‘Sensitive skin’ is a term we see and hear everywhere, from skincare product packaging to Instagram influencers and conversations with friends. Around 50% of people claim to have sensitive skin, but what does it actually mean, and if you have it, how do you treat it?
What Is Sensitive Skin?
Sensitive skin is caused by nerve endings in the top layer of the skin becoming irritated. It can’t be pinned down to one type of reaction, instead it refers to a variety of skin conditions. There are varying degrees of sensitivity which can generally be split into four main types, dermatologist Amy B. Lewis told Allure.
Naturally sensitive skin: This is genetic, and can be linked to inflammatory skin conditions such as rosacea, eczema, and psoriasis.
Environmentally sensitive skin: Anything your skin comes into contact with might cause irritation. Sun exposure, cigarette smoke, air pollution, wind, extreme temperatures... anything in your surrounding environment could cause your skin to burn, sting, turn red or simply feel uncomfortable.
Reactive skin: This type of sensitivity is triggered by skincare products. The skin becomes red and inflamed, resulting in very red, warm and irritated skin. "Often patients will notice papules or pustules forming where the irritant was placed." Lewis says.
- Thin skin: Our skin naturally becomes thinner as we get older, which makes it easier to irritate.
Your lifestyle also affects how sensitive your skin is, for example if you’re stressed or don’t sleep well, your skin’s natural barrier will be weakened, allowing elements to attack your skin more easily, aggravating it and causing irritation. Hormonal fluctuations, your diet and alcohol consumption also all affect your skin’s sensitivity levels.
How Do I Know If I Have Sensitive Skin?
If you haven’t been diagnosed with a skin condition such as eczema, you might not know what constitutes sensitive skin. Thankfully, Aveeno has a useful list of symptoms which might help you determine whether or not you have sensitive skin:
- Your skin flushes and turns red easily
- You’re prone to rashes and bumps
- Beauty products sting or burn
- You have dry patches
- Your skin feels itchy
- You’re sensitive to the sun’s UV rays
- You have broken capillaries on your nose and cheeks
- Fragrances irritate your sin
- Your skin reacts to weather changes
- You break out easily
If you’re still unsure whether you have sensitive skin, take a look at our useful article to help you discover your skin type!
How Do I Treat Sensitive Skin?
Just as there are many different varieties of sensitivity, there are many ways to treat your skin condition. Of course, it’s easier to eliminate sensitive skin if there is one single cause. Perhaps you’re allergic to a particular brand of laundry detergent, or an ingredient in a skincare product for example, and if so, stop using it!
Of course, it’s often more complicated than that, or it can take a while to narrow down the cause of your irritation. In these cases, a dermatologist can help.
‘You can undergo a skincare history analysis and possible patch test,’ dermatologist Ellen Marmur, M.D., founder of MMSkincare suggests to Good Housekeeping. Your dermatologist can help you eliminate likely triggers, prescribe medicines to calm skin and reduce inflammation, and suggest effective in-office and at-home treatments.
Depending on the cause of sensitive skin and the accompanying symptoms, doctors may prescribe a few different medications, such as steroid creams (not to be used on the face), analgesic creams, antihistamines or simply protective sunscreen. For professional treatments, Dr. Marmur recommends IPL (Intensed Pulse Light) treatments and BBL (Broadband Light) photofacials. IPL is similar to laser therapy, as it helps to target many skin conditions including sensitive skin, fine lines, dark patches, and improve the appearance of scars and veins. A BBL photofacial is a corrective phototherapy treatment that targets skin conditions to help make skin clearer, smoother, and more vibrant. She suggests completing three to five sessions over three to five months.
Generally speaking, people with sensitive skin would do well avoiding skincare products that contain fragrances and dyes. This goes for any products that come into contact with your skin too. Dermatologist Morgan Rabach recommends choosing detergents that are formulated specifically for sensitive skin to avoid any irritation through your clothes and bedding.
Lewis advises her sensitive-skinned patients to steer clear of products containing sulfates, exfoliants like glycolic, salicylic acid, and retinoids, and creams with multiple ingredients. Isopropyl alcohol and chemical sunscreens are also common irritants.
Even if you’ve chosen the perfect products and ingredients, you could still be aggravating your skin by scrubbing or rubbing it during your daily skincare routine. Washing too often can also cause excessive dryness, even if you feel the need to ‘scrub away’ any rashes or dry patches, fight the urge! Soap can strip skin of its natural oils, so opt for a mild, non-soap cleanser, like Dove Sensitive Skin Beauty Bar. Then, rather than rubbing yourself with a towel, gently pat your skin dry after you’ve cleansed. Follow by applying a moisturizer with ceramides to help strengthen the top layer of your skin.
Healthy skin is key to keeping out any irritants. "[Look for] products that maintain and nourish your skin barrier," dermatologist Jessie 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."
Simply cutting back on the number of products you use can also help keep symptoms under control. However, if you prefer to wear makeup, it is still possible, as long as you choose cosmetics that won't provoke irritation. Unfortunately there are no industry standards for products and cosmetics labeled "hypoallergenic" or "for sensitive skin," however this is a good place to start if your skin is very reactive. Mineral makeup, silicone-based foundation, and generally choosing cosmetics with fewer preservatives and shorter ingredient lists is also a good way to go. "Do not use waterproof cosmetics," Lewis says. "You need a special cleanser to remove them." For the rest of your eye makeup, pencils are a better choice than liquid eyeliners, as the latter can contain latex, which can cause allergic reactions.
And of course, we learnt in our last article that expired products can aggravate any type of skin, so make sure you get rid of any products that have been sitting around for too long!