When I arrived for my first visit with celebrity facialist and esthetician Kerry Benjamin, 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 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."
Do you ever wonder, “why is my skin so sensitive?” or “is my skin actually sensitive?” Sensitive skin can be caused by a variety of factors, including an adverse reaction to a product, specific ingredients, or over-exposure to the sun. Keep reading to learn from experts about sensitive skin, what causes it, and how to treat it.
What is Sensitive Skin?
“Sensitized skin is skin that has 'become' sensitive as a response to something, such as a skincare product or treatment. Sensitive skin can be an ongoing condition caused by a treatment, age, or biological skin disorder,” says board-certified dermatologist Paul Jarrod Frank, MD. So if your skin feels sore, is red, dry, or overall has a negative reaction to external factors, it may be sensitive.
However, there is no official test or diagnosis for sensitive skin. “Sensitive skin is actually not a clinical diagnosis, though most people think of it as skin that is easily irritated,” says board-certified dermatologist Iris Rubin, MD.
How To Tell If You Have Sensitive Skin
You may assume you have sensitive skin, but you could be wrong. "Most people think their skin is sensitive, and most are wrong," says Rubin. "It's harder 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,” adds Benjamin.
According to Frank, lookout for signs of redness, dryness, flakiness, breakouts, and burning. Rubin says that stinging is also a typical reaction to sensitive skin and esthetician Renée Rouleau notes that inflammation is also a symptom of sensitive skin.
"If you have a sensitivity to topical ingredients you will likely know pretty instantly," says Benjamin adding that you'll likely see redness or irritation fairly quickly. If you know that your skin is pretty reactive or you're trying out a more intense ingredient like retinol or glycolic acid for the first time, consider using a small spot of skin as a tester area rather than risking inflammation across your entire face. Rouleau recommends using the side of your neck since the skin there is thin and generally more reactive. "The idea is that if it can be tolerated on your neck, then you can feel confident that it will be okay on the face," she says.
What Causes Sensitive Skin?
Over-exposure to the sun
Too much time in the sun can cause redness and stinging.
Underlying health conditions
Skin conditions like eczema, rosacea, and psoriasis can cause the skin to be red, dry, and bumpy.
According to Frank, the overuse or abuse of products can cause your skin to be sensitive, so follow the instructions carefully. Also, look out for skin sensitivity when using products containing alpha-hydroxy acids and beta hydroxy acids.
Genetics tend to play a role, and research has even begun to identify the genes responsible for sensitive skin. If you find that your skin reacts to certain ingredients or formulas with rosacea, itching, redness, stinging, rashes, burning, or hives, your complexion probably veers on the side of sensitive.
Use a clean washcloth and towel every time you are washing your face to ensure no product residue or bacteria goes on your skin.
How to Treat Sensitive Skin
- Have a dermatologist recommend products tailored for your skin. "I can’t tell you how many times clients have thought their skin was a certain skin type, when in fact it was something different," says Rouleau. "Find a trusted professional with years of skincare experience, and allow them to help you with your product selection. Be sure to communicate thoroughly what your concerns are."
- Visit an allergist who can pinpoint what ingredients your skin is allergic to so you can steer clear of products containing these irritants. "I have always had an allergist to help me with my eczema, or some people may prefer to work with a dermatologist for their skin issues," says Benjamin. "You should test for food and environmental allergies and understand allergic triggers for your skin, including topical ingredients and even things like laundry detergent."
- Acid peels: These are great if your skin is perpetually parched or you're prone to rosacea. Benjamin says her specially formulated Stacked Skincare's TCA peel helps to combat her eczema. "It gently removes dead skin while hydrating, calming inflammation and redness, kills bacteria, and improves cell turnover to reveal brighter, healthier skin." A scrub exfoliant, on the other hand, may be too abrasive and not effective enough.
- Use a Vitamin C or antioxidant serum: "When dealing with sensitive skin, it's important to understand how the skin's moisture barrier plays a role in all skin types," Rouleau explains. "When this barrier is damaged (due to age, hormones, genetics, and more), it creates tiny, invisible cracks in the skin that allow moisture to escape causing dry, flaky skin and all the moisturizers in the world won’t help until the skin's protective barrier is repaired." These serums help. "Along with having superior preventative wrinkle benefits, they can have excellent anti-redness properties," she says. Some vitamin C formulas are stronger than others, however, so it's best to choose a no-sting formula or a product that's specially formulated for sensitive skin.
- Use a lipid-rich moisturizer: This means that moisturizers rich in natural oils are your best bet. "Regular moisturizers will hydrate but not necessarily fix a damaged barrier if they don't use these special repairing ingredients," says Rouleau. "Look for moisturizers with linoleic acid, soybean sterols, jojoba oil, phospholipids, borage oil, merospheres (liposome-encapsulated rosemarinus officinalis), kukui nut oil, grapeseed oil, glycolipids, squalane and rosehip seed oil." In many cases, Rouleau says, repairing and reinforcing the moisture barrier with these kinds of lipids can help eliminate (or at least greatly reduce) redness and sensitivity.
- Wear SPF daily: This is a non-negotiable for all skin types, but those with sensitive complexions may be even more prone to inflammation from UV rays. If a new formula passes a patch test, that's great, but it's still wise to practice caution by only introducing new products one at a time. "This way, if a negative reaction should occur, you are able to pinpoint which product it may be," says Rouleau.
The Best Products For Sensitive Skin
We love how this face peel helps with getting rid of acne, dead skin, and hyperpigmentation, but is still gentle on the skin.
This daily Vitamin C&E Treatment promises to repair your skin's moisture barrier and reduce hyperpigmentation.
Applying this beauty balm feels like a spa treatment at home. The cream dissolves into a liquid, making it very nourishing and hydrating to the skin.
This sunscreen not only has a sun protection factor of 30, but is also tinted, meaning you can substitute it for your moisturizer on days when you want light coverage.
Duarte I, Silveira JEPS, Hafner MFS, Toyota R, Pedroso DMM. Sensitive skin: review of an ascending concept. An Bras Dermatol. 2017;92(4):521-525. doi:10.1590/abd1806-4841.201756111
Tang SC, Yang JH. Dual effects of alpha-hydroxy acids on the skin. Molecules. 2018;23(4):863. doi:10.3390/molecules23040863
Bataille A, Le Gall-Ianotto C, Genin E, Misery L. Sensitive skin: lessons from transcriptomic studies. Front Med (Lausanne). 2019;6:115. doi:10.3389/fmed.2019.00115