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Skincare that I keep telling myself I’ll never buy. Sometimes I get tempted by the next big craze, the next shiny object, but I have to keep reminding myself to be strict about the products that I apply on my face.
Here are the ingredients that I avoid like the plague, and every time I try a fancy new products that contain them, my sensitive skin revolts.
Alcohol. Drying for the skin with prolonged use! Best selling products containing alcohol include:
- Biore UV Aqua Rich Watery Essence Sunscreen SPF50+ PA+++
- Etude House Sunprise Mild Airy Finish Sun Milk SPF50+ / PA+++
- Nature Republic 92% Aloe Gel (better to use on hair)
- Acwell Bubble-Free pH Balancing Cleanser
- Son & Park Beauty Water
- Make P:rem UV Defense Me Capsule Sun Gel SPF PA+++
Fragrance. Causes itchiness! Best selling / hyped products containing fragrance include:
- The Face Shop Rice Water Bright Foaming Cleanser
- Neutrogena Naturals Purifying Facial Cleanser
- Innisfree Green Tea Seed Cream
- Belif Peat Miracle Revital Eye Cream
- Nuxe Huile Prodigieuse Multi Purpose Dry Oil
- Shiseido Perfect Whip cleansing foam
- Missha Time Revolution Night Repair Science Activator Serum
Silicones (dimethicone / cyclomethicone). Clogs pores! Best selling products containing silicones include:
- J.ONE Jelly Pack
- Mizon Snail Recovery Gel Cream
- La Roche-Posay Anthelios Mineral Ultra Light Sunscreen Fluid SPF 50
- Belif Peat Miracle Revital Eye Cream
- Missha BB Cream
- Missha Time Revolution Night Repair Science Activator Serum
- MAKE P:REM Blue Ray Sun Fluid
Parabens. Potentially cancer-causing! Best selling products containing parabens include:
- CeraVe Hydrating Cleanser
- Hada-Labo Arbutin Whitening Lotion
- Hada-Labo Super Hyaluronic Acid Moisturizing Lotion
- Hada-Labo Gokujyun Hyaluronic Acid Foaming Cleanser
pH >6.5. The skin has a natural pH of around 5.5-6.5, and using a cleanser below this pH level will throw off your skin and disrupt its natural barrier. This just goes to show, that even though a product has clean ingredients, it still might not be good for your skin! Popular cleansers with pH below 5.5 include:
- Etude House Rice Water Bright Cleansing Foam
- Innisfree Jeju Volcanic Pore Cleansing Foam
- CosRX Salicylic Acid Exfoliating Cleanser
- Shiseido Perfect Whip Foam
- Shiseido White Lucent Brightening Cleansing Foam
- A’pieu Essential Salt soap (ingredients not found)
- Innisfree Olive Real Cleansing Foam
- Kiehl’s Calendula Deep Cleansing Foaming Face Wash
- Paula’s Choice RESIST Perfectly Balanced Foaming Cleanser
- Muji Mild Moisture Face Soap
- Mizon Pore Refine Deep Cleansing Foam
Often the skin overproduces oil because many of the products containing alcohol or other harsh ingredients strip the skin of its natural moisture barrier. So, you need to be careful to 1) not strip the skin of its natural moisture barrier by maintaining proper pH balance and 2) add more hydration back into the skin to repair and restore the skin’s natural moisture barrier.
Here are the various options of products I’d recommend in the categories that contribute to hydrating the skin:
pH adjusted/balanced cleanser of 5.5, such as:
- CosRX Low pH Good Morning Gel Cleanser ($12 for 5oz)
- Andalou Naturals Apricot Probiotic Cleansing Milk ($10 for 6oz)
- Vanicream Gentle Facial Cleanser for Sensitive Skin ($11 for 8oz)
- Aveeno Moisturizing Bar ($2.49 for 3.5oz)
- Mustela Stelatopia Cream Cleanser ($12.50 for 6.7oz)
- Kiss My Face Clean for a Day Creamy Face Cleanser ($10 for 4oz)
- Neutrogena Ultra Gentle Hydrating Cleanser, Creamy Formula ($8.50 for 12oz)
- Acure Organics Sensitive Facial Cleanser Argan Oil + Probiotic ($7 for 4oz)
Hydrating toner/lotion, such as:
- Pyunkang Yul Essence Toner ($12 for 3.38oz)
- IsNtree Hyaluronic Acid Toner ($15 for 6.76oz)
- Klairs Supple Preparation Facial Toner ($22 for 6.08oz)
Hydrating serum or essence containing hyaluronic acid, such as:
- GoW Clearly Pure Hyaluronic Acid Serum (12.45 for 2oz)
- Claire-ity Skincare 25% Vitamin C Serum with Hyaluronic Acid and Vitamin E ($17.75 for 1oz)
- Mizon Hyaluronic Acid 100 Serum ($18.39 for 1oz)
- CosRX Hyaluronic Acid Hydra Power Essence ($15 for 3.38oz)
- The Ordinary Hyaluronic Acid 2% + B5 ($6.80 for 1oz)
- Innisfree Green Tea Seed Serum ($21 for 2.7oz)
Moisturizing ampoule or facial oil, such as:
- CosRX Propolis Light Ampoule ($24 for 0.67oz)
- Physician’s Formula Oil Boost Elixir ($15 for 1oz)
- Rose hip oil
Hydrating sleeping mask – apply overnight and wake up with plump, hydrated skin! Such as:
Do you feel like your skin is blotchy and dull? The blotchiness is probably caused by old blemishes or scarring. The dullness is probably from How do you brighten and even your skin tone?
Evening skin tone: GALACTOMYCES!
This is a fermented extract that helps to even out the skin tone. My recommended product for this ingredient would be Missha Time Revolution First Treatment Essence (intensive). This is one Korean beauty secret for that glowing skin! This product contains 80% concentrated fermented yeast, that is, galactomyces. This makes previously dark, dull skin glow! Use this after cleansing and toning, before moisturizer.
Brightening skin tone: VITAMIN C! (nighttime only)
Applied topically, it brightens dull skin, stimulates collagen production, and wards off wrinkles. There are many different options for Vitamin C out there, but my preferred options that offer strong concentration of Vitamin C along with minimal harmful or irritating ingredients would be:
- The Ordinary Ascorbyl Tetraisopalmitate Solution 20% In Vitamin F (hydrates for dry skin)
- CosRX Triple C lightening liquid
Lighten dark sun spots: ARBUTIN!
A natural skin lightening agent. It works by slowly releasing hydroquinone through hydrolysis, which in turn blocks Tyrosinase activity and reduces the skin’s melanin (pigmentation) production. This ingredient helps to lighten dark sun spots and brighten the overall complexion. When you lighten dark sun spots, that also helps to even skin tone. My preferred method for topically applying Arbutin is with the My Beauty Diary Black Pearl Whitening Sheet Mask Use this 2-3 times a week as the final step in your skincare routine.
Whew, so what should your overall skincare regimen be for evening and brightening the skin?
- Galactomyces first treatment essence
- Vitamin C serum
- Arbutin sheet mask (2-3x a week)
- Physical sunscreen (in the AM!)
When that hydrocortisone just isn’t cutting it to heal that red, blotchy, and itchy skin, what is one to do?? With large pores, one often needs to exfoliate to remove dead skin, but that tends to exacerbate the eczema. The key is to first remove irritating ingredients from your skincare routine that are causing the irritation in the first place. Secondly, hydrate your skin without loading on irritating ingredients like fragrance or pore-clogging ingredients like dimethicone (usually found in creams and sunscreens). When the ezcema has stopped flaring up, then you can try using exfoliators to help wiggle out those pesky blackheads.
Two don’ts: 1) Don’t use irritating or itch-inducing ingredients like fragrance/linalool, alcohol denat., parabens, or food coloring 2) Don’t using pore-clogging ingredients like silicones (i.e. dimethicone, cyclomethicone)
With that said, here are some products you can use on the way to healthy and smooth skin, even if you’re eczema and pore-prone!
Cleanser (pH balanced, fragrance-free)
- Exfoliating (3-4x a week): ORBIS oil-cut powder wash
- Moisturizing (3-4x a week): Vanicream Gentle Facial Cleanser for Sensitive Skin, Mustela Stelatopia Cream Cleanser, or Aveeno Moisturizing Bar
BHA (exfoliating, blackhead removal liquid)
Toner (pH balanced, alcohol-free, moisturizing)
- Pyungkang Yul Essence Toner
- IsNtree Hyaluronic Acid Toner
- Klairs Supple Preparation Facial Toner
- MUJI Light Toning Water High Moisture
Moisturizing cream (silicone-free, fragrance-free)
- Etude House SoonJung 2x Barrier Intensive Cream
- Now Solutions Vitamin D-3 Cream
- Mizon Black Snail All In One Cream
- MUJI Sensitive Skin Moisturizing Milk/Lotion
Sunscreen (mineral, silicone-free, fragrance-free, alcohol-free)
- Beauty by Earth DD Cream For Face SPF 20
- Drunk Elephant Umbra Sheer Daily Defense SPF 30
- Block Island Organics – Natural Face Moisturizer SPF 30 with Clear Zinc
- MyChelle Sun Shield Unscented SPF 28
- Exfoliating: Alba Botanica Pore-Fecting Papaya Enzyme Hawaiian Facial Mask
- Exfoliating: Aveeno Active Naturals Positively Radiant 60 Second In-Shower Facial
- Drawing out impurities: Innisfree Super Volcanic Pore Clay Mask
- Moisturizing (moisturizing, sleeping mask): Benton Aloe Propolis Soothing Gel
Looking for brands that won’t do you wrong? That use simple, effective ingredients for sensitive skin that is at an affordable price point? Here are some brands that I would wholly support.
CosRX!! If you’ve read any of my blog posts, you’ll know that I’m a huuuge fan of this brand, and it’s now available online at iHerb.com, Amazon, and in some Urban Outfitters. They make sure to pH balance all their products and they have very minimal ingredients that won’t irritate your skin. You can’t really go wrong with any CosRX products. Some of my ride or die products from CosRX include:
Advanced Snail 96 Mucin Power Essence
BHA Blackhead Power Liquid
- Triple C Lightening Liquid
- Low pH Good Morning Cleanser
NOW Solutions! This is an all natural brand that is also very careful with the ingredients that they use, and is very suitable for sensitive skin. You can find this online at iHerb and Amazon as well as some natural food grocery stores. Some of my favorites include:
- Rose Hip Seed Oil (rich in Omega-6 essential fatty acids, to aid in skin renewal to for that healthy glow)
- Vitamin D-3 Cream 1,000 IU per gram (for soothing eczema/psoriasis)
- Vitamin E Cream 28,000 IU (for reducing the appearance of age spots and scars)
- Sweet Almond Oil (moisturizing oil)
Pyunkang Yul! Reasonably priced, herbal Korean skincare line that is all natural and great for balancing the skin without clogging pores. It’s available on iHerb and Amazon! The key ingredient is barberry root extract that reduce the temperature of your skin to soothe irritation and improve circulation. Best products:
- Essence Toner
- Moisture Ampoule/Serum
- Balancing Gel
MUJI sensitive skin high moisture series. Probably the best skincare line is also the most underrated and can be found at your local MUJI more known for household items! Here are some of the best items from this line:
- High Moisturizing Water/Toner
- High Moisturizing Milk/Lotion
Ah, a whole new world of skintertainment fun! Only proceed once you’ve cleared up the majority of your acne, otherwise a lot of the ingredients and nutrition could be going to waste. In some cases, these ingredients could be helpful to acne, but in other cases, it could make your acne even worse (especially if you try something that doesn’t agree with your skin).
In Korean skincare, these should be applied in the order from from thinnest to thickest, which is usually essence, serum / oil, and then ampoule. The essence is typically considered more essential (haha, no pun intended) and the serum/oil/ampoule is more like a boost or extra treat for your skin, depending on what specific issues you want to tackle.
The only essence I can firmly recommend is the CosRX Snail 96 Mucin Power Essence. BY FAR the ONE ITEM I’d recommend in your skincare regimen after the cleanser. I’d even go as far to say that this is more essential than toner or moisturizer, because it’s really an all in one balancer and moisturizer for the skin. It also helps with evening out skin tone and reducing hyperpigmentation. Plus, it can also be used around the eyes as an eye “cream”. What a work horse multi-tasker that’s really transformed and brought out the best in my skin.
As for the serum/ampoule/oil, you want to make sure you are using the boost to treat whatever issues you may have whether it’s brightening, hyperpigmentation, wrinkles, etc. You also want to make sure there aren’t any irritating ingredients. Some ampoules/serums can be so potent that they cause additional irritation. As usual, you want to make sure the ingredients are free of parabens, fragrance, and coloring. For example, the heralded Missha Time Revolution Night Repair Science Activator Ampoule actually caused major redness, blotchiness, and itchiness to my skin! Below are some of my recommendations for more sensitive skin.
- Physicians Formula Organic Wear Bright Booster Oil Elixir ($13 for 1oz)
- The Ordinary “Buffet” ($14.80 for 1oz)
- Scinic Honey All-in-One Ampoule ($16 for 8oz) *contains fragrance
- The Ordinary 100% Cold-Pressed Virgin Marula Oil ($9.90 for 1oz)
- Innisfree Green Tea Seed Serum ($19 for 2.7oz) *contains fragrance
Brightening / Scar or hyperpigmentation fading:
- CosRX Triple C Lightning Liquid Serum ($27 for 1oz)
- O.S.T. Original Pure Vitamin C20 ($18 for 1oz)
- Klairs Freshly Juiced Vitamin C Drops ($23 for 1.18oz)
- The Ordinary Niacinamide 10% + Zinc 1% ($5.90 for 1oz) – decongests pores
- The Ordinary Alpha Arbutin 2% + HA ($8.90 for 1oz) – whitens by blocking melanin production
Many people wash their face incorrectly, aggravating sensitive skin even further or leaving dirt and residue on their face. Here are some tips and tricks to get your skin to its best and cleanest.
1) Apply your soap or cleansing oil onto dry skin. Wetting your face before using cleanser could actually add a barrier to the dirt or push dirt further into your skin, preventing the cleanser from cleaning as thoroughly as it could.
2) Foam up your cleanser in your hands or using a foaming net before putting it onto your face. Foaming up the cleanser on your skin is very harsh and causes unnecessary abrasiveness on your delicate facial skin. Always be gentle and delicate to the skin on your face. Treat your face the way you would like it to treat you! Therefore, you should actually roll the foamed cleanser over your face and lightly rub your face in circular motions. “Rub” is actually a strong word. More like move your fingers (3rd-5th fingers) in circular motions over your face with the foam in between your fingers and your skin.
3) Use tepid / skin temperature water to wash the cleanser off your face. The temperature of our skin is between 32-35 degrees Celsius (90-95 degrees Fahrenheit), and the temperature of the water you use should match that. Water that is too cold or too hot could shock the skin and cause further irritation.
4) Splash your skin with the water several times until all the cleanser has been washed off (this could be 30-40 times). Avoid “wiping” the cleanser off with your hands as any additional friction causes more irritation to the skin. As a rule of thumb, reduce as much friction as possible to your skin (unless you choose to use a physical exfoliant such as silicone scrubbers, cleansing brushes, or konjac sponges). Always pat or splash rather than rub or wipe whenever possible.
5) Pat your face dry with a soft microfiber cloth rather than rubbing with a towel. Remember to treat your skin with utmost respect (even if it doesn’t treat you that well), and avoid causing any extra damage to your already delicate and sensitive facial skin!
Been there and I feel your pain. Hormonal acne, puberty acne, adult acne. How do you get over it??
Here’s my methodology:
Step 1: Have faith. There is hope that your skin will be better, and you have to believe. Others have been where you were before; they have made it through and so will you. You have to be compassionate towards yourself and gentle towards your skin. When your skin breaks out, it’s a sign that you need to relax more, de-stress more, and treat your skin with more kindness. Acne is basically an injury on your body, and you wouldn’t try to aggravate an injury further, would you? You’d probably apply some medicine, give it some TLC, and let it rest to heal as best as it can. You should treat your skin the same way. Don’t react with anger or distress as this too shall pass. There’s no need to touch, poke, or scratch at your skin as this will only irritate and exacerbate the problem. It could also cause the acne to spread to other parts of your face from the bacteria transferring to other parts of your face from your hands.
Step 2: Self-discipline. Don’t touch your face. It sounds simple, but much easier said than done. Also, keep anything that touches your face clean, including your pillowcase, cell phone, and hair.
Your skin is likely out of balance due to hormones, stress, or dehydration, and it’s time to get your skin back into pH balance. The natural pH of our skin is 4.5-5.5, but most cleansers have a much higher pH than that. Your skin has a natural barrier that protects itself against acne, but somehow it’s been thrown off.
If you don’t have a skincare routine, it’s time to start one.
Spot treat the acne – Apply this sticker with some actives that attack the acne from the surface and also prevent you from touching the pimples. You can also lightly apply tea tree oil to the affected areas.
Clean your face – First, use an oil cleanser to get rid of all the sunscreen and dirt. Then, use a mild, pH-balanced foaming gel cleanser made for sensitive skin. You don’t necessarily need a strong acne cleanser with salicylic acid as that could make your skin react even further to the dryness. Only use room temperature to lukewarm water so that you don’t shock your skin further. Rinse with several light but thorough splashes of water so as not to irritate the acne. For other options, here are lists of cleansers, toners and their respective pH levels.
Tone your face – Use a non-alcoholic, moisturizing toner to get your skin pH back into balance.
Moisturize your face – Use an oil-free, silicone-free, paraben-free, and fragrance-free moisturizer to add more hydration to your skin so your skin isn’t overcompensating for the dryness by producing more oil. Bonus points: use a snail mucin essence to reduce acne scarring / hyperpigmentation or honey all-in-one ampoule to give your skin some extra plumping and TLC.
Protect your skin from the sun – Use a silicone-free, physical sunscreen with at least SPF 30 to protect your skin from more pH imbalance caused by the sun’s harmful UV rays.
Step 3: Self-awareness. Be aware of things that cause acne/breakouts and avoid them like the plague or be prepared to suffer the consequences. This could be spicy foods, dairy products, chocolate, sweets, carbs or fried foods. For me, it was hot cheetos and dairy. Be aware about whether sleep, hormones, or stress could be causing breakouts and tackle those one by one. Pro tip: maca powder is great for regulating hormones.
If you realize that some product is causing you to breakout, get itchy, or have redness/irritation, then stop using it immediately. Throw it away or give it away if you have to. It’s not worth saving money just to use up the product. Your skin is worth more than that! Move on and don’t waste your time.
Once your acne is under control, you can then experiment with more fun skintertainment like exfoliation, tightening pores, anti-wrinkle, reducing hyperpigmentation, sheet masking, and using fermented ingredients!
I have genetically large pores all over my nose and center of my cheeks, so it’s really important for me to keep them in check! Left to their own devices, my pores literally become a polka-dotted breeding ground for blackheads, and we all know that blackheads lead to pimples if not kept clean and germ-free.
You may have heard by now that pores cannot actually be “shrunk”. They can only be tightened, but the size cannot be reduced. In order to tighten pores, they need to be kept as clean as possible so the sebum and dead skin cells aren’t keeping the pores open. In fact, your pores could actually be blocked by sebaceous filament rather than blackheads. When the pores are cleaned out, then they will actually have the chance to tighten in size rather than being held open by all the dirt, sebum, and dead skin cells.
The main key to reducing the appearance of pores is to ABE – always be exfoliating! This will encourage the surface layer of the skin to keep renewing, preventing dead skin cells from clogging up the pores.
I once went to a beautician and they tried to sell me three sessions of an exfoliating peel called “AquaTech” for $330! The idea behind this peel device was like a more moisturizing and less abrasive form of microdermabrasion that gets rid of dirt trapped under up to six layers of skin, whereas at home treatments only reach the first couple surface layers of skin. Well, if I know anything about skin is that it renews itself about every month. That means that if you want to get to deeper layers of skin, it should only take a few months. If you maintain clean pores, they will only get better over time as the skin renews and new layers grow in. Thus, I decided to pass up her offer and try my own intensive pore-cleaning methodology!
You definitely should NOT: 1) Use pore strips. The abrasiveness of this method is only a quick-fix and will leave pores open, unprotected, and injured, which will attract even more dirt/sebum and enlarge the pores even further! Don’t go down this rabbit hole. 2) Use a physical exfoliant (especially the facial scrubs with shell powder) as this can cause micro-scarring and lead to more inflammation! Physical exfoliants like silicone scrubbers, cleansing devices, silk cotton balls, and konjac sponges are okay, but I found my skin to be too sensitive for these methods. They can also be unhygienic as the devices can collect bacteria over time. You can choose your poison though. It’s dangerous to be pairing physical and chemical exfoliants together as you run the risk of over-exfoliating and causing more dryness, irritation, or hyper-pigmentation from sun sensitivity. If your skin looks to be flaking, then stop exfoliating and start moisturizing / hydrating!
NOTE: Do not attempt to tighten pores with this methodology if you are currently breaking out or have acne issues. You should address your acne first before potentially conflating acne issues with chemical exfoliation.
Without further adieu, here’s my DIY facial for blackheads for keeping my pores as clean and tight as genetically possible without physical exfoliation:
Step 1: Use a BHA (Beta Hydroxy Acid) daily after your toner. This is a chemical exfoliant that is key in loosening your blackheads so that they wash out more easily.
Step 2: Every 1-2 days, use a facial cleansing oil to massage your pores to draw out the blackheads, kind of like oil-pulling but for your face. The idea is that oil attracts other oil, so the oil cleanser would in effect be drawing out the oily impurities.
Step 3: Every 3-4 days, use an enzymatic powder cleanser, which will gently encourage exfoliation and dead cell turnover. Since a cleanser is never resting on your face for very long, this is a very mild and gentle way to add more chemical exfoliation via enzymes without being too harsh. If you feel your face drying out though, you should reduce usage of the exfoliating cleanser.
Step 4: Once a week, use a chemical exfoliating mask followed by a clay mask for a deep exfoliation and drawing out of impurities.
Step 5: Since you’re constantly exfoliating and sloughing off the top layer of your skin, you need to protect it from the sun by wearing sunscreen with at least SPF 30 everyday! Here’s a great guide to choosing a good sunscreen. Make sure the sunscreen you wear is non-comedogenic (non-pore-clogging). This means they should be silicone-free, mineral oil-free, and petrolatum-free. I’ve found that silicones are the main ingredient that cause my pores to be clogged so I try to avoid it in everything I apply to my face (including all skincare and makeup).
Below are the products I use for the my method described. You don’t have to use these particular items, but these are the ones that work for me.
CosRX BHA Blackhead Power Liquid ($16 for 3.38oz)
Usage: Pat onto skin after toning everyday. Allow 10-15 mins to sink in and absorb.
Description: BHA stands for Beta Hydroxy Acid, and while there’s the word acid in the name, it’s actually quite mild and safe to use, even for sensitive skin. This does not make your skin more sensitive to the sun, but works to loosen blackheads so they’re easier to clean out. The CosRX BHA liquid also contains niacinamide, which is a great anti-wrinkle ingredient and adds extra moisture. It has very minimal other ingredients, which reduces the chance of irritation.
Trader Joe’s Facial Cleansing Oil ($6.99 for 4oz)
Usage: Massage into face for about 3-4 minutes, focusing on areas with large pores such as nose and cheeks. Leave on for 10 minutes and wash off.
Description: Blend of natural botanicals, including coconut oil, argan oil, and abyssinian oil with a slight fresh scent.
ORBIS Oil Cut Powder Wash Cleanser ($21 for 50g)
Usage: Once every 3-4 days, in place of the normal foaming cleanser
Description: This is an enzymatic cleanser designed to slough off the dead surface layers of the skin as a gentle exfoliating treatment. This will help to unclog the pores by getting rid of dead skin cells that could get trapped in the pores. This is similar in function to the classic Tatcha Rice Enzyme Powder that is much more expensive ($65 for 60g).
Alba Botanics Papaya Enzyme Mask ($8 for 3oz)
Usage: Once per week as a five minute mask.
Description: An enzyme mask works to chemically exfoliate surface layer of skin, creating faster cell turnover and forcing the skin to renew itself faster.
Innisfree Super Volcanic Pore Clay Mask ($15 for 3.38oz)
Usage: Once per week after the enzyme mask — applied only to areas with large pores (typically the oily t-zone area) so that my entire face isn’t dried out.
Description: This clay mask (or any other clay mask) will help to suck out all the dirt, grime, sebum, dead skin cells, etc. from your pores, leaving them clean and clear. Here’s a cheaper alternative that should work just as well – Queen Helene Mint Julep Masque.
Thinksport Everyday Face Sunscreen ($10 for 2oz)
Usage: Every morning!
Description: Lightly tinted physical sunscreen that’s silicone-free, paraben-free, and fragrance-free. Great for sensitive skin and won’t clog pores.