There are countless skin care products available on the market (with more and more being launched every day) that promise to treat, heal, and “fix” any pesky skin problem you may be dealing with. Whether your top concern is acne, anti-aging, redness, or discoloration, there’s something out there for you.
The only problem? Everyone’s skin and the way it reacts is different. Plus, so many products contain artificial fragrances, artificial coloring, and preservatives, which can all cause contact allergies or reactions that occur when your skin is exposed to an allergen or irritant.
“Many household items are not designed with skin health in mind, especially if they aren’t made for use on the complexion,” Dr. Joel Schlessinger, a board certified dermatologist and RealSelf contributor, said in an interview with The Cheat Sheet. “Even products that are designed for skin can cause problems if used incorrectly.”
To help you lower your risk of irritation, we asked top dermatologists to share their list of products to avoid (or ones to at least be choosy with!).
Yes, we’re serious. A 2014 study from the University of Missouri found that touching cash register receipts can increase your body’s absorption of BPA, a chemical also used in some plastic bottles that’s been linked to several health concerns, including diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. “Some have suggested that BPA can also cause skin irritation and sensitivity, but this has not been scientifically proven,” Schlessinger said. The study specifically found that thermal receipts, often used in restaurants, can lead to BPA absorption through the skin and BPA contamination as the chemical is passed from fingers to food.
Not all stores use thermal paper for their receipts, but if you’re unsure, the best way to avoid BPA is to either decline a receipt, if possible, or opt for an electronic receipt to be emailed to you.
2. Laundry detergent
Those fragrances and dyes added to your laundry detergents and fabric softeners to make them smell and look enticing can unfortunately cause serious skin irritation. “While laundry detergents aren’t an issue for everyone, they can cause problems for those with sensitive skin, particularly babies,” said Schlessinger. “Look for products that are scent-free or fragrance-free and dye-free and try and stick with the same detergent instead of buying whatever’s on sale that week.”
In addition, rinsing clothing twice can help ensure all the detergent is washed out of clothing before it reaches your skin, he told us. And when purchasing new clothing, always wash it before wearing it. You never know what it’s come in contact with at the factory or store before you purchased it, so it’s better to be safe than sorry.
3. Cleaning products
While they’re created to help disinfect and clean our homes, most of these products are made with pretty powerful ingredients — including some chemicals — that can cause unwanted skin reactions.
“From chemicals to added fragrances, there are a number of things that could cause irritation to your skin,” Schlessinger said.
However, this isn’t an excuse to avoid cleaning your home! He suggests always protecting yourself with gloves and long sleeves while cleaning your house, and washing your hands as soon as you’re finished. This should provide enough of a barrier to keep your skin safe from potential irritants.
“Some ‘green’ cleaning products might have gentler formulas, but in some cases, these products don’t do as good of a job cleaning and disinfecting,” Schlessinger told us.
4. Certain makeup
Non-mineral makeups contain a long list of ingredients containing harsh chemicals, dyes, fragrances, and preservatives — all known irritants for the skin. “Non-mineral formulas are often liquid, and far more likely to soak into the skin, clogging pores and exacerbating acne,” Schlessinger said. “They also usually contain oil, which can cause a disruption in the skin’s natural balance.”
He recommends the use of mineral makeup, especially for those with acne-prone skin, which is made from natural minerals that are mined from the Earth. “Mineral makeup is designed to remain on the skin’s surface, creating a natural barrier against environmental factors,” he said. “Because it stays on top of the skin, it won’t clog pores, making it a great option for those who are prone to acne.”
Another tip: Don’t sleep with your makeup on. “No matter how natural your go-to makeup line may be, it was not created for that eight-hour period at night when your head hits the pillow,” Jeremy Fenton, dermatologist at Schweiger Dermatology in New York City, said in an interview with The Cheat Sheet.
5. Plastic containers
“Much like the thermal receipts, BPA from plastic containers can be absorbed through skin, as well as consumed through food and drink,” Seth B. Forman, M.D., at Forman Dermatology and Skin Cancer Institute in Tampa, Florida, said in an interview with The Cheat Sheet. “Examples of plastics contaminating food have been reported with most plastic types, including styrene from polystyrene, plasticizers from PVC, antioxidants from polyethylene, and acetaldehyde.”
While this is undoubtedly scary, especially when you think about all of the edible items you consume from various forms of plastic, contamination can easily be avoided by using glass containers instead of plastic to store your food and beverages.
6. Air fresheners
With all the synthetic fragrances available on the market, it’s no wonder air fresheners can cause skin irritation. “The labels on these products often neglect to provide a complete list of what’s included in the formula, usually listing ‘quality control ingredients’ on the label,” said Schlessinger. “Febreze, in particular, has been known to contain BHT and propylene glycol, two ingredients that can cause skin irritation.”
Instead of using air fresheners, open the windows to let in fresh air. It’s also important to address the cause behind odors in your home first, instead of simply masking them — e.g., smoking, pets, unclean areas or surfaces, etc. “A good non-toxic option is baking soda, because it helps eliminate odors without giving off its own scent,” suggested Schlessinger. “You can even sprinkle baking soda in the bottom of trash cans for a similar effect.”
While there’s nothing in coffee itself that causes direct damage to the skin, it is well known for its dehydrating effects, which shows directly on the skin level, Forman told us. “Coffee is a natural diuretic, meaning it makes you go to the bathroom, and that fluid must be restored or dehydration can occur, causing general dryness and flakiness of the skin.
The cream and sugar many people add into their coffee to enhance the flavor can also be doing more harm than good to your complexion. “Like milk, creamer can contain hormones that lead to inflammation, acne, and other skin concerns,” said Schlessinger. “Sugar molecules can also lead to collagen breakdown through a process called glycation, which causes premature signs of aging.” If you can’t give up your daily coffee fix, try drinking it black or with a splash of almond milk.
8. Your cellphone
It’s no secret how dirty our smartphones can be. Microbiologists estimate that the average phone could have more than 25,000 germs and bacteria per square inch — that’s more bacteria than a toilet seat! “Some of these germs can include staphylococcus aureus (staph bacteria), MRSA (antibiotic-resistant staph bacteria), and E. coli,” Schlessinger said. “Not only is this bad for our health, it can also be hard on our skin!” Come to think of it, we’re always touching doorknobs, money, and other germ-covered objects and then touching our phones. Then, when we touch our phone to our cheek, all those bacteria work their way into pores, leading to acne, inflammation, and irritation.
Obviously we need to get rid of these harmful germs and bacteria. “You can easily make your own cleaning solution that will eliminate harmful bacteria without damaging your device,” Schlessinger said. “Fill a small spray bottle with 80% water and 20% isopropyl alcohol (aka antiseptic) and spray the solution on a microfiber cloth to wipe down your device.” He recommends doing this at least once a week.
9. Hair dyes
Hair dyes can often cause skin irritation, especially for those with sensitive skin. “Two chemicals that are often to blame are ammonium persulfate, which is used to lighten hair, and paraphenylenediamine, or PPD, which is used as a permanent hair dye,” Schlessinger told us. “In mild cases, these chemicals can cause irritation, inflammation, redness, swelling, or a rash wherever the product touches the skin.”
Although hair dye is the most common culprit, other hair products can also cause skin redness, itching, and inflammation, including hairsprays, shampoos, and conditioners, often caused by added fragrances or propylene glycol, explained Schlessinger. “Conditioners specifically contain an ingredient called isopropyl myristate that can clog pores and lead to acne if it’s not properly rinsed from skin.” His recommendation: If you’re allergic to hair dye, always let your stylist know. Ask for vegetable dyes or a trendy color like ombre, which places color at the ends of your hair instead of near your scalp.
While they help protect your eyes, and the skin surrounding them, from the sun’s harmful rays, sunglasses (or even glasses in general) often sit in the same place every day, coming in contact with the same areas of skin. That’s why you might notice breakouts occurring in these areas as oil, dirt, and bacteria accumulate on skin and clog pores. Additionally, pushing up or adjusting your sunglasses transfers even more oil and bacteria to skin. “The most common areas for these breakouts include between the eyebrows and along the bridge of the nose,” Schlessinger said. “Thicker frames tend to touch more skin, so you may also see blemishes appear on the cheeks.”
To avoid these breakouts, regularly clean your lenses and frames. “Lens-cleaning wipes will remove any dirt, oil, or makeup that has accumulated over time, as will soap, warm water, and a soft, dry cloth,” Schlessinger said. “And make sure to clean the earpieces, which are exposed to the oils in your hair, and the nose pads, which can collect oil and bacteria from your nose.”
11. Dirty sheets and pillowcases
Not washing your pillowcase or sheets often enough is hard on skin. “Dirty bedding collects many impurities, including dust mites, bacteria, fungi, pollen, soil, skin cells, animal dander, sweat, oil, and other bodily fluids,” Schlessinger told us. “Washing your sheets once a week and showering at night so you’re cleaner when slipping into bed can help minimize the amount of irritants you bring with you.”
But remember: Your skin and hair leave oil, hair product, skin cells, and other buildup on your pillowcase. These can lead to breakouts, inflammation, and irritation, Schlessinger told us, but washing your pillowcase more often can help solve this problem. Aim to do so at least once a week to avoid transferring bacteria, oils, and other impurities from your pillow to your face as you sleep. It’s also OK to flip the pillow over and sleep on the other side when it’s not laundry day, Schlessinger said.
The wax used to remove hair is generally safe for most skin types, but those with sensitive skin could experience some irritation. “Because of the nature of waxing, nearly everyone will experience redness and mild inflammation, or irritation that quickly subsides after treatment,” said Schlessinger. “Also, the temperature of the wax can burn skin and the physical act of pulling the hair out by the root can leave an open follicle to become infected.”
If you want to avoid these side effects, there are several other methods of hair removal to choose from, including shaving and laser hair removal. This procedure can be done in an office setting or from the comfort of your own home with a device. Various FDA-cleared machines work for all skin types, skin tones, and hair colors.
13. Plastic from the dry-cleaner
The plastic bags used to keep your dry-cleaning looking fresh could trap chemicals in with your clothes. Perchloroethylene, or PERC, is a widely used dry-cleaning solvent that is also a potential carcinogen, according to the American Cancer Society. In fact, studies show short-term exposure to PERC can cause skin, eye, and lung irritation, in addition to dizziness, headaches, and nausea. Long-term exposure has been linked to several types of cancer and reproductive health issues.
California has already banned the use of this dry-cleaning chemical statewide, legislation which will take full effect in 2023. But, until similar legislation is passed across the country, it’s difficult to avoid this particular chemical.
Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on March 16, 2017.