Do you regularly experience redness, itching, and irritation, and your complexion constantly feels uncomfortable? Or perhaps your skin occasionally breaks out after exfoliation or prolonged sun exposure? All these could be a sign you have sensitive skin and must be addressed accordingly. From using targeted topical products that cater to your specific skin sensitivities to avoiding common allergens and irritants, every detail is important to care for your vulnerable skin without facing these types of bad reactions again. Although no treatment can ultimately make the skin unbreakable, you can do plenty of things to bring yours to its strongest and healthiest state.
Below I’ll break down all the facts about sensitive skin, share some dermatologist-recommended tips for caring for it, and help you curate a personalized skincare routine that’s just right for your sensitive skin.
What is sensitive skin?
Sensitive skin describes skin that is easily irritated by external factors and more prone to reactions such as redness and itching than usual. One study defines sensitive skin as an “unpleasant sensory response to stimuli that should not provoke such sensations.” These sensations are consistently present and include itching, burning, stinging, tightness, and dryness. And contrary to popular belief, sensitive skin is not a specific type of skin but rather a long-term condition that anyone can have at some point. People with oily, dry, or combination skin can still have sensitive skin.
Genetically inherited sensitive skin is considered more delicate because it has a lower amount of pigment, fewer skin lipids, a thin epidermis, and blood vessels close to the skin surface.
These are the signs you have sensitive skin:
- Persistent redness
- Itching and burning sensation
- Dry patches
- Low tolerance to skincare products
What causes sensitive skin?
While multiple factors can trigger sensitivities, a weak epidermal barrier is overall the root cause of sensitive skin. When the skin lacks the necessary lipids for protection, it becomes more prone to external damage such as UV, chemicals, bacteria, and pollution. Other underlying conditions, such as dermatitis, rosacea, and acne, can make your skin hypersensitive. Some people also have sessional sensitivities in winter due to unfavorable weather conditions, but this again has most to do with the epidermal barrier.
The common triggers of sensitive skin include:
- Environmental factors such as sun exposure, winds, low temperatures, pollution, heat, and bacteria.
- Topical products with compounds like alpha-hydroxy acids, propylene glycol, alcohol, and fragrances.
- Over-exfoliation and over-cleansing.
- Conditions such as dermatitis and acne.
Sensitive vs. sensitized skin
If your skin suddenly becomes sensitive, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have sensitive skin but rather sensitized skin. Although both have the same symptoms and react similarly to external factors, they’re different. Sensitive skin is caused by a weak function of the protective barrier that can be genetically predisposed, while sensitized skin is a temporary condition caused by a response to certain irritants. You can treat sensitized by eliminating the triggers that cause it. On the other hand, you can’t treat sensitive skin since it’s mostly genetically programmed, but you can manage and keep it under control.
What to avoid if you have sensitive skin:
The first step to managing your sensitive skin and restoring its health is to cut out every possible trigger from your lifestyle:
- Avoid topical products with fragrances or alcohol because both are skin irritants.
- Avoid cleansers with sulfates, detergents, and astringents since they can strip the skin’s essential moisture.
- Avoid products with high concentrations of retinoids and chemical exfoliants because they can impair the skin’s protective barrier.
- Avoid scrubbing.
- Avoid comedogenic ingredients if you have oily and acne-prone skin because they can clog the pores and inflame the skin.
- Avoid prolonged sun exposure and long hot baths.
- Avoid over-cleansing.
Also, it’s important to look out for the pH of the skin’s acid mantle and steer clear of anything that can disrupt it. The acid mantle keeps the whole lipid barrier in place and maintains adequate hydration of the skin.
When the acid mantle is depleted, it’s easier for external threats to enter the skin and cause inflammation and other sensitivities. Over-cleansing your face, consuming alcohol, excessive sweat, pollution, chemical acids, astringents, detergents, ascorbic acid (the pure form of vitamin C), and topical antibiotics can shift your skin’s pH and alternate the acid mantle.
Dermatologists-recommend routine for sensitive skin
Here’s a complete routine to care for sensitive skin. Basically, it’s all about using gentle products that aim to restore and strengthen the skin, avoiding harsh formulas, and using sun protection.
Step 1: Cleanse with a face wash for sensitive skin
If your complexion feels tight and uncomfortable after washing your face, you know you’re using the wrong cleanser. If you have sensitive skin, look out for cleaners that are gentle and non-stripping. Ideally, it should pack mild actives, such as glycerin, hyaluronic acid, and ceramides, and skips harsh compounds like sulfates, synthetic fragrances, and essential oils. Also, a good cleanser for sensitive skin should have a pH closer to the skin’s pH, aka around 5-6, to avoid disrupting your barrier. To stay on the safe side, use a hypoallergenic cleanser that is made for sensitive skin.
La Roche-Posay Toleriane Hydrating Gentle Face Cleanser, Aveeno Calm + Restore Nourishing Oat Cleanser, and Elemis Sensitive Cleansing Wash are some of our favorite cleansers for sensitive skin.
Step 2: Tone to soothe after cleansing
While you may be tempted to believe toner is unnecessary, it’s a great way to remove excess dirt and grime, balance your skin’s pH, and act as a “carrier” for the skincare products that come next. Essentially, sensitive skin needs a pH-balancing toner to soothe and nurture. Chamomile, aloe vera, and hyaluronic acid are great to have in your toner. Also, what’s not in your toner is just as important as what is. Thus, avoid formulas with synthetic dyes, mineral oils, parabens, and drying alcohol, like denatured alcohol, ethyl alcohol, methanol, benzyl alcohol, and isopropyl alcohol.
Step 3: Apply a serum for sensitive skin
Serums are designed to deliver a high concentration of actives, so they’re the perfect way to reinforce the epidermal barrier and make your skin less prone to sensitivities. Generally, you should use a serum loaded with mild ingredients that’s formulated to repair and strengthen the skin as well as soothe it and provide antioxidant defense. Some of the most effective skin-repairing ingredients include:
- Niacinamide and peptide (regenerating)
- Vitamin C, green tea, and Centella asiatica (soothing, and antioxidant)
- Panthenol and hyaluronic acid (hydrating)
- Ceramides (barrier-strengthening)
Step 4: Moisturize
A moisturizer that hydrates, seals moisture, and replenishes the barrier without irritation is ideal for sensitive skin. Consider formulas made with lipids essential for supporting the protective barrier, like ceramides, cholesterol, and fatty acids. Squalane and shea butter are also good for sensitive skin because they lock hydration and instantly soften. And don’t forget about humectants, aka hyaluronic acid, aloe vera, panthenol, and glycerin, which are needed to help skin retain moisture. To stay on the safe side, seek out simple formulas instead of a never-ending list of ingredients. Steer clear of moisturizers that contain unnecessary artificial fragrances, dyes, drying alcohol, and synthetic preservatives, like parabens, formaldehyde, BHA, and BHT.
Step 5: Sunscreen
Your first line of defense will always be sunscreen, so apply it every day, 365 days a year. Because your skin is sensitive, you should avoid chemical sunscreens—like the ones with octinoxate, oxybenzone, and avobenzone—because they may trigger reactions and allergies. Instead, use a chemical sunscreen that gives mineral photoprotection from zinc oxide and titanium dioxide because, unlike chemical filters, they stay on the skin’s surface without being absorbed into the body. Ensure your sunscreen provides broad-spectrum protection (meaning against UVA and UVB rays) and has at least 30 SPF.
Weekly step: Exfoliate
Despite the popular belief, sensitive skin should exfoliate too, just that it needs to do it less frequently and use gentle exfoliants. If you don’t know how to safely exfoliate your sensitive skin, here’s the gist: Stay away from harsh abrasive scrubs. Instead, use gentle exfoliators, like fruit enzymes or lactic acid, as they remove dead cell buildup from the skin surface instead of penetrating the skin, which makes them gentler. Another effective method for exfoliating sensitive skin is using polyhydroxy acids, such as gluconolactone and lactobionic acid, which delicately remove dead skin cells and aid in skin renewal without compromising the barrier.
Bliss Jelly Glow Peel Gentle Fruit Enzyme Exfoliator, The Ordinary 10% Lactic Acid, and Neogen Bio-Peel Gentle Gauze Peeling Wine will gently exfoliate your sensitive skin without causing irritation.
Sensitive skin can be quite frustrating and difficult to manage, but with the right routine, nothing can stop you from soothing and protecting your delicate complexion. First, understand the underlying causes of your sensitive skin and cut the triggers. When it comes to skincare, the key is to be gentle. Avoid harsh and fragranced products and opt for gentle, hypoallergenic, and non-comedogenic options instead. Use products that are specifically formulated for problematic skin and aim to restore the lipid barrier, as this is where most sensitive skin-related problems begin. Moisturize every day and apply sun protection.