Do You Actually Have Sensitive Skin? Experts Weigh In


Bryan Rodney Carr

When I arrived for my first visit with celebrity facialist Kerry Benjamin a couple of months ago, I had no idea that when I walked out an hour later, I would be in the throes of a full-blown existential crisis. The appointment started off as most facial appointments tend to: Benjamin asked me about my skin type, and as always, my reply was "sensitive." 

"Why do you think your skin is sensitive?" she asked.

I froze. Huh.

"Uh, it's always dry?" I offered, almost as a guess. "If I use strong ingredients, it reacts a little bit?" The truth was that I had no idea when or for what reason I had categorized my skin as "sensitive." It was just something I had decided at some point, almost definitely during a time when I thought haphazardly removing my makeup with a wipe at night qualified as a "skincare routine."

Benjamin concurred that it was time for a reassessment. "Most people think their skin is sensitive, and most are wrong," she said. "It's hardier than you think. Unless you have a substantial reaction to certain ingredients or a pre-existing condition like rosacea, chances are your skin isn't really sensitive." 

In fact, she hypothesized, this assumption was keeping my complexion from looking its best. After I admitted that I avoided peels and regular exfoliation for fear of aggravating my not-so-sensitive skin, she told me that this was probably why a) I had a layer of dull, dead skin cells on top of my face,  b) had been breaking out lately, and c) wasn't absorbing all the moisture from all my favorite oils and serums. Oh.

I was still skeptical as she dermaplaned and dermarolled my skin, as I sat through some of the most intense (yet satisfying) extractions of my life, and as she layered a few of her own Stacked Skincare peels. I left the appointment with a raw complexion and so many questions. 

Then, a few days went by, I shed a layer of skin, and suddenly, it was like I had a new face. The stubborn breakout that had taken up residence on my chin for months swiftly evacuated, and my skin took on the flattering glow of my favorite VSCO filter. I now use at-home chemical peels and retinols on the regular. I forego foundation more often than I use it—a true marker of success.

Needless to say, I'm kind of liking the nonsensitive version of my skin.

Esthetician Renée Rouleau takes a similar strategy to Benjamin's with her clients. "I specifically ask them, 'Give me examples of how you would describe your skin as sensitive.'" she says. "One thing I hear often is that if they use a product that is too strong or drying, their skin will get irritated. But of course, any product that is too strong or drying will obviously be irritating for most anyone."

Still, how can you know for sure if your complexion is sensitive? What steps should you take if it is? Read on for our no-B.S. guide. 

Get more info on determining your skin type here, and tell usdo you think you have sensitive skin? Does this change your mind at all? Sound off below!