Known Irritants

Emblem for Skin Support Module - Reducing Exposure to Known Irritants for Skin Health

Executive Summary

Many skin care products contain ingredients known to cause irritation and skin barrier disruption. Reducing exposure to these ingredients can give the skin a chance to repair and restore it’s natural barrier stability.


There are numerous ingredients, both natural and synthetic, used in the cosmetic and skin care industry which are known to cause irritation. The main reason they are still in use is because the favorable characteristics (solubility, costs) often outweigh their potential to cause irritation in the majority of individuals.

The issue is that, during times of skin barrier instability, these ingredients can cause significant irritation and further worsening of the present barrier issues. Because of this, minimizing exposure to these compounds can give the skin an opportunity to stabilize and begin it’s natural repair process.

Possible Difference Between Allergy and Irritation
Irritation to cosmetics could occur in the absence of any specific allergy to the ingredients. It is simply that the ingredient damages the top layer of the skin and causes and adverse reaction [1].

Ideas for Integration

An important difference exists between damaged skin and healthy skin. For example, parabens are commonly considered safe and used in a variety of skin care products, including those targeted at sensitive areas such as the eyelids. However, parabens are not commonly used in topical therapeutic (medicated) formulations because of their potential to irritate damaged skin.

Out of all the products that come in contact with our skin, facial skin care products (such as moisturizers and cleanser) have been shown to have the highest probability of causing irritation [2, 3]. The specific reason is not well understood, but the primary hypothesis relates to the delicate nature of the skin and the large amount of possible ingredients typically used.

Hair care products follow and are the second most common source of skin irritation.

Some of the more common documented potential irritants include:

  • Fragrances [4]
  • Sodium lauryl sulphate [5]
  • Sodium hydroxide [6]
  • Parabens [7, 8]
  • Lanolin [9, 10]

This list is by no means complete and should only be used as a starting-point. The best way to minimize the chance or irritation is to use low formulations with short ingredients lists.

Overall, it can get rather tricky to filter out potential irritants due to the sheer amount of ingredients in the majority of skin care products. Perhaps the best approach is to simply limit overall exposure to these products (especially most problematic ones such as soaps, shampoos and moisturizers) by reducing the amount of used [11].

Negative Effects of Irritants

Regular exposure to irritants has been shown to [12]:

  • Disrupt skin barrier function
  • Disrupt skin hydration and increase trans epidermal water loss
  • Raise skin surface pH
  • Cause inflammation and erythema
  • Sensitize the skin to future exposure, leading to increased chances of irritation

In summary, exposure to irritants can cause contact dermatitis and directly influence an existing skin condition, worsening existing symptoms and preventing resolution [13].

Why It’s Important for Inflammatory Skin Disease

Reducing exposure to known irritants is most important for individuals affected by inflammatory skin disorders because it can lead to:

  • Improved skin surface pH levels
  • Improved barrier function
  • Improved skin hydration
  • Reduced local inflammation

Expected improvements:

  • Reduced irritation to environmental factors
  • Reduced itchiness and sensitivity
  • Reduced skin dryness and flaking

Additional Notes

  • Irritant exposure can have a cyclical effect, meaning the more potential irritants your skin is exposed to the more sensitive it becomes to irritation
  • Inflammatory skin conditions such as seborrheic dermatitis result in abnormal skin barrier function and this leads to increased chance of irritation
  • Sensitization describes how ongoing exposure to irritants leads to increased sensitivity due to repeat exposure
  • Parabens are commonly used to preserve skin care products, but very rarely used in topic therapeutic agents because of their potential to irritate damaged skin; this is known as the paraben paradox [14]
  • Hypoallergenic products can reduce the chance of an allergic reaction, but there are currently no standards which determine what formulations can be marked as hypoallergenic and this is solely up to the makers
  • Natural products do not reduce the chance of irritation and can be more difficult to predict because of the variation which exists amongst each plants specific chemical composition
  • Prolonged exposure to air borne irritants can cause significant skin irritation and occupational exposure (hair dresses, makeup artists, factory workers, etc.) should be considered [15]

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