For Sensitive Skin, Acne Begins in Ingredient Lists

Let’s talk ingredients.  Mastering sensitive skin acne means learning key ingredients.  Sounds like a lot?  I’m here to help make it easy. 

Think about when you go to the grocery store.  Flipping the box over + reading food ingredients has become commonplace.  There are things we look to have in our foods + others we look to try to avoid. 

Until I started down this road, I never looked at skincare + hair care ingredients because I couldn’t read them.  The lists were long + too technical sounding to decode.  Grab a bottle, read the description, + hope it works was my motto back then.

Bumbling Is So Cancelled

The problem with trying products until you find one that works is that you don’t really know what about that product worked for you + why the others didn’t.

sensitive skin acne treatment starts in ingredient lists

Worse, if you broke out after using a product, you were left clueless about why it happened + may even misidentify the breakout as caused by something else entirely.  (Like I did!)

The biggest leg up I gave myself was starting with a handful of what I called “suspect ingredients” to test avoid.  

If I saw an improvement in my skin, I kept the suspects on my avoid list.  And slowly expanded my knowledge from there. By weeding out ingredients my skin didn’t like, I was able to start IDing the ones it did like.

Basically, it was about giving myself a clear direction.  And putting the power in my hands.

If you can flip the bottle over + read the ingredients, you’ll have less missteps over time.

FYI – Sensitive Skin is Kind of a Catch-All

While we can have ingredients in common that our skin dislikes, we don’t perfectly overlap in a tidy avoid list.

I believe, if you are aware of what ingredients could possibly trip you up, you are armed with knowledge. If you see a reaction, you’ll more easily hone in on your suspect ingredient. It’s about working with your skin instead of fighting with it.

Where Do I Even Start?

My strong suggestion is to begin by removing the following ingredients from your daily regimen.  It’s a short list to learn.  

Don’t worry about the rest of the bottle’s ingredients. Just begin here.

Beginners Ingredient Removal List:

  • SLS (Sodium Lauryl Sulfate)
  • SLES (Sodium Laureth Sulfate) 
  • Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate (ALS)
  • Silicones, often discoverable with endings “–icone”.  Example: Dimethicone
  • Mineral Oil  
  • Shea Butter
  • Coconut Oil
  • Salicylic Acid
  • Benzoyl Peroxide
  • Consider also avoiding:  fragrance

For a genuine answer, be sure to review all products you use. Remember to check what you use in the shower (shampoo, conditioner, body wash, soap), at the bathroom sink (including toothpaste). They’re overlooked + can have a big impact.

Some Pointers:

  • Temporarily stop using anything that has Beginners Ingredient Removal List items in them.
  • Use a very minimalist routine to limit a) the number of products in play and b) test products you have to buy.

Results to Look For:

  • If you see your skin improving within 4 days – 2 weeks, you’re on the right path + were being affected by ingredient(s).  
  • If your acne only partially clears, you’re likely on the right path, but have a missing puzzle piece that could be holding things back.
  • If you don’t see any change, at least you ruled out sensitive skin for you!  That is also a win.

K. Cool. Why These?

There are plenty of people with normal skin that are able to use these ingredients without issue + even swear by some of them. 

But, unfortunately, these ingredients can cause a lot of confusion + woes for those who aren’t aware these can be troublesome “for some people”.  (We’re the some people!)  

Since they’re in most things we use, spanning our entire hygiene + also skincare routine, you might be like me + have no idea they were impacting you.


sensitive skin acne products
  • SLS (Sodium Lauryl Sulfate)
  • SLES (Sodium Laureth Sulfate) 
  • Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate (ALS)

Growing up, more bubbles meant a better clean. And “squeaky clean” meant you were really getting yourself nice + clean. Squeaky clean is just fine for a window or a dish (and super satisfying!). But our skin has a natural defense called the acid mantle, an acidic oil barrier sitting atop our skin.

In simple terms, its job is to block bad bacteria + irritants from messing with our skin. When we strip off all our natural oils, leaving a “tight” / “dry” / “squeaky clean” / “flat” / “rubber-like” feeling, we’ve actually over-cleansed, compromising our acid mantle, + are making it easier for baddies to get in.

Another sign of over-cleansed skin is excess oil. Skin notices it’s been stripped of its protective oil + later overcompensates for the loss.

Fun Fact: Another part of the acid mantle’s job is keeping your skin moisturized + preventing water loss! It… drum roll… helps lock in moisture!


  • Silicones, often discoverable with endings “–icone”.  Example: Dimethicone
  • Mineral Oil 

These are ingredients added to “trap in” moisture.  It also instantly gives the skin a smooth + soft appearance, giving the impression of well-moisturized skin.

Unfortunately for us, it appears these can do too good of a job + end up clogging pores.

Worth saying there’s a lot of debate around these two re: do they clog pores or don’t they. All I can say is, I’ve had clearer skin when I’ve removed them. It could, however, be an issue of how much of it your skin is exposed to.


acne care for sensitive skin means using the right products
Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash
  • Shea Butter
  • Coconut Oil

There are many people who rely on + swear by these two ingredients. And they do work well for them! It’s just our bad luck that they overwhelm our skin type + clog our pores. When keeping an eye out for them, be sure to check your hair products.

It’s relatively easy to find articles noting, yes, Coconut Oil can clog pores. But… There’s a literal ton of advice out there that Shea is great for acne + can even help cure it. In my experience, removing it helped my skin clear. And it looks like there are others like me. I’ve gone back + tested Shea several times to see if I had a previous misread, but quickly broke out.

I suspect the Shea issue is under the radar + may simply be a sensitive skin issue. It appears it may fall into the “rarely troublesome” category, which is where I’ve frequently found my sensitive skin has been hiding. And I want you to be at least aware of such ingredients + not feel lost or alone like I did. “Rarely” still means some people find it affects them.


  • Salicylic Acid
  • Benzoyl Peroxide

Salicylic Acid + Benzoyl Peroxide are heavily recommended as acne treatments.  Often seen at “maximum strength” for fast-acting, body checking solutions. I’m sure there are people who can use them without issue. Seriously, hats off to very resilient skin types. Wish I had it!

Annoyingly with sensitive skin, they will appear to treat acne, but they will also dry out our skin so much that they end up causing irritation + acne. (Ever applied a spot treatment, had your skin peel, apply moisturizer to help the peeling, pimple subsides-ish, + get a fresh breakout? Yeah, me, too.)

Is it possible to use them at lower concentrations? Possibly… That takes some testing to see what your skin can + can’t handle.


It’s worth noting that fragrance appears to be a big divergence for sensitive skin. 

I know people who have to diligently avoid all fragrance; I know someone who doesn’t avoid fragrance but does have to avoid rose; and then there’s me who can handle fragrance, but can’t handle the rest of this list.

If you’d like to test remove fragrance to see if that was your stumbling block, do! It certainly doesn’t hurt to try. If you believe you have reactions to fragrance, I recommend reading Beyond Soap.

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