- Sensitive skin is easily irritated by stimuli that would not normally cause unpleasant reactions
- Causes include dryness, skin disorders and allergies, and environmental factors
- Symptoms are many, and include redness, itchiness, burning and stinging
- Sensitive skin can be managed with fragrance-free, hypoallergenic products and identifying and avoiding exposure to triggers
Sensitive skin can occur due to internal or external factors. Genetic makeup, disease or a weak immune system can make people predisposed to this skin condition. External factors can also negatively affect the skin barrier – the outermost layer of skin that maintains moisture and protects against external threats.
When compromised, skin becomes irritated and uncomfortable. This condition can affect any age and skin type, but is not a cause for serious concern.
If you are in good health and you suspect your sensitivity is a result of environmental factors, there are steps you can take to reduce flare-ups. You can identify and avoid your triggers, and create a skin care regimen that omits irritants and includes soothing ingredients.
What Exactly Is Sensitive Skin?
Skin sensitivity is defined by the occurrence of specific symptoms that include burning, tingling, itching, tightness, redness and pain in response to stimuli that normally would not cause these reactions. These responses develop when the skin barrier—the protective outermost epidermal layer—is weakened.
This sensitivity can be intermittent, flaring up when exposed to a trigger and then resolving on its own.
What Causes Skin Sensitivity?
Sensitive skin is primarily caused by two factors: a hyperactive immune system or a weak skin barrier function. While having an abnormally reactive immune system is caused by genetics, external factors are often responsible for damaging the skin’s natural barrier.
The skin barrier contains lipids or oils to keep skin supple and plays an important role in protecting against harmful environmental threats. This barrier is weakened when there are too few of these natural oils, or when the skin becomes dehydrated. This leaves skin vulnerable to bacteria and a host of irritants, such as allergens, fragrances and overexposure to heat or cold.
Contact dermatitis is another cause of sensitive skin, and falls within two categories.
Allergic contact dermatitis
Allergic contact dermatitis is either due to contact with an irritating substance or a reaction due to an allergy. A few common allergens are:
- Nickel-plated jewelry
- Perfumes or added fragrance in skin care products
- Poison oak and poison ivy
Symptoms include mild swelling, skin tightness, cracking, blisters and ulcers. Usually, symptoms are confined to the area that was in direct contact with the irritant.
Irritant contact dermatitis
People who frequently wash their hands, such as health care or kitchen workers, can develop this condition from overexposure to water. Symptoms range from mild to severe and include dryness, irritation, itching, and in severe cases, cracking and bleeding.
Certain environments can exacerbate skin sensitivity. During the winter, the heated air inside your house can wreak havoc on your skin. Overexposure to wind, cold air, sunlight and pollution can also harm the skin’s natural protective barrier.
Ethnicity is also related to skin sensitivity, with Asians demonstrating heightened reactions to certain chemicals.
Other people are predisposed to sensitive skin if they are born with an overactive immune system. This system functions to protect the body from a variety of illnesses or injuries and can react aggressively in order to kill off harmful pathogens. However, when the immune system overreacts in response to harmless pathogens and minor injuries, skin becomes itchy or inflamed.
Additionally some diseases can cause the immune system to respond as a protective response, resulting in sensitivity and inflammation.
Overuse of skin care products
If you use ingredients such as salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide or exfoliating scrubs too often, your skin barrier can weaken, causing dryness and irritation.
Sensitive skin can also be a result of several skin disorders.
Rosacea is a chronic skin disorder characterized by facial redness, stinging and visible blood vessels. While the causes of rosacea are not well understood, it is thought to be triggered by genetic and environmental factors.
There are many causes for dry skin. It can be due to inadequate hydration, a result of hot or dry weather, or a poor skin care regimen.
Skin also dries out if it is not producing or maintaining enough of the natural oils that are responsible for keeping the skin smooth and soft. You can strip your skin of its natural oils by washing too often or using hot water or harsh soaps.
When skin lacks hydration and natural oils, it compromises the skin barrier: skin becomes more sensitive to outside irritants and is unable to prevent moisture from evaporating from the skin. The result is skin that appears dry and irritated.
6 Signs You Have Sensitive Skin
Sensitive skin can be identified by several key characteristics that occur as the result of an impared skin barrier. These six symptoms may be intermittent and vary in severity.
Those with sensitive skin are more likely to suffer from allergic reactions and have particularly damaging symptoms when they do. Blisters (red, inflamed and painful lesions containing a clear liquid) resulting from friction, irritants or allergic contact dermatitis, are one example.
Bumpy or scaly skin
At more advanced stages of irritation, sensitive skin can develop small bumps that leak fluid. Conditions such as eczema and contact dermatitis can also cause dry, flaky and scaly skin.
Sensitive skin that tends to be dry can deteriorate and result in skin cracking. This is especially true if dry skin is not addressed, or if there is irritation and itching present. In severe cases you may experience bleeding, rawness and swelling as well.
Red patches can develop on the skin, but can also appear as brown or gray in color. Significant changes in skin tone are rare, but for those with very sensitive skin—including those with eczema—they can occur as a result of chronic sensitivity and irritation.
Dry or itchy skin
Dry and itchy skin is a strong indication of a compromised barrier. These symptoms are usually present alongside inflammation.
Redness can occur for many reasons, but if you find that your skin easily breaks out into red patches, it may be due to a physical response to triggers or irritants. This type of flushing can also be a symptom of rosacea, a chronic skin condition that causes skin sensitivity.
How to Treat Sensitive Skin
Skin sensitivity varies in degree. For some it is a chronic condition; for others it depends on specific triggers.
For chronic conditions, it is important to choose treatments that can be used over a long period of time to inhibit or ease symptoms. Products should be used consistently for up to eight weeks in order to see significant results.
For others, identifying specific triggers and reducing exposure is a key preventative measure. While this kind of sensitivity typically goes away after prolonged separation from the trigger, spot treatments and creams formulated to treat acute sensitivity can be effective.
Many cleansers are formulated with anti-aging ingredients that are too harsh for sensitive skin. With this in mind, avoid cleansers containing:
- Alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs)
- Beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs)
- Sodium lauryl sulfate
Instead, choose a cleanser with a balanced pH (between 5 and 5.5) containing ingredients such as hyaluronic acid which has been proven to help skin retain moisture. Cleansing lotions can be more hydrating than gels or regular water-based face washes.
Some ingredients in moisturizers are potential triggers for sensitive skin. When choosing a moisturizer, avoid irritating ingredients such as
- Glycolic acid
- Lactic acid
- Salicylic acid
Look for products containing some of the following soothing, hydrating ingredients:
Ceramides can repair the skin’s barrier function, while colloidal oatmeal helps maintain skin surface pH. Hyaluronic acid, sodium hyaluronate and aloe vera work to improve the skin’s ability to retain moisture.
Sensitive acne-prone skin
Sensitive skin that’s prone to breakouts can be challenging to treat, as many products designed to treat acne include ingredients that are too harsh for sensitive skin.
Instead of drying anti-acne soaps and face washes, choose a gentle fragrance-free cleanser followed by a soothing alcohol-free toner to balance your skin’s pH. When choosing a moisturizer, avoid thick creams and oils in favor of light gels.
Typical acne treatments—such as benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid—break down the debris that clogs pores and exfoliates dead skin cells. These can be beneficial but only if they are within gentle, fragrance-free formulas. Use localized spot treatments to deliver active ingredients to the areas that most need them.
How to Choose Products for Sensitive Skin
When choosing skin care products, formulas containing fewer ingredients have a lower risk of irritating your skin. A shorter ingredient list also makes it easier to determine potential triggers.
Opt for fragrance-free, hypoallergenic deodorants to prevent red and itchy underarms. As aluminum in most deodorant brands is a trigger for some people with sensitive skin, consider an aluminum-free product as well.
When you have sensitive skin, the fragrance and dye in regular laundry detergents can cause adverse reactions such as itchiness, redness and dryness over the entire body. Choose a fragrance- and dye-free, hypoallergenic product to avoid any potential irritants.
Face and body washes
Opt for face and body washes specifically formulated for sensitive skin. These products should be labeled as fragrance-free, hypoallergenic and noncomedogenic, meaning they won’t clog pores.
Look for hypoallergenic, fragrance-free makeup products. Mineral-based foundations are considered the safest for sensitive skin as they are formulated without parabens, fillers and binders that commonly cause skin reactions.
Many people with sensitive skin sunburn easily because dry, damaged skin is more susceptible to the damaging effects of ultraviolet (UV) radiation.
Choose a broad-spectrum sunblock containing an SPF 30 or higher for daily use and reapply frequently to ensure your skin is protected.
Some people are sensitive to zinc oxide, a common ingredient in physical sunscreen, so be sure to test new products on a small area of skin first.
How to test for a sensitive skin reaction
Before using any new skin care product, perform a patch test to determine a reaction.
Apply the product as directed to a small area of skin on your forearm and wait 24 hours. For a more thorough test, repeat the application every 24 hours over the course of three days. If you do not experience a reaction, consider the product safe for use.
Sensitive Skin Do’s and Don’ts
Incorporate some good habits to your routine to help manage your skin’s sensitivity.
Do use a shaving cream or gel when shaving to prevent razor burn
Do use a moisturizer designed for sensitive skin; apply frequently to compensate for dryness
Don’t take long, hot showers; overexposure to hot water can exacerbate skin dryness
Don’t rub your skin with a towel after showering; the friction can cause irritation
When to See a Doctor
Most people can manage their sensitive skin at home with nonprescription skin care products and some trial and error to determine what causes a reaction.
However, if your sensitive skin becomes unmanageable or has a sudden onset, consider seeking the advice of a dermatologist to determine a treatment plan. If you suspect you’re having an allergic reaction, you can also consult an allergist.
In rare cases, allergic reactions can be life-threatening. If you experience difficulty breathing or swallowing and/or swelling in the face, mouth or throat, seek immediate medical attention.
Sensitive skin can fluctuate depending on the health of your skin barrier. Sometimes sensitivity is due to genetic causes; other times it is linked to external influences that negatively affect the barrier and leave skin vulnerable.
When the barrier is weakened, skin is easily irritated by a number of factors including skin care products and the environment – factors that don’t normally cause skin reactions. The symptoms of sensitive skin include redness, itchiness and burning. In severe cases, often due to contact dermatitis, it can result in cracked skin, blisters, pain and discolored patches of skin.
Sensitive skin can be alleviated by choosing fragrance-free, hypoallergenic products. These include cleansers, body washes, moisturizers, makeup and laundry detergent. By identifying and eliminating known irritants, you can reduce the severity and frequency of flare-ups.
If you’re struggling to care for your sensitive skin or if you have a sudden onset of skin sensitivity, consult a doctor or dermatologist. They will work with you to determine a treatment plan to improve the symptoms of your sensitive skin.
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