Three Types of Skin Care Ingredients That Are Known to Irritate Skin

Three Types of Skin Care Ingredients That Are Known to Irritate Skin

Does this sound familiar: You’re excited to try a new skin care product you’ve heard great things about. It goes on wonderfully and feels amazing—but then the next morning, or a few days later, the problems start showing up. Redness, rashes, blisters or itchy burning skin. The inevitable question is, what happened? Did you do something wrong?

Stories of skin care products causing skin irritations are not uncommon. As crazy as it sounds, many skin care brands still use ingredients that are known irritants. These irritating ingredients tend to fall into three categories: harsh cleansing agents, preservatives, and chemicals hidden in fragrance.

The good news is there are natural plant-based ingredients that perform many of the same functions without irritating your skin. Keep reading to learn more about natural substitutes that won’t inflame your skin.

Surfactants and cleansers

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that facial cleansers require cleansing agents to get rid of oil residues (e.g. makeup, excess sebum, dirt and particles of air pollution) that collect on your skin every day. The actual cleansing agents are less well known. They’re called surfactants, which is short for “surface-active agents.”

Surfactants are great at removing the daily buildup of dirt and oil on your skin because they have unique properties that enable them to lift off the unwanted oil residues and remove them from the surface of your skin when you add water. The problem with surfactants is they can’t distinguish between unwanted oil residue and the natural lipids (aka sebum) that your skin needs to maintain it’s barrier function.

Harsh surfactants called sulfates

Surfactants called sulfates have been the target of public backlash for nearly a decade now. The main problem with sulfates in skin care products is they’re too powerful. They create a nice foamy lather and get rid of unwanted oil and dirt, but they also strip the natural oils your skin needs to maintain a healthy barrier.

Remember the old Irish Spring ad ‘clean as a whistle?’ You don’t want that. In reality, if your skin is squeaky clean, you’ve removed the bad oils, but you’ve also removed the good ones.

The most common sulfate-based ingredients you’ll see in products are Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) and Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES). Yet, as word traveled that sulfates are bad, brands began to substitute Sodium Coco Sulfate (SCS) for SLS and SLES. Don’t be fooled by this. SCS may be made with coconut oil (instead of petroleum jelly to make SLS and SLES) , but it’s almost identical to SLS and it’s just as harsh.

Gentle plant-based surfactants

Gentle cleansers, like our Purify Hydrating Cleanser, use milder plant-based surfactants that won’t strip your skin when you wash your face. For example, all of our Purify Cleanser formulas contain Quillaja Saponaria (Tree Bark) Extract, a natural surfactant that forms a mild foam when added to water.

Our Purify Cleanser formulas also use a mild surfactant derived from coconut oil and glucose from corn. It’s called Disodium Cocoyl Glutamate. In our ZeroFragrance Purify Cleanser, we complement the Disodium Cocoyl Glutamate with Sodium Cocoyl Glutamate, another plant-based surfactant known for gentle yet effective cleansing.


Avoiding preservatives in your food is wise decision. In skin care, it’s not possible to avoid preservatives. Any product that contains water has to have a preservative. Within weeks after opening a product without preservatives, you’d find growing colonies of molds, bacteria and yeasts. A world without preservatives is a world with fuzzy growths in your skin care products. The only skin care products that can be free of preservatives are oil-based products that contain no water.

Although you can’t avoid preservatives entirely in skin care products, there are specific preservatives that you should avoid. There are also safer plant-based preservatives and even synthetic preservatives that will keep your products fresh without harming your health.  

Preservatives to avoid

By design, preservatives are meant to kill so it shouldn’t be a shocker to find that some of them can be hazards to your skin health. The worst offenders are parabens, formaldehyde releasing preservatives and skin irritating preservatives.

1) Parabens – Parabens are the latest poster child for unhealthy ingredients. They’re found in many different types of products and they’re easily absorbed through the skin. Parabens are widely used because they’re an inexpensive way to extend products’ shelf life by preventing the growth of fungus, bacteria, and mold. They’re also used as an ingredient in ‘fragrance’ but you won’t see it listed on the ingredients list for reasons explained below.

Exposure to parabens can cause skin reactions for people with sensitive or reactive skin, especially people with rosacea. Worse, parabens have been found to disrupt hormone function affecting development, reproduction, and child health.

Parabens appear on ingredients labels under many different names, but all of them end with the word “paraben” including: methyl paraben, propylparaben, ethylparaben, or butylparaben.

2) Formaldehyde releasing preservatives – The word ‘formaldehyde’ may make you think of lab specimens in large jars or a mortician. That’s ok because the same substance that’s used to embalm bodies is also used to preserve skin care products. As ingredients in products, formaldehyde releasers slowly decompose over time to form molecules of formaldehyde that preserve the product and prolong shelf life.  

Formaldehyde is no joke. The U.S. government and World Health Organization classify formaldehyde as carcinogenic when its fumes are inhaled. It’s also a potent skin sensitizer and allergen. While the amount of formaldehyde in a given skin care product is tiny, that product is not your only source of exposure. We’re all exposed to formaldehyde by pressed wood products, cigarette smoke and vehicle exhaust on a regular basis.

Wanting to reduce your exposure to formaldehyde should be a no brainer. Look for these common formaldehyde releasing ingredients on ingredients labels: DMDMH, bromopol, glyoxal, quaternium-15, imidazolidinyl urea, and diazolidinyl urea.

3) Irritating preservatives – Irritating preservatives like Methylchloroisothiazolinone (MCI) and Methylisothiazolinone (MIT/MI) are used in skin care products to prevent microbial growth. But, as their name suggests, they also cause skin irritation for many people.

While MCI has potent antibacterial and antifungal effects, it’s also an allergen that can cause severe skin reactions. Similarly, MIT/MI is a powerful synthetic biocide that’s also an allergen that can cause allergic reactions and eczema. A mixture of MI and MCI is sold under the registered trade name Kathon CG, which is also known to cause allergic skin reactions.

Plant-based preservatives

The ideal preservative would be strong enough to wipe out mold, bacteria, and yeasts without harming your skin health. Since that preservative doesn’t exist, scientists have discovered that a preservative system, or group of ingredients working together, is the best method to keep products fresh.

At Previse, all the ingredients in the preservative systems we use are safe, natural, plant-based substances. For example, the primary preservative we use is Silver Citrate which is non-irritating to the skin, is a non-sensitizer, and is non-carcinogenic. It’s made from the salt of silver and citric acid to provide a strong antimicrobial preservative.

Another preservative you’ll find our products is called Dermasoft. It’s an eco-certified ingredient, derived from tropical trees, that has strong antimicrobial properties. Dermasoft can also be listed as Phenethyl Alcohol on ingredients labels.

We also use innovative packaging to keep our products fresh. For example, the airless pump technology in our Nutrify, Defend and HydroFoam products preserves antioxidants and hyaluronic acid in the products by not allowing oxygen to enter the chamber of the pump. As a result, we’re able to reduce the preservative load in those products.


Fragrance is the leading cause of skin irritation from personal care products. This fact makes total sense when you understand what’s in the ‘fragrance’ ingredient. Unlike all the other ingredients on a label, fragrance is not a single consistent chemical substance.

When you see fragrance on an ingredients list, it means there’s an unnamed chemical cocktail in the product. A major loophole in the FDA’s federal law lets personal care brands include nearly any ingredient under the name ‘fragrance’ without actually listing the chemicals.

The actual chemicals used in fragrance were a mystery to the public until 2010 when the International Fragrance Association (IFRA) published an alphabetical list of the 3,163 ingredients that its members use to make fragrance in consumer products.

An analysis of those chemicals using the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Skin Deep Cosmetics Database showed that there are legitimate reasons for concern. Five percent of the 3,163 chemicals listed earned a high hazard score (7-10 of 10) and another seventeen percent earned a moderate hazard score (3-10 of 10) on EWG’s Cosmetic Database.

Most people think skin care brands add fragrance only to provide a pleasant scent while experiencing the product. Not true. Additional fragrance ingredients, called masking fragrance, are also added to a broad range of personal care products to cover up or neutralize undesirable smells and extend the shelf life of the products. So, even ‘unscented’ skin care products can contain fragrance.   

Fragrance in Previse products

Previse has never used an artificial fragrance ingredient in any of our products and we never will. When we use an essential oil to provide a scent, we fully disclose all ingredients on our ingredients labels.

For example, in our personalized skin care line, the formulas for Skin Type 3 contain a dash of Yakima Peppermint to provide a refreshing scent and act as a natural antimicrobial with cooling properties.

The products in our ZeroFragrance Series feature zero artificial fragrance and zero essential oils. The ZeroFragrance regimen delivers an effective and worry-free cleanser, exfoliant, serum, and a selection of moisturizers.

How to avoid irritating ingredients

The best way to steer clear of irritating ingredients is to read the ingredients list carefully looking for the sulfates, preservatives and fragrance ingredients we identified above. You can also check the safety of any ingredient using EWG’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database.

If you have sensitive or reactive skin, conventional skin care products may irritate your skin. Consider a regimen that relies on effective, plant-based ingredients that are free of fragrance and other harmful ingredients such as parabens, phthalates, and petroleum.  


Click here for more information about safe, effective skin care from Previse.

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