6 Signs You Might Have Sensitive Skin + SHOP | Products for Sensitive Skin!
I just finished writing a post, How to Layer Your Skincare Products. As I was adding product category after product category, it occured to me - there are a LOT of categories! And then I started thinking about the times I use all those products that need to be so carefully layered. My skin reacts badly. It's like the times I use my Clarisonic too frequently. My skin starts to act out, just like my bad dog. (Really, he's pretty good. But he had a bad day today. Not listening. Talking to you, Finley!)
We're all more aware of beauty brands and treatments now. And maybe that's the problem. Seems like there's a product for every skin condition under the sun. And unless you know what you're doing, it's easy - very easy - to use too many together and get a bad reaction. Or use the wrong 2 products together and get a bad reaction. Or use that one product that your skin really doesn't like and get a bad reaction.
This happens all too often to people fighting oily skin and breakouts. Frequently, retinoids and acids are recommended for them. But when used at the same time, these 2 ingredients make your skin feel horribly dry and painful. In an effort to stamp out the dryness, many people apply a thick moisturizer - which only results in clogged pores. It's a vicious cycle. One that can only be avoided with really good application instructions.
And therein lies the problem. When the wrong products are applied together, many people believe they have sensitive skin. And at that moment they do - but not in the way they think. Anyone using acids and retinoids together can get red, painful skin. And anyone using the wrong products can get stinging, burning, flaking, excessively oily, or inflamed skin. Their skin is reacting normally to using too many of the wrong products.
And it's happening more and more frequently.
The number of people who say they have sensitive skin just keeps going up:
- In a U.K. study in 2001, 51.4% of women and 38.2% of men said they had sensitive skin.
- A phone survey was conducted in the U.S. in 2007. Of 994 subjects who answered, 44.6% declared having "sensitive" or "very sensitive" skin.
- In a study in 2009, 68.4% of participants claimed their skin was sensitive to some degree.
It might not just be skincare products causing all these problems. Skincare treatments are mainstream now. When used too agressively, they can create red, inflamed skin that definitely feels sensitive.
If you cut back or eliminate aggressive products (like retinoids, AHAs, and peels) and your skin gets better, you'll know your sensitive skin was self-induced.
[Sensitive skin] "It's an overused phrase. People may be overusing their products, leading to irritation." - Dr. Elizabeth Tanzi, Dermatologist in Washington, D.C.
So How Do You Know if You Have Sensitive Skin? What's the Definition?
Well, here's the kicker. There isn't one standard definition for sensitive skin. Instead, it's used to describe a skin reaction. Here's how DermNet NZ defines sensitive skin:
"Sensitive skin is a lay term (non-technical term) rather than a medical diagnosis. It is generally used to describe skin with reduced tolerance to the application of cosmetics and personal care products. In surveys, approximately 50% of women and 40% of men may report having sensitive skin."
So everything from face wash to your toner, moisturizer, blush, sunscreen, etc., can cause irritation.
One reason sensitive skin has been so hard to define is that it is often "felt," not "seen." About 50% of people with sensitive skin don't get any redness or swelling. And tests for skin sensitivity have shown inconsistent results.
In order to better understand this skin condition, I turned to Dr. Leslie Baumann's book, "Cosmetic Dermatology, Principles and Practice." Dr. Baumann is a dermatologist who created a skincare product recommendation protocol called Skin Type Solutions. Her method categorizes skin into 16 distinct Baumann Skin Types then matches each type to a skincare regimen prescribed by a doctor.
6 Signs of Sensitive Skin:
1. Your skin is hyperreactive (it overreacts) to many of the things it's exposed to. You may get skin flushing, redness, inflammation, itching, burning, stinging, or flaking from contact with things like makeup, chemicals, sweat, sun, tight clothing, heat, cold, low humidity, friction, pressure, vibration, etc. People with acne may develop more acne.
2. There may or may not be visible signs of inflammation. (As mentioned above, about 50% of people with sensitive skin don't get any redness or swelling.)
3. People with sensitive skin often travel with their own skincare products. This is because other products cause too much irritation.
4. People with acne, psoriasis, contact dermatitis, rosacea, or eczema, often have sensitive skin.
5. Frustration is a common complaint.
6. Skin becomes more sensitive as you age. Products that used to work really well for you, now give you problem skin.
“As we age, that lipid barrier replaces itself less frequently, so people can become more irritated more easily.” - Dr. Melissa Piliang, Dermatologist for the Department of Anatomic Pathology at the Cleveland Clinic
What's Wrong With My Skin? Why Is It So Sensitive?
The outer layer of skin, the stratum corneum, is like a brick wall. The bricks are your skin cells and the mortar - called the lipid barrier - is sebum (from the sebaceous glands) and free fatty acids, cholesterol and ceramides (from the keratinocytes). The stratum corneum (brick wall) forms a protective barrier over the living cells below. But when the protective barrier is weak, it doesn't work well. (Some of the mortar might be missing.) When this happens, your skin's protective barrier is more permeable. Things can get through. Your skin loses moisture easily; it's why sensitive skin often feels dry. And that permeability works in both directions:
“People who have a thin lipid barrier absorb products more deeply.” - Dr. Marlys Fassett, Dermatologist for the University of California, San Francisco
The sensitive nerve endings just underneath the skin become irritated and reactive.
So we think that sensitive skin is caused by irritated nerve endings OR a breakdown in skin's barrier function OR both.
- “People with sensitive skin typically have slightly compromised skin barriers either due to genetics, dryness, or baseline inflammation from conditions like eczema.” - Dr. Annie Chiu, a Dermatologist in Redondo Beach, CA
- A 2003 study by Yokota et al. published in IFSCC Magazine (International Federation of Societies of Cosmetic Chemists) found that in all sensitive skin types there was a higher content of nerve growth factor in the stratum corneum (outermost layer of the top layer of skin). The group of people with inflammation and the group with no inflammation both had a high sensitivity to electrical stimuli - leading the researchers to believe that the hypersensitivity reaction was related to nerve fibers in the epidermis (top layer of skin).
- Women seem to be more likely to have sensitive skin than men, but we're not sure why. It could be that women use more skincare products and cosmetics than most men. It could also be that men have a thicker epidermis than women - so men have a thicker protective layer of skin than women do. And women's hormones may create an increased sensitivity to inflammation.
Dr. Baumann Divides Sensitive Skin Into 4 Different Types:
TYPE 1. Baumann S1 Sensitive Skin | Acne Breakouts
- Skin & hair care products like coconut oil, isopropyl myristate; blushes, lipstick, and color cosmetics with D & C red dyes; and even sunscreen ingredients create new acne.
TYPE 2. Baumann S2 Sensitive Skin | Flushing & Facial Redness
- People with rosacea and people with facial flushing that may be a predictor of future rosacea
TYPE 3. Baumann S3 Sensitive Skin | Burning & Stinging from Skincare Products or Exposure to Wind, Cold, or Heat
- Usually no facial flushing
TYPE 4. Baumann S4 Sensitive Skin | Frequent Flaking, Redness, or Irritation to Allergens & Irritants
- People with atopic dermatitis
- People whose skin reacts to substances that most people don't find irritating
14 Ways to Care for Your Sensitive Skin
The following is general advice. Your dermatologist can give you more specifics for each of the different types (like those listed above) of sensitive skin.
1. Simplify your skincare routine.
“I always suggest patients with sensitive skin to simplify their skin care routine. Strip it down to the basics by using gentle cleansers and moisturizers without lots of detergents and fragrances. Then, slowly introduce other agents one at a time.”
- Dr. Ilyse Lefkowicz, Dermatologist, New York City
2. Read skincare labels. Avoid irritating ingredients. Fragrances are well known for causing problems.
Even products labelled as “unscented” or “fragrance free” can contain fragrance. How is that possible? Sometimes manufacturers use fragrant ingredients as preservatives. In many cases they're used to mask unpleasant chemical smells or to add flavoring. Because there's no legal definition or FDA regulation for these terms, it’s up to the manufacturer to decide what they mean. Very often, you'll find your definition of “unscented” or “fragrance free” is very different from theirs.
Try to avoid these flavoring & fragrance ingredients: Menthol, Camphor, Eucalyptus, Limonene, Linalool, Myroxylon pereirae (Balsam of Peru), Citral, Cinnamaldehyde, Peppermint oil, Geraniol, and Citronellol.
Learn more about irritating skincare ingredients in our post, 8 Ingredients in Lip Balm & Cosmetics That Cause Allergies.
“There are a lot of inexpensive, over-the-counter options available at every single pharmacy that lack common irritants and fragrances [and] are really good.” - Dr. Arielle Nagler, Dermatologist at NYU Langone Health
Dr. Fassett recommends drugstore brands like Eucerin, Aveeno, Cerave, Cetaphil, and Vanicream. “Those are all excellent for people that have eczema and sensitive skin in general.”
3. Avoid abrasive scrubs and mechanical exfoliants, like microbeads and walnut shell powder. They can cause tiny tears in your skin’s barrier. Use brushes like the Clarisonic carefully. Stick with the brush heads made for sensitive skin.
4. Wash your face once a day with lukewarm water. Too much soap & hot water can reduce your lipid barrier.
“Think about it like butter on a knife. If you put it under cold water, that fat on the knife doesn’t go anywhere. But if you put it under warm water, those lipids will melt away. It’s the same kind of issue with the lipid layer in our skin. If you put your skin in hot water or you use harsh soaps, then it tends to wash that outer protective fatty layer away.” - Dr. Melissa Piliang
5. Try using moisturizers that contain ceramides, fatty acids, emollients, & humectants (like glycerin, hyaluronic acid, linoleic acid, & alpha-linolenic acid) to strengthen your skin's barrier function.
“It’s about trapping water and creating a protective layer." - Dr. Arielle Nagler
6. Dry, dehydrated skin is often sensitive. Drink more water and use a humidifier when the air is dry.
7. Limit stress.
“The stress response—whether we’re being chased by a saber-toothed tiger, whether we have a deadline, whether we’re having trouble with family or love—is all the same. Your immune system gets ready to do battle. Stress is a general trigger that can make the skin misbehave in whatever way it’s prone to misbehaving.” - Dr. Richard Fried, Dermatologist, Clinical Psychologist & Clinical Director of Yardley Dermatology
“Usually, when we’re experiencing a great deal of stress, we spend less time taking care of ourselves. If you’re not sleeping well, if you’re not taking the time to wash your face, if you’re not eating well or drinking enough water, that can impact your skin negatively.” - Shannon Bennett, Ph.D., Psychologist for Weill Cornell Medicine & New York Presbyterian Hospital
9. Use a physical sunscreen, SPF 30 or more. Physical sunscreens work by reflecting the sun's rays. Learn more in our post, Physical Sunscreen vs. Chemical | Which Is Better?
10. Introduce new skincare products gradually.
- Try a lower concentration (like a retinol instead of a retinoid), use a smaller amount, and only use the new product every 2 or 3 days.
- Applying a gentle moisturizer first (underneath the new product) will create a buffer that can minimize the irritation of strong ingredients.
- As your skin tolerates it, gradually increase the application frequency. Finally, start to apply the product directly to your skin, before your moisturizer.
11. Test new products in an inconspicuous area before using them on your face. (Do a home patch test.)
If your skin does react, stop using the product. Wait for the reaction to calm, then try a new product.
12. Introduce new skincare products gradually.
- Try a lower concentration (like a retinol instead of a retinoid); use a smaller amount, and only use the new product every 2 or 3 days.
- Applying a gentle moisturizer first (underneath the new product) creates a buffer to minimize the irritation of strong ingredients.
- As your skin tolerates - gradually increase the application frequency (for example, go from applying the product every 3rd day to applying the product every other day).
- As your skin tolerates - start applying the product directly to your skin, before your moisturizer.
13. Take note of the things that trigger irritation. For some people, alcohol, spices and coffee cause problems.
14. See a dermatologist if you need to!
Feel like nothing is helping your sensitive skin? Skip the creams and head to a dermatologist. A doctor will be able to diagnose skin diseases like rosacea or eczema - and rule out skin allergies.
If nothing else, he or she will help you find a skincare regimen to strengthen your skin's barrier. Your skin will be more healthy and beautiful!
Luckily, more and more skincare products are formulated specifically for sensitive skin and all it's ugly signs. There are serums for redness - and creams full of ceramides to strengthen your skin's barrier - and even mild retinoids for people whose skin freaks at the first sign of a wrinkle cream. Below are some of the best.
I wish you BEAUTIFUL SKIN! Thanks for reading!
SHOP | Below you'll find some skincare products that are great for sensitive skin!
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Amy Takken is a registered nurse with 20+ years of experience helping people improve their health. Her in-depth skincare articles have been featured on Nazarian Plastic Surgery and The Palm Beach Center for Facial Plastic & Laser Surgery. Amy loves research and constantly watches for new products and treatments to help you improve your skin’s health – because healthy skin is beautiful! To reach Amy, visit our contact page.
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Baumann, L., Saghari, S., Weisberg, E., & Allemann, I. B. (2009). Cosmetic Dermatology: Principles and Practice (2nd ed.). New York: McGraw Hill Medical.
The Information provided on our website is not medical advice and should not be viewed as such. By law, only a medical doctor can diagnose or give medical advice. As a registered nurse, my goal is to educate, so I provide information on skin care, skin care products, and skin care treatments. If you have any condition that concerns you, please see a medical doctor. While most skin conditions are benign, some - like melanoma - can be deadly. If there is any doubt, please, please consult your physician. Thank you!