- Sensitive skin is easily irritated by skin care products and harsh environments
- It is caused by dryness, skin disorders, allergic reactions and environmental exposure
- Symptoms include skin reactiveness, redness, itching and dry or scaly patches of skin
- Sensitive skin can be cared for with fragrance-free, hypoallergenic products
- Consult a dermatologist if your skin sensitivity doesn’t improve or gets suddenly worse
The signs of sensitive skin often flare up and disappear according to various triggers. While you may not be able to fully restore your skin to normal sensitivity, using the correct skin care products and learning your skin’s triggers can help manage this condition.
What Exactly Is Sensitive Skin?
Skin sensitivity occurs when the skin barrier, the protective outermost epidermal layer, is weakened, thus allowing outside elements to more easily penetrate the skin and cause irritation.
Many people believe they have sensitive skin—one study from 2014 found that more than 50% of subjects surveyed avoided certain skin care products because of perceived sensitivity.
However, actual sensitive skin is less common and can be diagnosed by a dermatologist.
Is sensitive skin a cause for concern?
Having sensitive skin is rarely a cause for concern. Usually, sensitive skin can be cared for with a simple skin care routine using gentle products.
What Causes Skin Sensitivity?
Your skin may become sensitive for several reasons. These include dryness, skin disorders, allergic reactions and environmental exposure.
Skin becomes dehydrated when it does not contain enough water and sebum, the oil naturally produced by the skin. The areas of the body most prone to dryness are the hands, feet, arms and lower legs, but you can experience it on the face as well.
Rosacea is a chronic skin disease characterized by facial redness, flushing easily and visible blood vessels on the face. It can cause increased skin sensitivity.
While the causes of rosacea are not well understood, it is likely triggered by genetic and environmental components. It is often cyclical, meaning it will flare up for weeks or months at a time and then disappear.
Skin disorders or allergic skin reactions
Sensitive skin can also be caused by several skin disorders. These types of dermatitis all have roughly similar symptoms, but different causes.
Eczema or atopic dermatitis is a chronic skin disease. It makes your skin easily irritated by anything in the environment, from skin care products to perfumes to laundry detergent.
Eczema usually affects the face, arms and legs.
Irritant contact dermatitis is a rash that develops when the skin is injured by something toxic that it touches. Usually, symptoms will remain confined to the area that was in direct contact with the irritant.
Common irritants include bleach, battery acid, detergents, drain cleaners and kerosene. People who frequently wash their hands, such as healthcare or kitchen workers, can experience irritant contact dermatitis from overexposure to water.
Allergic contact dermatitis is a form of contact dermatitis in which your skin has an allergic reaction to a substance. A few common allergens are nickel-plated jewelry, latex, perfumes or added fragrance in skin care products, poison oak and poison ivy.
Certain environments can exacerbate skin sensitivity. For instance, during the winter, the heated air inside your house can dry out your skin. Overexposure to wind and cold air can also harm the skin’s natural protective barriers.
Overuse of skin care products
How Can You Tell You Have Sensitive Skin?
Sensitive skin can be identified by a few key characteristics, including skin reactiveness and several physical symptoms.
If you frequently have adverse reactions to new skin care products, you most likely have skin sensitivity. The reaction may involve redness, itchiness and a stinging or burning sensation.
Dryness and itchiness
The first signs of sensitive skin are often dryness and itchiness. This can affect any part of the body but is most common on the arms, legs, torso and face.
Bumps and patches
At more advanced stages of irritation, sensitive skin may develop small bumps that leak fluid. Red, brown or gray patches may appear on the skin. These symptoms are common to eczema.
Cracked or scaly skin
When sensitive skin is very dry and irritated, it may take on a scaly appearance and crack and bleed. You may experience rawness and swelling as well.
Blisters are usually caused by irritant or allergic contact dermatitis, like that caused by poison ivy.
How to Treat Sensitive Skin
Sensitive skin can often be improved by switching to gentler products and using a little trial-and-error to identify specific triggering ingredients.
When trying new products, keep in mind that it can take six to eight weeks for previous symptoms to clear up or new symptoms to occur.
Many cleansers are formulated with anti-aging and anti-acne ingredients that are too harsh for sensitive skin. Avoid cleansers containing:
- Alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs)
- Beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs)
- Salicylic acid (unless you have acne-prone skin)
- Sodium lauryl sulfate
Instead, find 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.
Though designed to hydrate and smooth, even moisturizers can pose problems for sensitive skin.
When choosing a moisturizer for sensitive skin, avoid irritating ingredients such as
- Glycolic acid
- Salicylic acid
- Lactic acid
Instead, look for products containing some of the following soothing, hydrating ingredients:
Ceramides in particular help restore the skin’s natural barrier by mimicking the skin’s own moisturizing systems.
Sensitive acne-prone skin
Sensitive skin that’s also prone to breakouts can be difficult to care for, as many products designed to treat acne include ingredients that are harsh on sensitive skin.
Instead of leave-on products that can dry out and irritate your skin, try a face wash containing salicylic acid. The salicylic acid breaks down the debris that clogs pores, then is washed away rather than sitting on your skin and causing irritation.
To deal with individual blemishes, use localized spot treatments to expose as little of your skin as possible to the product.
Sensitive Skin Do’s and Don’ts
A few other good habits can help manage the sensitivity of your skin.
Do use a shaving cream or gel to prevent razor burn
Do “patch test” new skin care products on a small area of skin first
Don’t take long, hot showers
Don’t rub your skin with a towel after showering
How to Pick Sensitive Skin Care Products
When choosing skin care products, firstly keep in mind that products with fewer ingredients have a lower chance of irritating your skin and make it easier to determine your skin’s specific triggers. Products designed for infants may be good options to consider.
There are some ingredients to avoid and some to specifically look for when choosing products with sensitive skin.
Face and body washes
Look for face washes, body washes and cleansers specifically formulated for sensitive skin. These products should be hypoallergenic and noncomedogenic, meaning they won’t clog pores.
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.
Opt for fragrance-free, hypoallergenic deodorants to prevent red and itchy underarms. The aluminum in most deodorant brands is a trigger for some people with sensitive skin, so consider trying an aluminum-free product as well.
When you have sensitive skin, the fragrance and dye in regular laundry detergents can cause adverse reactions over the whole body. Choose a fragrance-free, dye-free, hypoallergenic product for best results.
Always use hypoallergenic, fragrance-free makeup products. Mineral-based foundations are considered the safest for sensitive skin as they are formulated without the parabens, fillers and binders that can cause skin reactions.
How to Test for Sensitive Skin Reaction
If you have lighter skin, you can test for skin sensitivity by brushing your fingers across your face with medium pressure. If your skin turns red where it was touched, you have sensitive skin.
If it is difficult to see redness in your skin tone, you will know you have sensitive skin if your skin feels itchy and tight after using most skin care products.
When to See a Doctor
Most people can manage their sensitive skin at home with non-prescription skin care products and a little trial and error to figure out what ingredient(s) cause 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 refers to skin that’s easily irritated by products or the environment. It can be caused by another skin condition such as eczema, rosacea or contact dermatitis. It can also be worsened by external factors such as harsh weather or too many harsh skin care products.
The symptoms of sensitive skin include skin reactiveness to products, redness, itchiness and small bumps. In more severe cases, often due to contact dermatitis, it can result in cracked skin, blisters and discolored patches of skin.
Sensitive skin can often be improved by switching to fragrance-free, hypoallergenic versions of any products that touch your skin. This includes cleansers, body washes, moisturizers and makeup along with laundry detergent.
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. He or she will be able to determine what course of action will keep your sensitive skin as healthy and comfortable as possible.
- Arif T. (2015). Salicylic acid as a peeling agent: a comprehensive review. Clinical, cosmetic and investigational dermatology, 8, 455–461. doi:10.2147/CCID.S84765
- Berardesca, E., Farage, M., & Maibach, H. (2012). Sensitive skin: an overview. International Journal of Cosmetic Science, 35(1), 2–8. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22928591
- Buddenkotte, J., & Steinhoff, M. (2018). Recent advances in understanding and managing rosacea. F1000Research, 7, 1885. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30631431
- Kuritzky, L. A., & Beecker, J. (2015). Sunscreens. CMAJ : Canadian Medical Association journal = journal de l’Association medicale canadienne, 187(13), E419. doi:10.1503/cmaj.150258
- Naldi L, Cazzaniga S, Gonçalo M, et al. Prevalence of Self-reported Skin Complaints and Avoidance of Common Daily Life Consumer Products in Selected European Regions. JAMA Dermatol. 2014;150(2):154–163. doi:10.1001/jamadermatol.2013.7932
- Pavicic T, Gauglitz GG, Lersch P, Schwach-Abdellaoui K, Malle B, Korting HC, Farwick M. Efficacy of cream-based novel formulations of hyaluronic acid of different molecular weights in anti-wrinkle treatment. J Drugs Dermatol. 2011 Sep;10(9):990-1000. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22052267
- Sohn, A., Frankel, A., Patel, R. V., & Goldenberg, G. (2011). Eczema. Mount Sinai Journal of Medicine: A Journal of Translational and Personalized Medicine, 78(5), 730–739. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21913202
- Spada, F., Barnes, T. M., & Greive, K. A. (2018). Skin hydration is significantly increased by a cream formulated to mimic the skin’s own natural moisturizing systems. Clinical, cosmetic and investigational dermatology, 11, 491–497. doi:10.2147/CCID.S177697