Most people dealing with seborrheic dermatitis experience frequent flare-ups like flaky patches on the skin, inflammations, and dandruff in the hair. That is because, like most forms of eczema, the cause of this skin disorder is not yet fully understood. However, the best way to minimize your flare-ups is to keep track of what ingredients to avoid when shopping for personal care products.
Causes of seborrheic dermatitis
Like most forms of eczema, the causes of seborrheic dermatitis are not fully understood. However, certain factors have been identified as triggers of seborrheic dermatitis flare-ups. These can be ranked into two categories natural factors, and chemical factors.
An overgrowth of Malassezia, a naturally occurring yeast in the skin’s microbiome, has been identified as one of the natural factors that can trigger seborrheic dermatitis. It is believed that when present in excess on the scalp, Malassezia triggers inflammation, flakiness, and oily clumps or dry patches on the scalp.
Other natural causes could be hormonal changes in the body, stress, and medical illnesses that can impact sebum production.
When it comes to chemicals, there exists a long list of chemicals found in personal care products known to worsen seborrheic dermatitis flare-ups. This includes categories like harsh detergents, fragrances, hair dyes, etc.
Does your shampoo contribute to seborrheic dermatitis?
While the causes of seborrheic dermatitis are not fully understood yet by science, shampoos with harsh ingredients can trigger flare-ups. The most common ingredients found in shampoos that may cause flare-ups include harsh detergents such as sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), fragrances, colorants, or certain preservatives. For example, a preservative methylisothiazolinone (MI), has been linked to skin sensitization and can exacerbate seborrheic dermatitis.
If you have seborrheic dermatitis, it’s important to choose a gentle, fragrance-free shampoo that won’t further irritate your scalp. Look for shampoos that contain natural ingredients like aloe vera, tea tree oil, or chamomile, which can help soothe the skin and reduce inflammation.
What ingredients to avoid if you have seborrheic dermatitis
Here is a breakdown of the most common ingredients found in hair and skincare products that are also known to trigger seborrheic dermatitis when applied to the hair or skin:
Sulfates in skin and hair care refer to a group of detergents or cleansers, that are prone to trigger various irritation on the skin. The most common irritants include sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), Sodium laureth sulfate (SLES), and Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate which are the most used in personal care products. These products tend to wash off too much of the skin’s natural sebum which could lead to severe dryness, inflammation and itchiness in sensitive skin.
In general, alcohol is used in skin personal care products to help enhance the absorption of products. However, when it comes to skin prone to any form of eczema including seborrheic dermatitis, alcohol tends to trigger flare-ups. This is because certain types of alcohol can be very stripping or drying. This will trigger inflammations in sensitive and seborrheic dermatitis-prone skin. Harmful alcohols you should avoid include
- Denatured alcohol
- Isopropyl alcohol
- Ethyl alcohol
- Benzyl alcohol
Parabens are a group of preservatives used in beauty products that for a long time have had a lot of bad press. While some claims about parabens are pretty controversial, one thing is sure, they are definitely not your friend if you have seborrheic dermatitis.
Parabens are usually used to prevent the growth of bacteria in products for long shelf life, however, these ingredients sometimes have a negative effect on the skin’s microbiome.
Skin prone to seborrheic dermatitis usually suffers from an imbalance of natural lipids. Here there is an overproduction of triglycerides and cholesterol, lipids that tend to feed the Malassezia yeast, whereas other important lipids like squalane and fatty acids necessary for proper barrier function decrease. This results in important skin barrier dysfunction, leaving the skin more prone to irritations.
This is why if you are dealing with seborrheic dermatitis your skin may be more sensitive to parabens than other skin types. The 5 types of parabens commonly used in hair and skin care products include:
Fragrances or parfums, are the most widely known allergens used in personal products. This is because they are made out of complex blends of various synthetic chemicals that are highly irritating.
According to the American National Ezczema institute, fragrances are responsible for 30-40% of irritations in cosmetic products. As such seborrheic-prone skin is more likely to experience flare-ups when exposed to these allergens and irritants. Common fragrances found in products include:
- Cinnamyl alcohol
Most people with sensitive skin or any form of eczema experience adverse reactions to hair dyes. This is because they contain irritating chemical ingredients that cause inflammation, itchiness, and rashes.
Oils to avoid if you have seborrheic dermatitis
Skin that is prone to seborrheic dermatitis has an imbalance of lipids in its sebum. The condition is caused by a sudden increase in a type of fungi that likes oil (lipophilic fungi), which can reduce the production of important fatty acids like linoleic, linolenic acid, and arachidonic acid. These fatty acids help to maintain the skin’s protective barrier, which is important for healthy skin.
An increase in oleic acid is also seen, which fuels the lipophilic fungi and increases flare-ups. Therefore, those with seborrheic dermatitis should avoid oils that are high in oleic acid to help reduce skin irritation. These include:
- Olive oil
- Avocado oil
- Shea butter
- Coconut oil
- Olive oil
- Apricot kernel oil
- Jojoba oil
- Moringa oil
- Palm kernel oil
- Sea buckthorn oil
- Tamanu oil
- Neem oil
Products to avoid if you have seborrheic dermatitis
Because of how sensitive seborrheic dermatitis-prone skin is, special care should be taken when selecting skin and hair care products. In addition to the ingredients listed earlier, here is a list of products to avoid when dealing with a seborrheic dermatitis flare-up;
Styling products like hair sprays and gels are loaded with alcohol which can be very irritating to the scalp.
Certain make-up products can sometimes trigger irritations in seborrheic-prone skin as they sometimes contain alcohol, micas, and fragrances that may trigger flare-ups.
Dry shampoos can be handy for most people, but for sensitive and seborrheic-prone scalps not so much. This is because these products are made with a good amount of starch and alcohol that are meant to absorb oil on the hair shaft and make the hair look clean.
Long-term use can cause build-up and clog hair follicles leading to irritations, itchiness, dry scalp, tenderness, and sometimes redness. If you must, select dry shampoos with soothing and anti-inflammatory ingredients like oatmeal, aloe vera, or zinc which is also antifungal.
Strong skincare actives
Because of how seborrheic dermatitis-prone skin sensitive is, you will need to avoid strong skin care active such as chemical exfoliants (glycolic acid, salicylic acid, etc), retinol, vitamin C, etc. Using products with these actives may irritate your skin further as your skin barrier is not strong enough to support their strength.
Switch out your anti-aging, exfoliating, or brightening routine for a soothing and barrier repair routine. Hydrating toners and calming serums of soothing face masks should be your priority.
With an impaired skin barrier seborrheic dermatitis-prone skin, is most likely to flare up when in contact with chemical sunscreens. This is because the UV filters used in chemical sunscreens are potential irritants. Seborrheic-prone skin is most likely to absorb these active ingredients that will cause inflammation.
The best option is to stick to mineral sunscreens that contain zinc or titanium oxide as these UV filters are more difficult to absorb by the skin. They rather sit option of the skin and form a protective film less likely to cause inflammations in sensitive skin.
Petra Nakashian (previously Kravos) is a dedicated natural health and beauty blogger, driven by the loss of her parents to cancer, which led her to meticulously research beauty product ingredients. With over 10 years of experience, her in-depth knowledge has made her a trusted expert in the field. Founder of Be Healthy Now and Green Beauty Talk, Petra recently expanded her expertise with Beauty Insights Hub, exploring a wider range of beauty treatments. Committed to transparency and honesty, her work is a vital resource for navigating the complex world of beauty.