels best, both in terms of sensitivity and overall moisture and skin improvement.