Five Natural Ingredients that Can Irritate Your Skin

Skin Care

This is neither the first nor last time you’ll hear that organic and natural products are not necessarily better or safer. While some natural and organic companies craft products that are gentle enough to not irritate skin and also have the right kinds of preservatives and packaging, some don’t. In fact, there are a few common natural ingredients that most of us don’t think twice about that can actually irritate your skin. Whether you use natural or not, it’s important to be a conscious consumer and know what’s in your skincare products.

[Read More: Controversy: Why Natural Skin Care Isn’t Always Better]

Limonene/Other Citrus Extracts

Citrus fruit slices
An extract of citrus fruit rinds, limonene can cause contact dermatitis, particularly when oxidized. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Limonene comes from citrus fruit rinds and is commonly used in products as a natural fragrance. In a patch test study on human skin where researchers measured the amount of irritation before, immediately after removal, and for several hours after removal. They found participants had significant irritation for 24 hours, and that irritation lasted up to 72 hours for some participants (International Programme on Chemical Safety).

The concern isn’t necessarily the oils themselves, but the oxidation that occurs on contact with air. Two studies done to test the irritation levels found that oxidized limonene is an irritant, which acts as a skin sensitizer and can cause contact dermatitis (Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, Contact Dermatitis). The first study validated Europe’s decision to classify limonene as a skin sensitizer.

Limonene also increases skin permeability, which means you need to be careful about which products you use along with it, as they will be more readily absorbed (Biological and Pharmaceutical Bulletin).

Lavender + Tea Tree Oil

Lavendar flower
Lovely as it may be, studies suggest that when mixed with tea tree oil, lavender oil can have endocrine-disrupting effects. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

These two oils may be soothing or beneficial apart (although tea tree oil can cause drying in people with acne (Medline Plus)), but together studies suggest they may do a number on prepubescent boys. Laboratory studies looking at three case of a pediatric endocrinologist with prepubescent gynecomastia — which involves endocrine disruption that could result in overdeveloped breasts — found that all three were using products containing these oils (National Institutes of Health). In all three cases, once the product use was discontinued, symptoms subsided.

These laboratory studies on cells demonstrated that the oil combination could affect cells in the same way as estrogen. While results suggest that this duo could be an endocrine-disruptor, more studies must be done to ensure that lavender and tea tree oil are truly at fault. Researchers should also do additional work to understand what effect this might have on girls and both male and female adults.

Nut Oils

English: Roasted Peanuts author: Flyingdream
A food allergy doesn’t necessarily mean a skin allergy, but more research needs to be done on the anecdotal and preliminary evidence that nut oils cause irritation. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Peanuts and tree nuts are one of the most common allergies (Mayo Clinic). They’re also very common additives in natural skincare products. Recent data suggests that when ingested, allergens like peanuts can cause atopic dermatitis (British Medical Journal).

But what about nut oils and extracts in products? There’s a debate currently going on as to whether or not these cause problems. Some researchers suggest that topical peanut oil used by nursing mothers or on babies could lead to increased nut allergies (British Medical Journals). There has been anecdotal and minimal study research that suggests a link between application of nut oils and skin irritation (Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology).

And an increasing number of parents are eschewing the products that contain the nuts their children are allergic to — though medical companies state that they remove the allergy-inducing proteins (New York Times). The bottom line is that there needs to be more data about the potential irritations of nut oils.


Peppermint Bark
Menthol, naturally derived from peppermint, is part of the alcohol family and can be drying to skin. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Menthol, made synthetically or derived from peppermint oil, is commonly used as a pain reliever, but that doesn’t mean it won’t irritate skin. It’s a chemical penetration enhancer, which means that it helps other ingredients absorb into the skin. It does this by causing vasodillation in the area it’s applied to and thus reducing skin barrier function (Skin Pharmacology and Physiology). This ability might be, in part, responsible for why menthol can be a skin irritant. In studies using patch tests, it’s been shown to cause contact dermatitis (Contact Dermatitis, Contact Dermatitis).

There are a few other reasons why menthol may be irritating to the skin. It’s part of the alcohol family and has drying properties when applied to the skin or lips (Beauty Brains). And there are some people who are allergic to it altogether and should avoid it completely in their skincare products.

[Read More: Spotlight On: Menthol — A Fascinating Look at a Mysterious Ingredient]


Chamomile can be soothing for some, but it can cause allergic rashes in others. (Photo credit: Lynne Hand)

Chamomile is commonly known as a soothing ingredient — unfortunately that’s not true for everyone (Mosby’s Handbook of Herbs and Natural Supplements). Chamomile is known for its soothing and anti-inflammatory effects (Skin Therapy Letters). It’s also shown to be beneficial in wound healing (Longwood Herbal). Unfortunately, not everyone reaps those rewards when using chamomiles. It happens to be part of the well-known allergen aster family, which includes ragweed. Those who are allergic to this will get a skin rash upon usage or continued usage of products with chamomile. Fortunately, those who aren’t allergic to chamomile can enjoy it safely in their products.

Bottom Line

Every skin is different. Some people have more adverse reactions than others when using products, even those that are natural or organic. No matter if you’re dedicated to using natural and organic products or not, it’s important to know what in your skincare products. That way, if you do have a negative reaction or know you’re allergic to something, you can look at the ingredients list and see which ingredients might be the offenders. Just remember, natural and organic don’t necessarily mean non-irritating.

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  • In this article you have linked tea tree oil to gynecomastia. No reputable sources state that tea tree oil is causative and there have been several articles and reviews published that refute the original article in the New England Journal of medicine by Henley et al (2007) entitled “Prepubertal Gynecomastia Linked to Lavender and Tea Tree Oils”.
    It is intensely frustrating for the tea tree industry that this statement is still being promulgated in articles such as these without any evidence to back up the statement. I recommend an article by leading Aromatherapist Robert Tisserand on this subject (,%20R.%20Gynecomastia2_2007.pdf ) and would be grateful if you could pass this on to the author/s with a request that they review the literature and facts surrounding the purported link between tea tree oil and gynecomastia. There are several other references to the issue on our website if further reading is required.
    I would also like to request that the article be edited to remove the reference to tea tree oil as a cause of the condition as there is no reasonable causative link.

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