Having sensitive skin isn’t just a health issue; it’s a lifestyle. It can impact what cosmetics you buy and what materials you wear. It can even influence the way you do your laundry — if you’re not making special adjustments to your washing and drying routine, you could be setting yourself up for even more irritation.
“For people with sensitive skin, anything can trigger inflammation, dryness, contact dermatitis, and other skin irritations,” says board-certified dermatologist Ife J. Rodney, M.D., founding director of Eternal Dermatology + Aesthetics. “Laundry detergent, fabric softeners, and even dryer sheets contain ingredients that can affect your skin.” As a result, Dr. Rodney says, “doing laundry the right way means taking steps to ensure your clothing does not cause allergic reactions or even breakouts.”
Clearly, you’re not born knowing how to do laundry, and you’re definitely not born knowing how to do so while navigating sensitive skin. Here, dermatologists and people with sensitive skin break down their hacks for washing loads without irritation.
And if you’ve tried these tricks and you’re still struggling with sensitive skin flares, talk to your dermatologist. They should be able to offer personalized advice to help you get relief.
“Your laundry detergent may be the culprit for your skin issues,” says Joshua Zeichner, M.D., director of cosmetic and clinical research in the department of dermatology at The Mount Sinai Hospital. Fragrances and dyes in traditional laundry detergents can cause a rash known as allergic contact dermatitis, he says, pointing out that “this is the same type of rash that you can get from fragrances and other personal care products.” Cue the itching and skin discomfort.
When picking out a laundry detergent, Dr. Rodney recommends looking for something marked as “fragrance free.” “That subtle change can make a big difference,” she says. While you’re at it, Dr. Rodney suggests trying to avoid ingredients dioxane, ammonium quaternary sanitizers, and sulfates and phthalates. To check your detergent for dioxane, look for “1,4 dioxane” or “diethylene dioxide.” Ammonium quaternary sanitizers will usually show up as ingredients that end with “ammonium chloride,” while companies will usually advertise if they’re sulfate- and phthalate-free. Just a heads-up: Some detergents list their ingredients on the label, while others require you to look them up on the company’s website.
Watch how much soap you’re using.
“My skin is so sensitive, I’ll be uncomfortable all day if too much soap is left in my clothes,” says Los Angeles resident and public speaker Daphne O’Neal.
It might seem minor, but the amount of detergent you toss in with your laundry matters. “Overdosing your detergent in your washing machine can be a problem,” says Dr. Zeichner. “This causes the detergent molecules to become trapped within the fibers of the textile, leading to a direct irritation when it touches your skin.”
And it can happen even if you use a fragrance- and dye-free detergent, Dr. Zeichner says. His advice: “Follow instructions on how much detergent to use or use the premeasured pods.”
Avoid dryer sheets and fabric softeners.
Dryer sheets and fabric softeners are created with the intention of enhancing your clothes, but Dr. Rodney explains that they use a combination of fragrances, dyes, and surfactants (molecules designed to penetrate your clothes) and, “unfortunately, these can trigger skin allergies or skin irritations,” she says. (Many people steer clear of these types of products, even without sensitive skin.)
Alex Varela, general manager of Dallas Maids, a house cleaning service in Dallas, says she has “very sensitive skin,” and is also allergic to fragrance, making dryer sheets and fabric softeners out of the question. You don’t need to resign yourself to a life with stiff clothes, though. “I like using vinegar instead of fabric softener,” Varela says. “It does the job and leaves no fragrance, nor creates any allergic reaction.”
Many newer washing machines give you the option of adding an extra rinse cycle to your load. If you have sensitive skin, Dr. Rodney says this is a good feature to take advantage of. “A second rinse cycle gets rid of lingering soap particles,” she explains.
O’Neal uses this hack with her laundry. “I usually set the washer for an extra rinse,” she says. “But if I make a mistake and use too much soap in the first place, I may have to go for a third rinse.”
Wash new clothes before you wear them.
It’s tempting to just throw on new clothes when you get them, but Dr. Rodney says it’s crucial to wash them first to rinse off any chemicals, dyes, allergens, or bacteria that may be lingering on the surface. “If you don your new threads without washing them, these chemicals can leak onto your skin thanks to sweat,” Dr. Rodney says. And this is particularly the case for people with sensitive skin, who could feel irritated “right away,” she notes.
Wear gloves when you handle laundry.
Dirt, allergens, and other gunk can lurk on clothes when they’re dirty. You may also not want to directly touch your laundry products, even if they’re made for sensitive skin. That’s why some people wear gloves when they do the wash. “It’s the only way to avoid any contact with laundry products and prevent irritations on my hands,” says Monica Davis, a hairstylist who says she’s “extremely sensitive” to detergents.
“Wearing gloves is a great idea if your hands are prone to irritation or allergic contact dermatitis,” Dr. Rodney says. “This is especially true if you’re washing some pieces by hand with harsh soaps or laundry detergent.”
Keep your laundry isolated from your household’s.
If the rest of your family prefers a harsher detergent or likes a scented variety, you’ll want to do your laundry apart from theirs, says Dr. Rodney. It’s also a good plan to keep your clean laundry separate, “as fragrance particles can rub off from one clothing or linen item to another,” she says. Meaning, you probably want to store your clean towels and sheets independent of the rest of your family’s linens, too.
One area where you can comingle laundry: your dirty hampers. “It’s not as important that you store your dirty laundry separately because it’s going to get washed in any case,” Dr. Rodney says.