The Top Four Common Skin Irritants


by Rachel Ramirez

Most people think that they have sensitive skin, yet truly sensitive skin reacts with just about any product, either placed topically or something that comes in brief contact.  While very few people do have truly sensitive skin, and most people do not, there are commonly used ingredients that can cause dermatitis – these are found not only in skincare and cosmetics, but also in everyday products such as household cleaners, candles and even in some foods.  According to “Sutter Health Life Stages,” the top four common skin irritants are:

  1. Nickel – found in zippers, scissors and the posts of earrings.
  2. Balsam of Peru – an abundant ingredient used in various products.  Balsam of Peru is an aromatic and sticky compound with a vanilla/caramel scent, and can be found in facial and body lotions, shampoos, conditioners, deodorants, toothpastes, mouthwashes, baby powders, and in some spices, including cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla and cloves.  This substance is also used in topical medical products, such as calamine lotion, wound sprays, insect repellants, and even in candles.
  3. Fragrances – either natural or synthetic compounds used to mask a product’s natural odors.  These are found in skincare products, shampoos, conditioners, body washes and lotions, household products such as laundry detergents and cleaners, and even in some pet products.
  4. Quaternium 15 – a formaldehyde-releasing compound used as a preservative in moisturizers, cosmetics, body washes and lotions, household cleaning products, and in industrial products such as house paints, waxes and polishes.  Quaternium 15 may also be used in wrinkle-resistant fabrics.

To identify a reaction to a certain product, note how frequent the reaction occurs, such as when and how often the product is used.  Take a break for 2-3 days, and try using the product again to confirm the source.  Once confirmed, look for products such as

nickel-free earrings or read ingredient labels to find how much of a fragrance is used in a product – a safe bet is to look for the ingredients at the bottom of the list, since this is used the least.  Also, keep in mind that a product labeled “fragrance-free” is usually not 100% fragrance-free, but contains approximately 1-2%.

Rachel Ramirez has written for Modern Latina since 2006, in addition to  Many of her articles reflect her interest and specialty in skin, beauty, and nutrition.  Rachel received her Bachelor’s degree in Nutrition from San Jose State University and currently is a skincare expert with Sephora.