The thing about skin care is that it's extremely relative. For example, a miracle serum your best friend swears by might make you break out, or a product that everyone touts on Insta might just be meh in your experience. That said, there are some consistencies when it comes to the skin care ingredients we ought to avoid. So we asked skin care experts to share the ingredients that are particularly problematic... and what signs to look for regarding an allergic reaction.
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Pure Essential Oils
Not everyone is going to have a bad reaction to essential oils, but many people do experience some adverse reactions. (Yes, even though they're technically natural!)
"Some essential oils — like rose and lavender — contain compounds like geraniol that are common causes of contact dermatitis. It is estimated that 1 to 2 percent of the population will be sensitized to it," notes Dr. Hadley King, a board-certified dermatologist based in New York City.
Instead, it's better to seek out non-comedogenic carrier oils — such as argan, sunflower, and sesame seed oils — that contain antioxidants and vitamins. We like Farmacy Honey Grail Ultra-Hydrating Face Oil, $48.
Hydroquinone is a very popular and effective lightening agent that can help reduce dark spots and brighten your skin. However, it's quite strong and it shouldn't be used by those who are pregnant and should only be used sparingly.
"Patients use this type of product often to treat skin conditions like melasma. While it can be very effective, long term use can cause a blue-black patches to occur on the treated skin. This side effect is called ochronosis and is not easily reversed," explains Dr. Blair Murphy-Rose, a board-certified New York City dermatologist and clinical assistant professor at NY Presbyterian Hospital — Weill Cornell Medical Center.
Vitamin C and niacinamide are both great lightening alternatives to hydroquinone. Try The Ordinary Vitamin C Suspension 23% + HA Spheres 2%, $5.80 and Peter Thomas Roth Pro Strength Niacinamide Discoloration Treatment, $88.
You'll often find alcohol or ethanol in toners and other skin care products that tout de-greasing and oil-zapping benefits.
"While alcohol and ethanol can degrease the skin, they can be very irritating and drying, stripping your skin of its protective barrier," says Dr. Charlotte Birnbaum, a board-certified dermatologist at Spring Street Dermatology. "It does little to improve skin and the dryness it causes prevents tolerability of more proven anti-aging and anti-acne ingredients, like retinols."
In general, she says to avoid products with ethanol, denatured alcohol, ethyl alcohol, isopropyl alcohol, SD alcohol, or benzyl alcohol.
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The "chemical versus physical" sunscreen has been an ongoing debate in the dermatology world, and ultimately what matters most of all is that you're wearing SPF at all. That said, there's an increasing number of dermatologists who advocate for mineral-based sunscreens, and there's fortunately been an uptick in sophisticated, lightweight, easy-to-wear formulations.
"Physical sunscreens block a wide range of UV wavelengths, they are photostable, and there are fewer concerns about their potential adverse effects both to the body and to the environment," explains Dr. King. "Additionally, physical sunscreens are less likely to clog pores and irritate complexions, particularly for those with sensitive skin."
Examples of chemical sunscreen ingredients include avobenzone, octinoxate, and oxybenzone, while mineral-based sunscreen ingredients are typically zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. One of our favorite mineral sunscreens is Versed Guards Up Daily Mineral Sunscreen Broad Spectrum SPF 35, $21.99.