The Best Laundry Routine For Sensitive Skin

The products you use — and how you use them — can make a big difference in the health and comfort of your skin.
Using fragrance-free laundry detergent can help with skin irritation.
katleho Seisa via Getty Images
Using fragrance-free laundry detergent can help with skin irritation.

You might have had sensitive skin all your life, or it might be something you’ve just developed lately. But if you frequently feel dry and itchy, it might help to do some detective work in your laundry room. The products you use, and how you use them, can make a big difference in the health and comfort of your skin.

If you have sensitive skin, you already know that it responds differently to things that might be minor irritations for others. Board-certified dermatologist Dr. Angela Kim describes the situation this way: “If it seems like everyone is fine using products without an issue, while you develop a reaction to it,” then you’ve probably got sensitive skin.

“This type of skin tends to be reactive, especially to chemicals and ingredients in things like skin care or laundry products,” said board-certified dermatologist Dr. Blair Murphy-Rose, a clinical instructor of dermatology at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York. “If you notice redness, bumpiness, rashes, flaking, itching, burning or stinging after using a product, your skin may be hypersensitive to it.”

How Do You Know If Your Laundry Is Causing The Issue?

Being observant can help you determine if your clothing and linens are making things worse for your skin. “If you have a widespread rash in areas that are covered by your clothing, then it is important to consider your detergent,” said board-certified dermatologist Dr. Joshua Zeichner, associate professor of dermatology at The Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. “If detergent is the culprit, usually the face and the hands are unaffected, but the rest of the body has a widespread, red rash.”

Here’s another idea for finding out if your laundry is an issue: “Try switching to hypoallergenic products and see if there’s an improvement,” Murphy-Rose said.

The Best Laundry Products For Sensitive Skin

There are lots of sensitive skin product lines out there, but they’re not all created equal. While many packages in these lines are white, Murphy-Rose said that can be deceptive.

“For example, baby detergent Dreft comes in white packaging, but it contains fragrance so it’s not recommended for sensitive skin,” she said. Because the No. 1 trigger of hypersensitive reactions from laundry products is fragrance, she said to look for words including “hypoallergenic,” “fragrance-free” and “dye-free” on labels. She noted that fragrance can also be labeled as “parfum” in an ingredient list.

Also, look for symbols of approval from the National Eczema Association and the National Psoriasis Foundation, which are good indicators of a product that won’t contribute to skin irritation.

And when you’re buying new clothes, take the time to wash them in your new detergent before that first wear. “It will remove excess dyes and chemicals that can irritate skin,” Murphy-Rose said.

Something as simple as over-filling your typical measurement of detergent could cause sensitive skin to flare up.
Kinga Krzeminska via Getty Images
Something as simple as over-filling your typical measurement of detergent could cause sensitive skin to flare up.

Keep A Careful Eye On Measurements And Rinsing

If you tend to toss in a random amount of detergent each time you do laundry, you’ll need to be more exacting in your laundry habits if you want to help your sensitive skin, experts said.

“More detergent is not better, so it’s important to pay attention to directions and use only as much as is recommended,” Ziechner said. “‘Overdosing’ the wash can cause the cleansing molecules to enlarge and remain between the weave of the garment. When those molecules come into contact with the skin, it can lead to an irritation reaction. This can even happen with fragrance-free, dye-free detergent.”

Kim shared another suggestion for the washing machine: “Hitting that double rinsing option for your laundry may be helpful in removing any residual detergent that can be irritating to sensitive skin.”

Yes, You Can Use Softener... But There’s A Caveat

“If you’re going to use a fragrance-free, dye-free detergent, then you also need to use a similar type of fabric conditioner and dryer sheet,” Zeichner cautioned. “Using a fabric conditioner with a fragrance or dye will completely undo the effect of a sensitive skin detergent.”

But if you’re tempted to skip softener altogether, you might want to reconsider. “Using a fragrance-free softener can help with sensitive skin,” said Darenton Randall, a laundry scientist at Procter & Gamble. “A clinical study shows that softened fabrics are less irritating to skin than unsoftened fabrics, particularly against skin that is already irritated.” According to the study, “all measured parameters indicated that softened fabric was less aggressive to the skin than unsoftened fabric.”

When To See A Doctor

Still having issues? “I would recommend seeing a board-certified dermatologist, who has the right tools to help you get to the right diagnosis and treatment,” Kim said.

“Ruling out a true allergy is helpful,” Murphy-Rose said. “Allergists and dermatologists perform patch tests to check for a type of skin allergy that is triggered by physical exposure to allergens. The results of this test can help to determine if you should be avoiding specific chemicals.”

Before You Go

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