When you’re searching for acne products, it may seem like the options are limitless. But many over-the-counter products contain the same ingredients: salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide. These two acne-fighting ingredients can certainly help, but they can also irritate your skin when first starting out. Yikes!
Some brands even sell entire lines where every product contains salicylic acid or other potentially irritating ingredients. This can be serious overkill for your skin and leave it dried out.
Fact: dry, irritated skin is more prone to breakouts.¹
If you spot rough, dull, or dry patches on your face, your skin may be irritated, possibly from over-cleansing or using harsh products that cause some uncomfortable symptoms. That, in turn, may lead to more acne.² When you feel the burn, that can mean your skin is irritated, and irritated skin is more prone to acne.
If your skin ever gets red, dry, or flaky, or your acne gets more inflamed after using products that contain salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide (or other potentially irritating ingredients!), don’t worry. We have some tips to help you identify what could be causing your irritation and how to put an end to it.
Wondering if your skin is itchy or flaky because it’s just a little dry or if the situation is more severe? First, it’s important to know how to identify the symptoms of dry, irritated skin. Common ones can include³:
Dry, cracked skin
Take it from us: understanding the difference between dry skin or a more serious skin condition isn’t always easy. But as the saying goes, knowledge is power! Here are a few guidelines to help you know when it’s time to consult an in-person medical provider (such as a dermatologist) about your possible skin condition. You might consider seeking professional care if it⁴:
Doesn't clear up after two weeks or continues to get worse
Limits you from your daily activities or keeps you up at night
Appears out of the blue for no logical reason
If you’ve already experienced any symptoms of irritated skin, the first and most important step is to identify any skincare products in your routine that could potentially be the culprit (or culprits). Here’s how:
We highly recommend reviewing the comedogenicity—potential for blocking pores—of the ingredients in your current skincare products. Use our handy guide to check for common pore-clogging—aka comedogenic—ingredients.
If you’ve been feeling the burn (aka you’re experiencing irritated, inflamed skin), it can be helpful to give your skin a break from “active ingredients” so it can recover. That includes salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), vitamin C, and retinoids.
Cleanse with a gentle cleanser—like the Curology cleanser, which was developed to be safe for sensitive and acne-prone skin. To remove makeup, use micellar water like the micellar makeup remover by Curology or Bioderma Sensibio H2O to avoid stripping the skin.
Avoid certain types of physical exfoliation, including cleansing brushes (like a Foreo) or scrubs, until your skin has had enough time to recover.
If you ask us, toner is an unnecessary step in your skincare routine. But if you want a gentle hit of chemical exfoliation, it’s okay to use one. Just avoid toners that contain alcohol; they’re a common culprit for skin irritation.⁵
You have to do your research, even with products labeled “soothing” or “for sensitive skin.” Always check the ingredients.
Though it may seem counterintuitive (especially if you’re acne-prone or oily), you want to go easy on your skin. Give the gentler, less-is-more approach a try for a few months, and you should notice your skin looking much happier and healthier.
No two individuals will have the same skin; everyone’s dermis is different. So it’s no surprise that many different ingredients can prompt an allergic reaction or cause irritation. Read on for some commonly known allergens and irritants, but keep in mind what causes your skin irritation may not be on this list.
Added fragrance. When searching for the right beauty products, it may be best to look for products that are fragrance-free. Think of added fragrances as a bonus. They smell nice, but they don’t contribute to the product’s effectiveness, and they can cause allergic reactions in some individuals.⁶
Preservatives. Preservatives are used in skin care products to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria. According to the FDA, certain preservatives in skincare products are known allergens.⁷ Preservatives that have been found to be associated with allergic reactions include methylisothiazolinone (MIT), methylchloroisothiazolinone (CMIT)⁸, and formaldehyde.⁹
Dyes. Added dyes, such as paraphenylenediamine (PPD), are another frequent cause of allergic reactions. PPD is most commonly found in hair dyes, coloring shampoos, and color cosmetics.¹⁰
Essential oils. While natural oils may sound foolproof, essential oils can actually cause irritation to your skin when applied topically. You might want to avoid using thyme, clove, oregano, and cinnamon bark (among others!) directly on your skin as irritation may occur. If using citrus oil on your skin, avoid sunlight following its application as sun sensitivity may occur.¹¹
Retinoids. Used to smooth skin texture, fine lines, and fight acne, retinoids can also cause irritation when used topically.¹² You may notice symptoms such as burning and redness when first starting a retinoid, especially if it’s too strong for your skin or you’re using it too frequently.
Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs). AHAs like glycolic acid and lactic acid show up in a variety of products, including toners and serums. AHAs are chemical exfoliants for your skin. While AHAs are effective, they can also make you more sensitive to UV rays. The FDA recommends using SPF to protect your skin from sun damage. Though generally safe, there have been reports of adverse reactions to AHAs, including irritation, swelling, burning, and itching, among others.¹³
Benzoyl peroxide. Benzoyl peroxide is typically used to treat acne either as a face wash or topical treatment. It’s available over-the-counter and usually safe to use, although some people may experience dryness and irritation.¹⁴
Vitamin C. Another popular ingredient that is often in serums aimed at brightening the skin, vitamin C is also an antioxidant. It usually doesn’t cause adverse reactions when used topically, but some people may notice stinging and dryness.¹⁵
The tricky thing about skincare is that it may take weeks for you to notice if your products are helping your skin concerns. So how do you know when a product is just not right for you?
Irritation. Yeah, we know we sound like a broken record on this, but it's for a good reason; your skincare products shouldn’t cause significant irritation or discomfort.
Flaking. If you notice your skin is dry and flaky, try using the product less often. If this doesn’t help, you probably need another product better suited to your skin type.
Stinging. You should feel like you’re pampering yourself, not causing pain and suffering. If you feel the burn, something in your skincare routine is triggering irritation.
Breakouts. If you have acne-prone or oily skin, it can take some time for products to help clear breakouts. If your breakouts unexpectedly worsen or persist past a certain period, you may need to try something else, depending on the product. If you’re noticing your pores seem clogged or you just have more breakouts than usual, it may be due to comedogenic ingredients.¹⁶
Redness. Redness is another sign that you may need to switch things up. If you’re noticing any discoloration in your skin when using certain products, consider taking a break.
Dryness. Hydrated skin is happy skin. If your products are too harsh or drying, consider using them less frequently or substituting them with gentler products and a good moisturizer.
Ingredients in your beauty products are not the only contributing factors to dry, irritated skin. Read on for other potential causes of irritation—and how to address them.
Skin conditions. If you have persistent irritation, you may have a skin condition like eczema, psoriasis, or rosacea. A healthcare provider can diagnose a skin condition and recommend specific treatment.¹⁷
Sunburn. We all love spending some time in the sun, but those harmful UV rays can cause your skin a lot of damage in the short term and the long term. Apply your favorite broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF 30 or higher daily to help keep away red, itchy skin.
Dry skin. If you have dry skin, try adding a super hydrating moisturizer to your routine with ingredients like ceramides to soothe flaking and irritation.
Fabric. Your new wool sweater might be cozy but it could be irritating on your skin. Watch your wardrobe and make sure—whatever you wear—your skin feels as good as you look.
Medication. Some medications can cause your skin to be itchy and irritated. If you’re unsure about your medication’s potential side effects, speak with your doctor to learn more.¹⁸
Plants. Ever heard the old saying, “Leaves of three, leave them be”? Your skin could be irritated due to contact with a plant that causes itching and irritation, like the notorious Toxicodendron radicans, Latin for—yep, you guessed it!—poison ivy.
Hair removal. A dull razor or skipping steps in your hair removal or beard care routine might be the cause of your skin’s irritation. Read our article on hair removal for sensitive skin to answer all your skin irritation from hair removal questions.
Skin irritation can be painful and upsetting; that’s why we believe in empowering you with information. If you’re concerned about your skin, a dermatology provider can help you address your skin concerns personally. If you’re a Curology member, you can chat one-on-one with your personal skincare expert to get advice on what products to use (or stop using!) for your particular situation.
Not a Curology member? Talking to a dermatology provider can help you avoid potential skin allergens and irritants by finding the right skincare products. You can get started with one at no extra cost when you start your Curology free trial. Just take a quick skin quiz and snap a few selfies and one of our licensed medical providers will evaluate your skin.
If Curology is right for you, we’ll send you a 30-day supply of a personalized Custom Formula with a mix of active ingredients chosen for your unique skin concerns for free—just pay $4.95 (plus tax) to cover shipping and handling.
Added fragrance. When searching for the right beauty products, it may be best to look for products that are fragrance-free.
Preservatives. Preservatives that have been found to be associated with allergic reactions include methylisothiazolinone (MIT), methylchloroisothiazolinone (CMIT), and formaldehyde.
Dyes. Added dyes, such as paraphenylenediamine (PPD). PPD is most commonly found in hair dyes, coloring shampoos, and color cosmetics.
Essential oils. You might want to avoid using thyme, clove, oregano, and cinnamon bark (among others!) directly on your skin as irritation may occur. If using citrus oil on your skin, avoid sunlight following its application as sun sensitivity may occur.
Skin conditions. If you have persistent irritation, you may have a skin condition like eczema, psoriasis, or rosacea.
Sunburn. Apply your favorite broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF 30 or higher daily to help keep away red, itchy skin.
Dry skin. Try adding a super hydrating moisturizer to your routine with ingredients like ceramides to soothe flaking and irritation.
Fabric. Watch your wardrobe and make sure your skin feels as good as you look.
Medication. Some medications can cause your skin to be itchy and irritated.
Plants. Your skin could be irritated due to contact with a plant that causes itching and irritation, like poison ivy.
Hair removal. A dull razor or skipping steps in your hair removal or beard care routine might be the cause of your skin’s irritation.
American Academy of Dermatology. 10 Skin Care Habits That Can Worsen Acne. (n.d.).
American Academy of Dermatology. 10 Skin Care Habits That Can Worsen Acne. (n.d.).
Medline Plus. Rashes. National Library of Medicine. (n.d.).
Mayo Clinic Staff. Itchy Skin (pruritus). Mayo Clinic. (2021 January 6).
Lachenmeier D. W. Safety evaluation of topical applications of ethanol on the skin and inside the oral cavity.Journal of occupational medicine and toxicology (London, England). (2008, November 13).
Zukiewicz-Sobczak, W. A., et al., Allergy to selected cosmetic ingredients. Postepy dermatologii i alergologii,(2013).
FDA. Allergens in Cosmetics. (n.d.).
Lundov, M. D., et al. Methylisothiazolinone contact allergy: a review. The British journal of dermatology. (2011).
Vanessa Ngan. Formaldehyde allergy. DermNet NZ. (2002).
U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Hair dyes.
University of Minnesota, Are Essential Oils Safe? (n.d.).
Yin, S., et al., Retinoids activate the irritant receptor TRPV1 and produce sensory hypersensitivity. The Journal of clinical investigation, (2013).
FDA., Alpha Hydroxy Acids.(n.d.).
Mayo Clinic. Benzoyl Peroxide.(2022 February 1).
Telang P. S. Vitamin C in dermatology. Indian dermatology online journal. (April- June, 2013).
Draelos, Zoe Diana, and Joseph C DiNardo. A re-evaluation of the comedogenicity concept.Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. (March 2006).
American Academy of Dermatology. 10 Reasons Your Skin Itches Uncontrollably and How to get Relief. (n.d).
This article was originally published on May 03, 2018, and updated on May 04, 2022.
We’re here to tell you what we know. That’s why our information is evidence-based and fact-checked by medical experts. Still, everyone’s skin is unique—the best way to get advice is to talk to your healthcare provider.
* Subject to consultation. Subscription is required. Results may vary.
Nicole Hangsterfer, PA-C