I have sensitive skin. I’ve spent years and thousands of dollars on my skin. Following a rough bout with tretinoin in my early 20s, I really began to dig in deep on what I could and couldn’t use as well as what worked for me.
I won’t lie to you: This has taken me years, and I am still changing it here and there on occasion. Sometimes I switch out my trusty Vaseline for a more comfortable sleeping mask, or I try out a new hyaluronic acid serum, but much of the time, I land right back where I was.
To give you an idea of how sensitive my skin is, I know for certain that I cannot use the following ingredients:
- Argan oil
- Sunflower seed oil
- Macadamia nut oil
- Almond oil
- Coconut oil
- Virtually all essential oils
- Most products with fragrance
Despite knowing all of this, some things I’ve used still give me grief for unknown reasons. If you’d like a full list of the products (that I remember) that I cannot use, I’ve created a Google Sheet full of the products with the name and ingredients which you can view here.
As such, I’ve become very stringent about reading ingredient lists. In fact, I avoid most oils and ferments, and I won’t even touch squalane (which has become very popular in recent years, much to my frustration).
With that in mind, I have learned that I can use ingredients I previously ruled out, including:
- Fatty alcohols like cetyl alcohol
- Rosehip seed oil
Every time I add an ingredient to my list of “things I can use that I thought I couldn’t,” it feels like a little bit of a celebration.
So now that we’ve talked a little bit about what I cannot use, let me show you what I can (and do!) use every day and give you a mini-review of each.
Bioderma Sensibio H2O
Water, Peg-6 Caprylic/Capric Glycerides, Propylene Glycol, Cucumis Sativus (Cucumber) Fruit Extract, Mannitol, Xylitol, Rhamnose, Fructooligosaccharides, Disodium Edta, Cetrimonium Bromide
My bottle of this has the old label of “Crealine” but it is the same formula as the Sensibio. It has a fairly bland ingredient list and minimal scent. I’ve used it for years to remove makeup mistakes, cleanse my eyelids to prep for eye makeup, and give my skin a once-over before makeup application between my AM and PM washings.
To use, I soak a Japanese cotton (MUJI Unbleached Cotton) and just wipe away. For makeup mistakes, I just stick a q-tip (or cotton bud) into the dispenser and soak it. It’s perfect for cleaning up wings or lipstick application mistakes this way.
It does leave my skin feeling a little dry (but not tight) when used all over, and it does not feel as “clean” as if I washed it with my normal cleansers, but it is an excellent remover nonetheless. I’ve used it for years and would have no problem recommending it to anyone else.
Water, Cyclopentasiloxane, Isohexadecane, Sodium Chloride, Poloxamer 184, Hexylene Glycol, Dipotassium Phosphate, Benzyl Alochol, Potassium Phosphate, Quaternium-15, Benzalkonium Chloride, Fragrance, Citronellol, Geraniol.
This is my eye makeup remover for days when I’ve worn a budge-proof liquid liner, false lashes, or mascara. It is also really good at removing matte liquid lipstick formulas that don’t remove with Bioderma Sensibio or my Clinique remover.
It needs shaken up, and is pretty oily on the skin, but is honestly the best eye makeup remover I’ve used. I’ve tried the Target Up&Up knock-off as well as the Neutrogena dupe, and they all went into the trash. This is it for me: The best eye makeup remover I’ve ever used.
To use, I simply soak a Japanese cotton and then press it to my closed eyelid, letting it soak away the makeup. *Chef’s kiss*
Paula’s Choice Hydralight One Step Face Cleanser
Water, Glycerin (skin-replenishing ingredient), Sodium Laureth Sulfate (gentle cleansing agent), Sodium PCA (skin-replenishing ingredient), Sodium Lactate, Glycine, Fructose, Urea, Niacinamide, Inositol (water-binding agents), Sodium Benzoate (preservative), Lactic Acid (water-binding agent), Allantoin (soothing agent), Sodium Hyaluronate (skin-replenishing ingredient), PEG-7 Glyceryl Cocoate (texture enhancer), Sodium Hydroxymethylglycinate (stabilizer), Sodium Methyl Cocoyl Taurate (gentle cleansing agent), Xanthan Gum (texture enhancer), Triethanolamine (pH balancer), Carbomer (texture enhancer), Benzophenone-3 (stabilizer),Methylparaben, Propylparaben (preservatives).
There are a lot of feelings out there for Paula’s Choice products, and I have used several of her products (some with success, some with not-so-much success). However, this has been an old standby.
As a teenager, I used an Aveeno Oatmeal Bar on my face, but it became increasingly hard to find, and before long, I wanted to use a liquid cleanser. After much searching and sampling, I landed on this one, and I haven’t changed it since. Sure, I’ve had flirtations with other products, but I always return to the Paula’s Choice. I’ve repurchased it maybe five or six times, and always the 16oz. bottle (which is HUGE — the last one took me two years to finish).
It is clear, unscented, and non-offensive. A basic, no-frills cleanser, it barely suds and leaves my skin feeling clean but not parched. Creamy cleansers break me out, and other forms of foaming cleansers have been too foamy, stripping my delicate skin of essential moisture.
To use, I squeeze about a dime’s worth in my dampened palm, working it together first before applying to my face. I work in gentle, circular motions all over, running my hands under the (cool — not cold or hot) water occasionally, and then going back to massaging. This way, I am diluting my cleanser more and more, slowly removing it but ensuring it has a chance to work off all of the oils and dirt on my skin. It takes me about ~1 minute to wash my face this way, and it always feels clean but not at all dry after.
Clinique Take the Day Off Balm
Ethylhexyl Palmitate, Carthamus Tinctorius (Safflower) Seed Oil, Caprylic / Capric Triglyceride, Sorbeth-30 Tetraoleate, Polyethylene, PEG-5 Glyceryl Triisostearate, Water / Aqua / Eau, Tocopherol, Phenoxyethanol.
Ever used a product only to realize that this is it — this is the one that you’ll never be without? That this is your product soulmate? That is me and my Clinique Take the Day Off Balm. In fact, I love it so much that I took a photo of it — lid off — to show you what it looks like inside.
I’ve used this remover for years. I’ve had my bag swabbed by the TSA because I refused to be without it. I’ve dragged my girlfriends across a mall in Las Vegas to buy this product because I forgot to pack it. I’ve probably been through ten or fifteen tubs of it, and start to panic when I run low.
It is the perfect makeup remover for me. It is a balm, so it travels great and doesn’t spill out of my hands; it has a simple ingredient list; it is unfragranced; it feels luxurious when massaged into the skin; and it rinses perfectly clean, leaving my skin supple and moisturized.
To use it, I run my finger along the inside, scooping out a small amount, and working it in my hands a little. From there, I simply massage it into my face, taking care to sweep it over my eyes to loosen up pesky mascara. I even massage it into my lips to remove lipstick. After my makeup feels sufficiently loosened, I rinse it away. It does take a good couple rinses to remove, but you’ll know once it is off because the water will run clear. Some days I follow this with my Paula’s Choice cleanser, but most days I don’t.
On days where my skin is particularly dry, I actually swap this in as my normal cleanser and just use a smaller amount. It is that moisturizing to my skin.
The only caution I have for you is to not get caught up massaging this in for too long if you have very sensitive skin like me. The nonstop rubbing and friction tends to irritate my skin (not the product, just the massaging).
To speed up removal of it, I’ve used soft makeup removing microfiber towels (not washcloths — microfiber towels for the face are much softer). Just damp the towel and gently wipe. Rinse out the towel and splash your face until the water runs clear.
Avene Thermale Water
Water (Aqua), Nitrogen.
I feel almost ridiculous giving ingredients for this product, but I am nothing if not consistent.
While I know that this product is, essentially, fancy distilled water, it is convenient and it does seem to soothe my skin, especially after a shower in Los Angeles tap water. While it is not technically a moisturizer, I use it in conjunction with the HadaLabo to “boost” the moisture in my applications.
To use, I spritz some of this fancy French water on a Japanese cotton and then drizzle a little HadaLabo on it. While I know I could apply this with my hands, the little bit of extra friction from the cotton seems to give my skin just the right amount of exfoliation.
Adding water to the HadaLabo step has given it a bit of extra “oomph” and something to hold onto from the start.
Alternatively, you could apply your HA serums right out of the shower, before patting your face dry.
HadaLabo Gokujyun Premium Lotion
Water, butylene glycol, glycerin, PPG-10 methyl glucose ether, hydroxyethyl urea, sodium acetylated hyaluronate (super hyaluronic acid), sodium hyaluronate, hydrolyzed hyaluronic acid (nano hyaluronic acid), hydroxypropyltrimonium hyaluronate (skin absorbent type hyaluronic acid), sodium hyaluronate crosspolymer (3D hyaluronic acid), aphanothece sacrum polysaccharide (sacrum), hydrogenated starch hydrolysate, glycosyl trehalose, diglycerin, sorbitol, pentylene glycol, triethyl citrate, carbomer, polyquaternium-51, PEG-32, PEG-75, ammonium acrylates crosspolymer, disodium EDTA, potassium hydroxide, diethoxyethyl succinate, disodium succinate, succinic acid, phenoxyethanol, methylparaben.
For years I’ve used the classic HadaLabo Gokujyun Lotion — the watery toner classic. Whenever the Premium came along, I knew I had to try it.
It is much stickier and thicker than the original, and it does moisturize my skin much better. My skin is dry and I live in a drier climate, so it is perfect. I frequently wear it AM and PM under sunscreen and makeup as the first step in my routine. It just locks in moisture and plumps up my skin, making it instantly look healthier and glowier.
One thing I will note is that when I took this product with me on a trip back home to Houston, I looked moister than an oyster for days and had to back down on using it only at night. Indeed Houston is much more humid than Los Angeles, and this product did it’s job at sucking up all of the outside moisture. Unfortunately for me, I spent the week looking slimy and oily until I realized that it was probably a bit too much during the day. Just something to think about if you live in a humid climate.
Cheryl Lee MD Hydrate, Correct, and Perfect Lotion
Water, Caprylic/Capric Triglyceride (Coconut), Neopentyl Glycol Diheptanoate, Polyglycery l-10 Pentastearate, Behenyl Alcohol, Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate, 1,3 Propanediol (from Corn), Glyceryl Stearate, Cetyl Alcohol, Glycerin, C10-30 Cholesterol/Lanosterol Esters, Ceramide 3, Phytosphingosine, Euphorbia Cerifera (Candelilla) Wax, Niacinamide, Glycyrrhetinic Acid (Licorice Root), Xanthan Gum, Disodium EDTA, 1,2- Hexanediol, Caprylyl Glycol, Gluconolactone
For years, I used Elta MD PM — an objectively great product but not enough moisture for my skin — and then I found Cheryl Lee MD products. In fact, introducing more hydration to my routine with these products cured a majority of my acne. Yeah — it shocked me too. Imagine my surprise when I started to slather products on my face that contained ingredients that I thought were problematic for my skin (namely cetyl alcohol) and my acne actually got better. I haven’t been without a tube since, and have found nothing that works as well for my skin.
I alternate between the Lotion and the Ceramide+ Cream at any given time. Both are great for me, though the lotion is noticeably lighter and preferential at times when I don’t feel so parched.
I’ve used both for years now, as does my mom, and have found them to be a real treasure that I couldn’t be without. To use, I simply dispense about a dime-sized amount into my hand and pat in.
I do feel the need to say that I am unaffiliated with Cheryl Lee MD in any way though, as there was a debacle a couple years back on Reddit with a team of moderators spreading affiliate links for this product and doing their best to benefit from their position within the community.
White Petrolatum, USP (100%)
Vaseline has been with me since almost the beginning. Bland, boring, beautiful. When I am dry, it is the last thing to grace my face, and when I am irritated, it is the first and only thing to go on.
I can’t really say much more than that. It is a beautifully simple product that just works. My skin looks and feels plump when I use it on top of my moisturizers, though I do stick to pillows a bit at night.
To use, I take a small glob and work it between my hands to warm it up before patting it into my skin. I use it mostly after all of the steps in my routine, but also immediately after a shower (right after stepping out, still in the steam) on lazy days.
Active: Zinc Oxide 20% (Sunscreen). Inactive: C12-15 Alkyl Benzoate, Caprylhydroxamic Acid, Caprylyl Glycol, Cetyl PEG/PPG 10/1 Dimethicone, Cyclohexasiloxane, Cyclopentasiloxane, Dimethicone, Dimethicone Crosspolymer, Dimethicone/Vinyl Dimethicone Crosspolymer, Dimethiconol, Disodium EDTA, Glycerin, Methicone, Microcrystalline Wax, PEG-10 Dimethicone, PEG-30 Dipolyhydroxystearate, Polyglyceryl-4 Isostearate, Polyhydroxystearic Acid, Polysorbate 20, Sodium Chloride, Stearyl Dimethicone, Tetrahexadecyl Ascorbate, Triethanolamine, Triethoxycaprylylsilane, Water.
You may notice that sunscreen stands alone as a single item in its category, and that’s because this single sunscreen has made me neglect all others.
CoTZ sunscreen is 20% Zinc Oxide and has an estimated PPD value of 10, which is pretty good for a US sunscreen. For perspective, one of the highest PPD value sunscreens you can obtain in US sunscreens is La Roche-Posay Anthelios SX Daily with SPF 15 which has an estimated PPD value of 10.5.
This sunscreen is fairly thick and definitely produces a white cast upon application. I would not recommend this for darker skin tones or oilier skin unless you plan to wear makeup over it, but for fairer skins it is excellent. The zinc soothes my rosacea, and it leaves a dewy, luminous finish. Since I began wearing it, the acne on one side of my face cleared up and the hyperpigmentation left behind by Christmas zits is finally disappearing. Take that as you will.
To use, I apply it after my HadaLabo Premium, in place of a moisturizer. I eyeball a quarter teaspoon, dot it all over, and then work it in, making sure to coat my entire face evenly (sans eyelids).
While it sets a bit, I do eye makeup and eye brows, and then dust my face all over with transluscent powder. This dries down the sunscreen, which can otherwise look a bit greasy. Then I apply my usual foundation with a beautyblender-esc sponge, as to not shift the sunscreen around too much.
To remove, I use my Clinique TTDoB. I have run into some trouble with removing it, even with this method, as it is a pretty oil and waterproof sunscreen. To combat this, I simply work in my Paula’s Choice cleanser and then gently wipe away with a microfiber cloth. I usually follow this with a very gentle second cleansing, just to make sure the product has been removed from my skin.
As an anecdote, I’ve also had my boyfriend use this sunscreen on his eczema-prone face and not only does it work for him, it seems to soothe his eczema and hydrate his skin.
Paula’s Choice 2% BHA Liquid
Water (Aqua), Methylpropanediol (hydration), Butylene Glycol (hydration), Salicylic Acid (beta hydroxy acid/exfoliant), Polysorbate 20 (stabilizer), Camellia Oleifera Leaf Extract (green tea/skin calming/antioxidant), Sodium Hydroxide (pH balancer), Tetrasodium EDTA (stabilizer).
This bottle is old. I don’t use it often, but when I break out from a product or travel, out it comes. An oldie but goodie, this product is sold in two lines on Paula’s Choice’s website. It is the same formula for both the Skin Perfecting liquid (pictured here) as well as the Extra Strength CLEAR Anti-Redness Exfoliating Solution.
It is an excellent zit-buster, and even better clog-buster for me. It dries my skin out very minimally, and even seems to soothe the spots I have. It will dry me out if I use it very frequently, but I only tend to use it for four or five days in a row, and only at night.
One note is that I do not use this on my rosacean areas. For whatever reason, BHA products make my rosacea look blotchy and flushed. Finacea only for those regions.
The texture of this product is watery but almost a bit… slimey? Oily? Slippy? It’s hard to describe. I would not recommend wearing it under makeup and allocating it to “night time only.”
To use, I dump a small amount of product out in my palm — no cottons required here. I then wipe it onto my forehead, pat it into my cheeks, chin, and my nose.
Paula’s Choice 5% Benzoyl Peroxide
Active Ingredient: Benzoyl Peroxide 5% (anti-acne)
Inactive Ingredient: Water (Aqua), Propylene Glycol (hydration/penetration enhancer), Bisabolol, Allantoin (skin-soothing), Acrylates C10-30 Alkyl Acrylates Crosspolymer (texture-enhancing), Hydroxyethylcellulose (texture-enhancing), Sodium Citrate (stabilizer), Laureth-4 (stabilizer), Caprylyl Glycol, Hexylene Glycol (preservatives), Sodium Hydroxide (pH adjuster), Disodium EDTA (stabilizer), Phenoxyethanol (preservative).
A fairly new addition to my routine, this product is simply around to zap hormonal zits. You know the ones — those big honkers that sit under the skin on your chin until they rise up to turn into double-headed monsters that refuse to go away quietly.
It is bland (all things considered) and very effective. Best part is that it goes on clear as opposed to other BP spot treatments that create a weird, white film.
To use, I dispense the tiniest amount to the back of my hand and then dot it onto the spot with a Q-tip. I only use this at night.
Finacea Gel, 15%
Each gram of FINACEA Gel, 15%, contains 0.15 gm azelaic acid (15% w/w) as the active ingredient in an aqueous gel base containing benzoic acid (as a preservative), disodium-EDTA, lecithin, medium-chain triglycerides, poly-acrylic acid, polysorbate 80, propylene glycol, purified water, and sodium hydroxide to adjust pH.
Finacea is my favorite product to combat my rosacea. Well, that and moisture.
When I first began to use Finacea, it tingled and felt itchy. Anyone who has used azelaic acid knows what I am talking about here. It just feels like little pin-pricks on your skin.
Fortunately, I am past this stage of rosacea, and now it only seems to happen when my skin is well-exfoliated. In fact, at this point, I take the pin-pricking itches as a sign that I may have gone too far and irritated my skin a bit, hence the pin-prickly goodness.
Finacea soothes my rosacean flushing and controls the flat pustules that always accompany my flush. When my skin is doing particularly well, it doesn’t even get the characteristic dryness in those rosacean spots.
To use, I simply dab a less-than-pea-sized (usually about half a pea?) on the back of my hands and apply to the places where I flush, which in my case is by my nose, where cheek-meets-nose. I don’t apply much — just enough to feel like I have some “slip” under my fingers, but not enough to have excess that I am wondering what to do with.
What My Routine Looks Like
So for me, my routine is pretty based around what my skin feels or looks like. If it is troubled, I’ll use more of my actives (BHA, BP, Finacea) , but if it is doing okay, I’ll use just my Finacea as an active. Most days though, it looks like this:
- Apply Avene Water to cotton, drizzle on HadaLabo, and massage into skin, especially dry areas.
- Apply my sunscreen.
- Apply eye makeup.
- Follow with powder, face makeup, and then more powder to set.
- Work in Clinique Take the Day Off Balm.
- Lightly wipe away with a makeup removing microfiber towel (I am currently using Ulta’s Removing Towels) and rinse with cool water until water runs clear off of my face.
- Gently work in Paula’s Choice Cleanser, if needed
- Apply Avene Water to cotton, drizzle on HadaLabo, and massage into skin, especially dry areas.
- Apply BHA, if needed, to outer perimeter of face.
- Apply Finacea, if needed, to flush spots.
- Apply Cheryl Lee MD Moisturizer (Lotion or Cream).
- Apply BP, if needed, to spots, and allow to dry.
- Pat in Vaseline on dry spots or over whole face, if needed.
On lazy days, this is what my PM routine looks like (especially if straight out of a shower, when my skin is moist, clean, and supple):
- (In shower) Work in Clinique Take the Day Off Balm.
- (If not in shower, otherwise let the shower just rinse it away) Lightly wipe away; rinse away with cool water until water runs clear.
- Apply Vaseline
And that’s about it! My skin has remained in pretty good shape due to this routine, and I don’t make many tweaks to it. I’ve used a majority of these products for years, and they are old standbys that I feel fairly safe recommending to most sensitive-skinned folk.