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People with rosacea, myself included, have a good understanding of what kind of products to use or what type of ingredients to go for. But we don’t know enough about what skincare ingredients to avoid when you have rosacea. It’s not because these are rare ingredients that we somehow haven’t heard of. It’s because these ingredients are everywhere!
And when you have a skin disorder that doesn’t have an apparent cause or treatment, it’s difficult to separate the good from the bad. And the fact that there’s a hot new “miracle” skincare ingredient popping up every day doesn’t help.
There are different types of rosacea ranging from mild facial redness to severe acne. Whatever type you have, you’re always advised to identify your triggers and avoid them. Your triggers may have to do with your lifestyle choices such as your stress levels and or how much spicy food you consume.
All this makes you feel like you have no control over your skin condition. And you’re right to an extent. But you do have full control over the products you put on your face. In fact, skin care may be the only area where you can do something to avoid rosacea flare-ups.
So I’ve put together a list of common ingredients in skincare products that tend to trigger rosacea flares, facial redness, burning, and itching. It goes without saying that this is not and cannot be a full list. However, these are the most common rosacea triggers found in skincare with the most research behind them.
Remember that there’s always an exception to any rule. Some of these ingredients may not cause rosacea flares on your skin at all. Plus, your skin may react to it at times but can be okay with it at other times. So take everything with a grain of salt because everyone’s skin is unique.
Ingredients To Avoid with Rosacea
Below are the skincare ingredients you should avoid if you have rosacea.
In skincare products, alcohol can serve several purposes. It can enhance penetration or reduce excess oil on the skin. It’s usually divided into two categories; good alcohol and bad alcohol.
Bad alcohol is listed as ‘alcohol’, ‘ethanol’, ‘alcohol denat’, or ‘denatured alcohol’. Safe alcohols, on the other hand, are usually listed as ‘cetyl alcohol’, or ‘cetearyl alcohol’.
And from cleansers to face serums, alcohol is present in almost all skincare products. The reason why alcohol is bad for people with rosacea is that it’s drying for the skin (1).
Alcohol disrupts the skin barrier. And when you have rosacea, you need that barrier to be intact. Because a compromised skin barrier makes your skin more prone to inflammation and transepidermal water loss.
Alcohol causes dryness, dehydration, and irritation. And as an instant result, it can trigger rosacea symptoms like flushing, itching, and burning. That’s why alcohol is among the worst skincare ingredients for people with rosacea.
Because alcohol can be difficult to avoid in products, the safest way is to go for alcohol-free products. If that’s not an option, you can at least make sure that the bad alcohols are not high up on the ingredient list.
2. Witch Hazel
Witch hazel is another ingredient commonly found in toners, cleansers, and peeling pads. It’s a plant extract that’s incredibly rich in several good-for-skin compounds.
It’s anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory and is also one of the most common ingredients you can find in products made for people with oily skin.
The reason why witch hazel is bad for people with rosacea is threefold. First of all, the compounds found in witch hazel named tannins are astringent. Anything astringent is sensitizing when you have rosacea.
Secondly, the process of extracting witch hazel requires the plant to be distilled in alcohol; the bad alcohol. So it’s drying for the skin, which may be good for oily skin but definitely not so for dry skin.
And lastly, certain types of witch hazel are fragrant, which is a common irritant for the skin. That’s why you should try to avoid witch hazel if you have rosacea (2).
There’s no shortage of anti-inflammatory ingredients. Licorice extract, chamomile extract, and green tea extract make incredible ingredients for people with rosacea to manage redness and irritation.
The topic of fragrance in skincare divides people in half. Some experts hate it and others don’t really care about it. Again, not here to demonize anything.
But it’s no secret that fragrance is a common trigger for rosacea and can cause redness and sensitivity. Fragrance can be found in almost all skincare products.
And sometimes it’s labeled as fragrance or perfume. Other times, it can be derived from plants, which is #4 on the list. To avoid rosacea flares, go for fragrance-free products.
If I may chime in, I use several products that contain fragrances. This is your reminder that these are not ‘rules’ and your skin is unique.
4. Essential Oils
Essential oils are plant extracts that have fragrant components. And because of that fragrant component, it is usually bad for people with rosacea.
Essential oils have incredible benefits for the skin. But it doesn’t prevent your skin from reacting to its allergenic nature.
Common fragrant essential oils include lavender, eucalyptus oil, peppermint oil (menthol), and rose oil. Keep in mind that these plant extracts can be high on the list of ingredients for their skincare benefits.
So they may be the key ingredients of the product. But sometimes, these essential oils are added to skincare products simply for their smell.
Those are the ones harder to identify. They’re usually listed at the end of the ingredient list. And some of them are linalool, limonene, citronellol, cinnamyl alcohol, citral, and eugenol (3). Again, go for fragrance-free products.
5. Sodium Lauryl Sulfate
Also known as SLS, sodium lauryl sulfate is a surfactant most commonly found in facial cleansers and face washes, especially in foaming ones.
It’s an excellent cleansing agent that removes excess oil from the surface of the skin, leaving the skin surface squeaky clean.
That’s why foaming cleansers are usually recommended for people with oily skin. But when you have rosacea, SLS can be incredibly stripping on the skin, removing unnecessary as well as necessary oils from the skin (4).
These oils/lipids are important to maintain an intact skin barrier. When you remove them, you damage the skin barrier, which is always bad for people with rosacea.
So avoid SLS in your facial cleansers. Instead, go for gentle cleansers for rosacea. Try face washes that are alcohol-free, SLS-free, and in gel/lotion/milk form.
6. Glycolic Acid
Glycolic acid is an exfoliant that is used in skincare products to remove the top dead skin layer. It’s an alpha-hydroxy acid.
It’s an amazing anti-ager and effective in improving skin texture, reducing the look of pores and wrinkles, and reducing hyperpigmentation and acne.
However, it is unique in the way it penetrates the skin fast. This is an ingredient that needs to be used sparingly until the skin builds tolerance. So it already requires caution for normal skin.
As people with rosacea usually have dry skin accompanied by sensitivity, you should avoid alpha-hydroxy acids including glycolic acid.
Even though exfoliation is helpful even when you have rosacea, glycolic acid is not the best way to do it. Low-concentration lactic acid can be an option. But the best way to exfoliate sensitive skin is by using poly-hydroxy acids (5).
7. Salicylic Acid
Salicylic acid is another chemical exfoliant used for resurfacing the skin. It’s a beta-hydroxy acid that’s a gold mine for oily and acne-prone skin. It sloughs off dead skin cells, treats and prevents acne, and decongests clogged pores.
It’s almost always used in products that are peeling and exfoliating. Another thing to remember here is that alpha and beta hydroxy acids make the skin prone to UV-induced inflammation (6).
As people with rosacea are already prone to inflammation, there’s no point in increasing your chances. So just like glycolic acid, you should avoid salicylic acid if you have rosacea. Besides polyhydroxy acids, you can try enzymes for exfoliation.
On the flip side, if you want to manage acne rosacea and need an anti-acne ingredient, try low-concentration salicylic acid or products made with naturally derived salicylic acid.
Because willow bark extract, which is a natural source of salicylic acid, is incredibly anti-inflammatory and helpful in managing acne rosacea.
Retinoids, derivatives of vitamin A, reign supreme over every ingredient when it comes to reducing acne, wrinkles, hyperpigmentation, and several other skin concerns.
And retinoids are sometimes prescribed for certain types of rosacea especially for managing acne rosacea. But because it carries potential side effects like redness, irritation, dryness, and purging, you should either stay away or approach with caution.
Retinoids stand on that grey area. It can help a lot when you know what you’re doing. But it can damage your skin barrier if you don’t.
So the best way to do it is by seeing a dermatologist and looking into prescription options under his/her supervision. If you insist on over-the-counter retinol, go for products made with retinol esters or encapsulated retinol, both of which minimize the potential risk for irritation.
9. Benzoyl Peroxide
Benzoyl peroxide is used in skincare products to target acne. It works by killing acne-causing bacteria and also by peeling the skin. It’s very effective in managing excess oil, and inflammatory acne.
People with rosacea also suffer from acne. However, benzoyl peroxide is not the ideal treatment option when you have sensitive skin or rosacea. It’s another drying ingredient, which is never pleasant for rosacea sufferers.
A safer option to get rid of acne when you have rosacea is sulfur (7) in creams or spot treatments. Another way to tackle acne is by using topical azelaic acid products (8), which are super gentle and helpful in managing redness, discolorations, and acne.
So these are the skincare ingredients to avoid if you have rosacea. Some things are black and white like this. But there are variants that’ll define how bad these bad ingredients are. So here are some things to keep in mind when you try to sift through ingredients.
- When in doubt, go for minimal products. Minimal refers to products that don’t contain dozens of ingredients.
- As a general rule of thumb, anything that whitens, lightens, peels, or deeply penetrates requires caution when you have rosacea.
- Skincare ingredients are only one aspect of a skincare product. You shouldn’t rely solely on them to decide if you’re going to use the product or skip it.
- A glycolic acid product with a high pH level will be a lot easier to tolerate for the skin even if you have rosacea.
- A skincare product that contains encapsulated active ingredients can work great for people with rosacea even if it contains retinol.
- Toners and astringents are not what they used to be. They used to be incredibly drying but these days, we have soothing and hydrating toners.
- If the ingredient isn’t high up on the list such as among the top 5 or 10, it’s less likely to irritate.
- Concentration matters. You can still use common active ingredients as long as it’s in a gently formulated product with a low concentration of the active ingredient.
- Even gentle, alcohol-free, and fragrance-free products can irritate your skin if your rosacea is acting up. The opposite is true if your rosacea is currently in remission.
- Ahuff. (2019). Separating Good and Bad Alcohol In Skincare Products. National Rosacea Society.
- Del Rosso, J. Q., & Baum, E. W. (2008). Comprehensive medical management of rosacea: an interim study report and literature review. The Journal of clinical and aesthetic dermatology, 1(1), 20–25.
- U.S. Food & Drug Administration. (2020). Allergens in Cosmetics.
- Levin, J., & Miller, R. (2011). A Guide to the Ingredients and Potential Benefits of Over-the-Counter Cleansers and Moisturizers for Rosacea Patients. The Journal of clinical and aesthetic dermatology, 4(8), 31–49.
- Grimes, P. E., Green, B. A., Wildnauer, R. H., & Edison, B. L. (2004). The use of polyhydroxy acids (PHAs) in photoaged skin. Cutis, 73(2 Suppl), 3–13.
- Kornhauser, A., Coelho, S. G., & Hearing, V. J. (2010). Applications of hydroxy acids: classification, mechanisms, and photoactivity. Clinical, cosmetic and investigational dermatology, 3, 135–142. https://doi.org/10.2147/CCID.S9042
- Trumbore, M. W., Goldstein, J. A., & Gurge, R. M. (2009). Treatment of papulopustular rosacea with sodium sulfacetamide 10%/sulfur 5% emollient foam. Journal of drugs in dermatology : JDD, 8(3), 299–304.
- Thiboutot, D., Thieroff-Ekerdt, R., & Graupe, K. (2003). Efficacy and safety of azelaic acid (15%) gel as a new treatment for papulopustular rosacea: results from two vehicle-controlled, randomized phase III studies. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, 48(6), 836–845. https://doi.org/10.1067/mjd.2003.308
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