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.
"Sensitive skin is always associated with having inflammation, whether it’s visible or not," says Rouleau. You might experience general sensitivity thanks to conditions like rosacea, eczema, or psoriasis, or be reactive to certain ingredients or fragrances, adds Benjamin.
Genetics tend to have a role, and if you're of Irish, Scottish, English, or Scandinavian descent, you might be more susceptible to sensitivity. (This heritage tends to breed thin skin with less oil production.) 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.
That being said, self-diagnosis is not exactly an ideal approach (ahem, ahem). "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 skin care experience, and allow them to help you with your product selection. Be sure to communicate thoroughly what your concerns are."
"If you have a sensitivity to topical ingredients you will likely know pretty instantly," says Benjamin—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.
That being said, some reactions are totally fine. (Read: Don't be afraid of peels.)
With products that contain acids (glycolic, lactic, salicylic, or any other kind of AHA), minor reactions like redness or tingling are fairly normal, as long as they subside within 10 to 15 minutes—even if you have sensitive skin. In fact, if your skin is perpetually parched or you're prone to rosacea, acid peels could be your new lifeline—Benjamin specially formulated Stacked Skincare's TCA peel to help combat her own eczema. "They gently remove dead skin while hydrating, calming inflammation and redness, kill bacteria, and improve cell turnover to reveal brighter, healthier skin." A scrub exfoliant, on the other hand, is often too abrasive and not effective enough.
However, if you apply an AHA product and experience any intense stinging, a rash, or redness that lasts awhile, it's likely that you're allergic or sensitive to that ingredient.
This is where an allergist comes in handy, since it can be tricky to pinpoint the culprit on your own. "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.
Care for your moisture barrier, since it's the gateway for nutrients (and irritants) to enter your skin
"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. Also, irritants will enter more easily making even sensitive skin products cause a stinging, irritating sensation. All the moisturizer in the world won’t help fix dry, flaky, sensitive skin until the skin's protective barrier is repaired." In other words, you'll be more prone to sensitivity when this barrier isn't in good shape.
So how do you go about ensuring that it's in tip-top form? Rouleau recommends using a vitamin C or antioxidant serum daily. "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.
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 rose hips 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.
This is obviously a non-negotiable for *all* skin types, but those with sensitive complexions are prone to even more 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, and then you will have this helpful knowledge for future skincare purchases," says Rouleau.
"A quick and easy solution is to apply hydrocortisone mixed 50/50 with aloe gel twice daily to the affected area," says Benjamin. "After applying, immediately follow up with an ice pack for 15 to 20 minutes to calm the inflammation and soothe the itching. I also recommend icing several times a day until the inflammation has cleared up, and you can take an antihistamine to help reduce the inflammation." If symptoms don't improve within a few days, check in with your doc.
Get more info on determining your skin type, no expert necessary.