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By Cynthia Bailey MD. This page was updated on Sun, Sep 15, 2019

What does hypoallergenic skin care really mean?

Dermatologists typically use the term ‘hypoallergenic’ to mean that all of the ingredients of a skin care product have a low potential for causing an allergic skin reaction. It is important to realize that there is no regulated definition for the term 'hypoallergenic'!

Consumers often expect hypoallergenic products to also be non-irritating to even the most sensitive skin. People with sensitive skin often have eczema. There are different types of eczema and some of the more common include atopic dermatitis, hand eczema, and seborrheic dermatitis. Rosacea prone complexions are also very sensitive. Exfoliated skin is sensitive as is the skin of people undergoing anti-aging treatments, or who are using powerful anti-aging skin care products. The thin and fine skin of children is also sensitive. 

Who should use hypoallergenic skin care products?

Anyone with a history of sensitive skin should use hypoallergenic products. This includes people with rosacea and exfoliated skin. It also includes anyone with eczema. In these conditions, the skin's barrier is weakened and product ingredients penetrate more readily. Sometimes the enhanced penetration can cause skin irritation, in other instances it can cause skin allergy. Once the skin becomes allergic to something, the reaction typically lasts a lifetime. The skin of children is also finer and should not be exposed to skin allergens or irritating substances.  

During the 35+ years that I've practiced dermatology, I've seen even people with relatively tough skin develop lifelong allergies to skin care products. In my opinion, no one should expose their skin unnecessarily to allergens in their personal care products. I recommend that the basic products you use for your skin care should be hypoallergenic. When you do find a product that is not hypoallergenic, but that gives you great pleasure or exceptional results, then the benefits may outweigh the risks. Otherwise, I recommend sticking with hypoallergenic products. 

What are the most common allergens in skin care products?

Fragrance and preservative ingredients are the most common product allergens. Truly hypoallergic products should be fragrance-free (or made with low allergen fragrance), and contain preservatives with low allergen potential. As a dermatologist, I know this is important for everyone. Almost all of my skin care products here at Dr. Bailey Skin Care are hypoallergenic by dermatologist's criteria. It's what I've recommended to my patients for over 35 years. My products perform well without the addition of needless allergens! They meet my dermatologist's criteria for hypoallergenic. 

Are hypoallergenic products always also non-irritating?

No! Glycolic acid is an excellent example. It is not an allergen but it can be irritating to sensitive skin. 

Technically speaking, an allergic reaction is different from an irritant skin reaction. Both an irritant reaction and an allergic reaction lead to a dermatitis (which is a term that really means eczema!). So, while these two rashes may look and feel the same on your skin, they are actually different, and understanding how they differ will help you avoid a problem ingredient.

A skin allergic rash (allergic dermatitis) results from your skin's immune system finding something 'foreign' that it feels it needs to mount an allergic reaction against. Inflammation results. Blisters and scale-crust can form, and skin turns red and itches.

Irritation (called irritant dermatitis), however, is caused by exposure to a product or substance that is too harsh for your skin, which damages the outer dead cell layer and eventually even the deeper living cell layer that lies below. Inflammation results. Blisters and scale-crust can form, and your skin turns red. It also stings and itches. 

To help you understand the difference, think about the itchy rashes caused by poison oak and poison ivy, which are classic examples of skin allergic reactions. Skin care product ingredients can be similarly ‘foreign’, and cause an allergic itchy red rash. Compare that to dishpan hands, which is a classic example of irritant dermatitis resulting from overexposure to harsh dish soap.

Dermatologist's advice for picking skin care products for sensitive skin made easy!

On my products you will notice blue, green and orange bands on each of my product labels. 

  • A BLUE BAND means that even people with the most sensitive skin are usually able to tolerate these products.
  • AN ORANGE BAND means that the ingredients may be irritating (like glycolic acid, salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide) and you need to think about how your skin might tolerate these ingredients. The products are technically hypoallergenic by dermatologic criteria, but they can be irritating. Some of the ingredients (such as salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide) might even be allergens for people with very sensitive skin. 
  • A GREEN BAND means the formulation is natural and often made with organic ingredients. I have formulated these products using ingredients that have low potential for allergy and irritation.

What type of products do I as a dermatologist recommend for sensitive skin?

Because the term ‘hypoallergenic’ is not strictly defined it can be confusing. For this reason, I list products here that are truly hypoallergenic in that they are fragrance-free and made with preservative systems that I know as a dermatologist have low allergy potential. I also, at times, have excluded products that in my experience are very risky when it comes to irritating moderately sensitive skin. I’ve done this because over my years of practicing dermatology, I've found it helpful to add this level of interpretation for people.

I hope I have helped you to find products for your skin problems that your skin can tolerate well. If you have sensitive skin or want to avoid both allergens and some of the stronger irritants in professional skin care products, know that most of the products listed here are tolerated by my patients with moderately sensitive skin.

Some of the most effective skin care ingredients to fight acne and skin aging, such as glycolic acid, salicylic acid, and benzoyl peroxide, are inherently irritating. When I include these, I try to give you enough information to decide if your skin may tolerate these ingredients in a product. Understand that there is never a guarantee, however, and each sensitive skin complexion is unique.