My name is Weze McIntosh and I am Managing Director of Purepotions Skincare. Yesterday I worked out that over the ten years I've worked here I have spoken to approximately 10,000 people who have faced very similar challenges with finding good products to care for their dry skin.
Why are so many people struggling to find an effective moisturiser that does not irritate their skin?
Many widely available moisturisers contain ingredients that are just in there because they are cheap, can be mass-produced, will make sure a cream lasts a long time sat on the shelf and smells nice. But what are these ingredients and what are they doing to your skin?
So here's my twopenneth worth: if you have a tendency towards very dry, sensitive or delicate skin you need to know that there are some ingredients in your cosmetics that could be causing your skin to flare-up or drying your skin out even more. These ingredients are in countless mainstream moisturisers but there is increasing evidence to suggest that some of them are potential irritants This is especially worrying for those who are prone to eczema, psoriasis and other dry and irritable skin conditions because it means there's a risk that a lovely new face cream could trigger an eczema flare-up.
Perfume or fragrance
Synthetic fragrances in cosmetics and skincare products are among the worst but most common irritants for those with sensitive skin. Whilst a product may list this ingredient as “fragrance” or “perfume” this can actually mean something that contains around 200 different substances that do not have to be individually listed; that's a lot of potential triggers in one ingredient. Synthetic fragrances usually contain phthalates; phthalates are synthetic chemicals that are not only known to cause skin irritation but have also now been linked to asthma, hormone disruption, infertility, brain toxicity and cancer. Be aware of “unscented” or “fragrance free” on the label too as this can sometimes just mean that it contains masking chemicals to cover up the smell of other chemicals in the product: check the ingredients list because these masking chemicals can be irritants as well.
Preservatives and Parabens
These are used to stabilise and emulsify a product. In other words, they stop the product going off and help oil and water bind together. Unfortunately it is impossible to create water-based moisturisers without any kind of preservative as they would not pass stability testing; with water comes the potential for the growth of micro-organisms which you most definitely do not want to be putting on your face! (Oil-based ointments and salves like our Skin Salvation Intensive Moisturising Ointment aren't prone to contamination by micro-organisms so they don't tent to need preservatives.) However, there are some to avoid and some that are safer. Cosmetics containing more natural preservatives are the ones to head for.
On the ingredients list the preservatives are usually the ones with ridiculously long names that you can’t pronounce, even the more natural ones! There are so many different names for preservatives it would be impossible to list them all here but it is just worth being aware that if your moisturiser is causing your skin to flare-up, the preservatives it uses could just be the culprit.
Sodium Laurel Sulphate
Although more commonly seen in shampoos and body washes, this ingredient is widely used in many cosmetics. It is used to create lathering and foaming but is known to be a common skin irritant which is best avoided altogether.
Petroleum Jelly or Petrolatum
These petrochemicals are used very widely in cosmetics but there’s been increasing awareness of their potential for irritation when applied to skin.
Petroleum jelly (more commonly recognisable by its trade name of Vaseline) is a product we are probably all fairly familiar with and is often used in moisturisers. Petroleum jelly is a paraffin-like material that is a by-product of oil extraction; originally named "rod wax"; it was an unwanted substance that formed on the rods of oil rigs. It is amazingly cheap and very resistant to water so it's often used in mainstream moisturisers to lubricate and coat the skin.
Unfortunately though, this product can actually interfere with the body’s own natural moisturising mechanism so can cause dry and irritated skin, the opposite of what you are trying to achieve with it!
Paraffin wax is also derived from petrochemicals and is a waxy, waterproof substance that lends its incredibly smooth texture to many skincare products.
Here's a longer explanation of its history in cosmetics and why we never use paraffin wax in our products
Another highly-purified by-product of the petroleum industry, mineral oil is another extremely common ingredient in skincare products. Whilst mineral oil doesn't seem to cause irritation on most people's skin, it does not contain any nutrients. Those suffering with very dry skin can be lacking in essential fatty acids (EFAs), which are vital for maintaining skin health, so it's sensible to choose a moisturiser that feeds the skin those marvellous nutrients. Maybe it's time to head for vegetable oils that are high in EFA’s, such as the wonderful hemp seed oil.
Patch Test New Skincare Products
Everyone's different and so is their skin so what one person can tolerate might be highly irritating for another! It's always sensible to patch test any new skincare product but it's an especially important step if you have sensitive or dry skin and are concerned about the ingredients. Just use a tiny bit of the cream or ointment to cover an area about the size of a ten pence piece; a good spot is the delicate skin inside the crook of your elbow. (Be aware that skin on different areas of your body has different sensitivities and may react differently to the same product; if you're going to be patch testing a face cream it might not cause any issues on your hands but could trigger a flare-up when used on your face). Leave the cream on for at least 24 hours before using it more widely and always discontinue using a product that causes a reaction, whether that's swelling, redness, itchiness or soreness.
So here's my conclusion; read the labels, do the research, know what you are really putting on your skin and test to see if you are allergic to or triggered by any particular ingredient; simple tends to be best when you're looking after sensitive skin. Just make sure it's not your moisturiser that's causing the problem.