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Sensitive Skin: What It Looks Like, What Can Cause It and What You Can Do to Make It Stop

Prone to irritation? Help is here!
Sensitive skin

If you had to describe your skin type, would "sensitive" come to mind?

If so, you're not alone. According to a report in Contact Dermatitis, the majority of women across the U.S., Europe and Japan now believe they have sensitive skin—and the numbers are on the rise.

But is sensitive skin an actual diagnosis? How do you know if you have it? And most importantly, is there anything you can do to make your skin more tolerant?

In this tutorial, you will learn:

  • The symptoms of sensitive skin
  • The two most common causes
  • How to go on a "product elimination diet"
  • The irritants that people with sensitive skin should always avoid
  • What to include in a sensitive skincare routine

What is Sensitive Skin?

Sensitive skin

Most women identify as having sensitive skin. (Photo: @makeupandmedicine.dk)

Sensitive skin is so common, you might assume that it's a disease, with an official, clinical diagnosis.

It's not. Sensitive skin simply means that your skin is more easily irritated than most people's, and reacts when it comes in contact with certain triggers.

Sensitive skin is most common in Caucasian women, although it can happen to men, too, and any ethnicity. 

Typically, it can manifest as...

  • Redness
  • Tightness
  • Stinging
  • Burning
  • Itching
  • Dry patches
  • Inflammation
  • Soreness
  • Rashes

But on the whole, you can think of sensitive skin as a symptom of another problem—not as a disease in and of itself.

What Causes Sensitive Skin?

Sensitive skin

Sensitive skin can be a symptom of a medical condition or a damaged skin barrier. (Photo: @matsandroses)

So, if sensitive skin is just a symptom, what's actually behind it?

According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, irritation can be caused by genetic conditions, immune system disorders, medications, infections and allergens. Some people are also sensitive to environmental factors, such as heat, cold, humidity, wind, sun exposure and pollution, notes a 2017 paper in Anais Brasileiros de Dermatologia.

But those triggers tend to be rare, says Dr. Sandy Skotnicki, author of Beyond Soap. In her experience, there are two common pathways for most cases of sensitive skin:

"[Approximately] 80 percent of the sensitive-skin cases I see stem from pre-existing skin conditions and invisible irritation. And each one of those problems originates with a compromised barrier function."

Pre-Existing Skin Conditions

Sensitive skin

Sensitive skin can indicate a medical condition such as rosacea. (Photo: @talontedlex)

If you're dealing with ongoing and/or severe sensitivity, it can indicate an underlying medical condition. 

  • Rosacea appears as redness, flushing and enlarged blood vessels
  • Eczema (also known as atopic dermatitis) can give you an itchy, red rash
  • Psoriasis is characterized by bumpy, scaly patches
  • Seborrheic dermatitis can manifest as dandruff on the scalp or as scaly patches on the face

These problems are all associated with abnormal skin barrier function—meaning the outer layer of skin isn't giving enough protection to the skin's deeper layers. So irritants are able to permeate through it, causing reactions.

If you suspect that a pre-existing skin condition is causing your sensitivity, seek medical advice.

Invisible Irritation

Sensitive skin

Sensitive skin can be triggered by irritating topical products. (Photo: @baby.ana.mama)

Invisible irritation and inflammation is something we do to ourselves. We can make our skin act sensitive by treating it the wrong way.

"My theory is that this one arises because we're washing too often, using too many different products and using those products too frequently," says Dr. Skotnicki. 

Most people use nine products each day, with 126 different ingredients, according to the Environmental Working Group. And 25 percent of women use 15 or more products daily. Cumulatively, there's a huge potential for irritation.

"[Beauty products] are the main triggering factors of sensitive skin, especially in women, due to overuse and sometimes inappropriate use," states this report. "Presence of potentially irritating substances... increases the possibility of symptoms."

The Product Elimination Diet

Sensitive skin

A "product elimination diet" can help to calm a sensitive skin reaction. (Photo: @chronicbeautystyle)