In the world of skincare, there are a few core skin-type terms that get thrown around pretty frequently — oily, dry, acne-prone, and sensitive skin. That last one, sensitive skin, is one of those phrases that you hear about all the time, and you might even think you have it, but you’re probably not sure what causes it in the first place or how to properly care for it.
Is sensitive skin something you’re born with, or can it happen to anyone? Are there different types, or degrees, of sensitive skin? What common skin-care ingredients should someone with sensitive skin try to avoid?
To find out the answers to all of these questions, we asked board-certified dermatologists Jessie Cheung, Morgan Rabach and Amy B. Lewis to help set the record straight on sensitive skin.
“Sensitive skin is skin that is more reactive than usual,” Cheung says. “It is easily irritated by the elements — wind, sun, heat, or cold — or by topical products.” Other potential triggers can include hormones, lack of sleep, and even air pollution. When exposed to one of these triggering elements, sensitive skin may burn or sting, turn red, or otherwise feel very uncomfortable.
“Sensitive skin is caused by nerve endings in the top layer of skin becoming irritated,” Lewis elaborates. “The irritation of nerve endings occurs when the skin’s natural barrier is weakened or broken down by triggers.”
Another potential trigger: skin-care products. Those with sensitive skin are generally more reactive to soaps, detergents, dyes, and fragrances in topical products, and using the wrong ones can result in itchiness, dryness, and reddening. This is why your skin-care routine is probably the most telling factor in whether or not you truly have sensitive skin.
“If you’re cautious with trying new skin products or find that you’re frequently battling red, flaky, itchy, or bumpy skin, then you probably have sensitive skin,” Cheung says.
Heightened skin sensitivity isn’t just annoying and uncomfortable, it could also signal an underlying skin condition, such as eczema or rosacea, or an allergy, all three experts say. For this reason alone, if you suspect that you have sensitive skin of any degree, you should book an appointment with a board-certified dermatologist who can help rule out any larger underlying conditions.
Just like there are varying degrees of severity for oiliness, dryness, and acne, there are also different levels of sensitive skin. “For example, there are some people where we can isolate one ingredient or environmental factor — like sweat or hot water — that bothers them,” Rabach explains. “Then there are some people where most skin-care products and environmental factors bother their skin.”
According to Lewis, sensitive skin can generally be divided up into four main types: naturally sensitive, environmentally sensitive, reactive, and thin.
- Naturally sensitive skin: This one is genetic, according to Lewis, and it can be linked to inflammatory skin conditions like eczema, rosacea, and psoriasis.
- Environmentally sensitive skin: As its name implies, this type of sensitivity is triggered by your environment. Sun exposure, cigarette smoke, air pollution — anything your skin comes into contact with might send it into a stinging, irritating frenzy.
- Reactive skin: “This type of skin becomes red and inflamed by skin-care products, resulting in very red, warm and irritated skin,” Lewis says. “Often patients will notice papules or pustules forming where the irritant was placed.”
- Thin skin: As we age, our skin naturally becomes thinner, and thinner skin is easier to irritate.
Since there are varying degrees and causes of sensitive skin, everyone is different. A dermatologist is your best bet for figuring out your own individual trigger. However, generally speaking, those with sensitive skin would be wise to avoid using personal care products that contain fragrances and dyes. The same rules apply for the skin on your body — even using a laundry detergent that is heavily scented or contains dye can cause a reaction, so Rabach recommends choosing detergents that are formulated specifically for sensitive skin.
Regarding skin-care specifically, Lewis advises her sensitive-skinned patients to steer clear of sulfates, exfoliants like glycolic, salicylic acid, and retinoids, and creams with multiple ingredients. Isopropyl alcohol and chemical sunscreens are also common irritants.
Another potential trigger is the way you go about your skin-care routine — specifically, the cleansing step. “Do not rub or scrub,” Lewis says. “Washing too often will irritate sensitive skin and cause excessive dryness.” Instead, stick with mild, gentle cleansers, not soaps or scrubs.
“Look for products that maintain and nourish your skin barrier,” Cheung says. “Glycerin, hyaluronic acid, and shea butter are humectants and emollients that draw and seal in moisture, and ceramides and fatty acids will replenish your lipid bilayer.”
Wearing makeup isn’t necessarily a total no-go, as long as you choose cosmetics that won’t provoke irritation. Lewis recommends seeking out mineral makeup and silicone-based foundation and generally choosing cosmetics with fewer preservatives and shorter ingredient lists. “Do not use waterproof cosmetics,” Lewis says. “You need a special cleanser to remove them.” For the rest of your eye makeup, use pencils instead of liquid eyeliners; the latter can contain latex, which can cause allergic reactions.
One last cosmetics tip: Toss out any and all products that have been sitting around for too long. The longer they sit in your medicine cabinet, the more likely they can become spoiled or contaminated.
Remember, if your skin becomes red, uncomfortable, dry, tight, or generally uncomfortable when exposed to any of the aforementioned triggers, don’t just brush it off — go see a board-certified dermatologist. They will most likely give you a patch test, which can help determine the exact ingredients that exacerbate your symptoms, and they’ll be the best equipped to advise you on how to take care of your sensitive skin.