Top 5 Makeup Removers for Sensitive Skin

By: Susan L. Nasr

People with sensitive skin may avoid lathering up their face like this squeaky clean woman and opt for water instead. See pictures of makeup tips.
Stockbyte/Getty Images

Do you have sensitive skin? It's not hard to figure out. Just look at your beauty products, or lack thereof. When people with sensitive skin use everyday beauty products like soap on their faces, their skin itches, burns or erupts in a rash.

"A lot of people tell me, 'I only use water to wash my face because everything else burns,'" says Dr. Kent Aftergut, a dermatologist at the University of Texas Medical Center at Dallas.


About 50 percent of women and 40 percent of men say they have sensitive skin [source: Farage]. Those numbers include people with so-called "sensitive skin syndrome," which involves a stinging, tight, or itchy feeling but no visual signs.

Sometimes sensitive skin can be linked to a more complicated medical condition, like rosacea or atopic dermatitis (eczema). Sometimes it can just mean that you have allergies. "It's not truly sensitive skin in that the ingredients are too strong. There are just one or two ingredients that you're allergic to and need to avoid," says Aftergut.

But why do some makeup removers aggravate sensitive skin? True makeup removers dissolve makeup and dig out dirt, oil and microbes, for easy rinsing off. They can't help but interact with your skin; harsh removers are simply more disruptive.

Harsh removers include those with high pHs (around 10) that damage proteins in the outermost layer of skin, the stratum corneum, making that layer swell [source: Ananthapadmanabhan 2003]. Removers with harsh surfactants (usually wetting agents that lessen a liquid's surface tension) can pull out some of the waterproof fat molecules between epidermal cells, allowing your skin to dry [sources: Ananthapadmanabhan 2004, Tortura]. Gentle makeup removers mostly leave your skin pH, proteins and lipids intact.

Read on to learn how to get rid of that makeup without torturing your sensitive skin.

5: Makeup Removers Without Exfoliants, Alcohol and AHAs

These women look happy to be imbibing their alcohol at Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany, rather than putting it on their sensitive skin.
These women look happy to be imbibing their alcohol at Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany, rather than putting it on their sensitive skin.
Johannes Simon/Getty Images

You may think that chemicals alone irritate sensitive skin, but you can also rile it up mechanically. Exfoliating products with sand or other grit are generally too harsh. So are home dermabrasion kits. They'll take off your makeup because they strip off your skin. While shedding sloughed, dead skin cells can feel refreshing, that won't be the result on a sensitive face. "It will just irritate and burn and not provide the cosmetic improvement the person is hoping for," says Aftergut.

Alcohol is another ingredient to avoid. Alcohol removes some of the stratum corneum, the layer of dead skin cells that helps to keep moisture in. If you already have cracks in that layer, the alcohol burns, as anyone who has cleaned a cut with alcohol knows. Many makeup removers have alcohol, so it can be hard to avoid. For a lot of people with sensitive skin, the problem is frequency. They can weather an alcohol-heavy remover once a day, but not three to five times, says Aftergut. Anyone who puts alcohol on his or her skin enough will wind up with a rash or irritation, he says.


Some makeup removers include anti-aging ingredients, such as alpha hydroxy acids and the antioxidant vitamin A, in the form of tretinoin, retinoids and retinols. Skip those. AHAs burn even normal skin; they can really hurt on sensitive skin. The others irritate.

Don't start dabbing at your eye shadow yet. We'll tell you a few more products to avoid next.

4: Makeup Removers Without Salts, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate and Fragrance

Pass on bar soaps, too. The salts they contain can raise the pH on your skin's surface, which can damage proteins on the outermost layer of the skin and make that layer swell. Salts also pull water from the skin and dry it out, which is a problem if the soap doesn't also contain moisturizers.

Hold on. There's more. People with sensitive skin should also avoid detergents, like sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), and fragrances, which are generally problematic [source: Aftergut].


You can spot most offending ingredients in makeup removers by reading the list of ingredients. The National Eczema Association can guide you on which ingredients to avoid, too.

However, if your makeup remover does contain an ingredient that may irritate your face, you can try making use of wetness and dryness effects. Your skin is more absorbent when it's wet and a better barrier when it's dry, so don't apply irritating removers to wet skin. The side effects will be worse than when your skin is dry [source: Tofte].

What makeup remover is probably in your kitchen right now? Find out next.

3: Olive Oil

The olive oil we can vouch for as a makeup remover. Don't get any ideas about those artichokes though.
The olive oil we can vouch for as a makeup remover. Don't get any ideas about those artichokes though.
Barry Wong/Getty Images

Sure, it's delicious on pasta and greens, but some people swear by olive oil as a makeup remover. It has won over sensitive-skinned patients in dermatology departments from Dallas to Portland, say Dr. Aftergut and Susan Tofte, a nurse practitioner in the Department of Dermatology at the University of Oregon. "Olive oil is a good product [for sensitive skin]. It can be messy and thick," says Aftergut.

We tried it. By dripping the olive oil onto a cotton ball, we controlled the mess. One-half teaspoon of oil worked. In a few swipes, it took off three coats of mascara, two coats of liquid eyeliner (waterproof) and a thick layer of powder eye shadow.


You may have the same trouble with olive oil as the ancient Greeks did. Athletes and sweaty workers had no trouble smearing themselves with olive oil to mop up their dirt and sweat. Getting the mixture off, however, required tools. They used strigils, which were basically curved pieces of metal, to scrape it off [source: Boardman].

You, too, will have an oily, shiny face after your makeup is gone. Luckily, no strigils are needed. Rinsing with water gets rid of most of it. A thin layer of oil remains, however, and for dry skin, that's good. Oil is an emollient that slows evaporation of water from your skin. For a short time, your skin will feel soft and moisturized, and your eyelashes will feel as if you've soaked them in conditioner. You will, however, smell faintly like salad dressing.

Do you prefer food on your plate, not on your face? Read on for a makeup remover that's more palatable.

2: Water

Skip the trip to the drugstore. This (cheap) makeup remover comes right out of the tap.
Skip the trip to the drugstore. This (cheap) makeup remover comes right out of the tap.
Stockbyte/Getty Images

You can't find a more affordable makeup remover than water. Plain water can remove about 65 percent of oil and dirt from your skin [source: Kuehl]. There are no questionable ingredients. It won't irritate. And since most makeup is either oil- or water-based, either water or oil will probably take it off.

Plenty of sensitive-skinned patients remove their makeup with water, says Dr. Aftergut. Water won't work miracles, however. It won't take off waterproof products. People who use it make a trade-off. They swap waterproof mascara for the regular stuff and liquid eyeliners for pencils. It's not so bad.


There's one word of caution, however, especially for people with eczema, says nurse practitioner Susan Tofte. That word is moisturizer. Water dries the skin. At the least, it will make your skin feel dry and itchy. As it evaporates off the skin, microscopic cracks may develop in your skin. "That can introduce all kinds of problems," says Tofte. It's best to apply a moisturizer after the water.

Do you wear makeup like it's 1985? Is water no match for your dual-color eye shadow? For those who like their makeup thick and dramatic, read on.

1: Mild Liquid Cleansers

Be careful here. Just because a cleanser labels itself "mild" or "gentle" doesn't mean it is. Dermatologists tend to consider a commercial cleanser mild if it's liquid, doesn't lather and has no fragrance [source: Tofte].

Three cleansers fall in that category: Cetaphil Gentle Skin Cleanser, CeraVe Hydrating Cleanser and Aquanil Cleanser [source: Tofte]. They're strong enough to take off your mascara. You just squirt a little into your hands, rub the liquid onto your face and rinse.


When you read Cetaphil's ingredients list though, you may protest. The cleanser contains three alcohols and a detergent (sodium lauryl sulfate). Didn't we say to avoid those? We did. These cleansers are fine for most people's sensitive skin because the concentrations of the irritating ingredients are low.

We know this can be confusing. For other beauty products that are mild enough for sensitive skin, head over to the National Eczema Association's list. The organization has considered the concentrations of any potentially irritating ingredients. When in doubt, close your Internet browser and ask a doctor.

For more information on sensitive skin and how to take care of it, visit the links on the next page.

Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Aftergut, Kent. Personal interview. Conducted 9/4/2009.
  • Ananthapadmanabhan, K.P. et al. "pH-Induced Alterations in Stratum Corneum Properties." International Journal of Cosmetic Science. Vol. 25. no. 3. June 2003.
  • Ananthapadmanabhan, K.P. et al. "Cleansing Without Compromise: The Impact of Cleansers on the Skin Barrier and the Technology of Mild Cleansing." Dermatologic Therapy. Vol. 17. Suppl. 1. 2004.
  • Boardman, J. et al. "The Olive in the Mediterranean: Its Culture and Use." Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences. Vol. 275. no. 936. July 27, 1976. (9/10/2009)
  • Encyclopedia Britannica. "Acne." Encyclopedia Online. (9/9/2009)
  • Encyclopedia Britannica. "Skin Disease." Encyclopedia Britannica Online. (9/9/2009)
  • Farage, Miranda et al. "Sensory, Clinical and Physiological Factors in Sensitive Skin: a Review." Contact Dermatitis." Vol. 55. 2006.
  • Kuehl, B.L. et al. "Cutaneous Cleansers." Skin Therapy Letters. Vol. 8. No. 3. March 2003.
  • Singer, Natasha. "When Beauty Products Make You Burn." Contra Costa Times. November 1, 2005.
  • Tofte, Susan. Personal interview. Conducted 9/4/2009.
  • Tortura, Gerard and Sandra Reynolds Grabowski. "Principles of Anatomy and Physiology." John Wiley & Sons. 2003.