Does your skin have a sensitive side? Caring for sensitive skin can be a struggle - and choosing the right products for your skin type can feel like rolling the dice. One misstep and you could aggravate your temperamental complexion, bringing about a variety of uncomfortable symptoms. Here is everything you need to know about sensitive skin, as well as our tips for keeping it calm, cool and collected.
What Is Sensitive Skin?
If you struggle with sensitive skin, you aren’t alone. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, 50% of people in the United States report experiencing some form of skin sensitivity. With its wide variety of symptoms, sensitive skin does not manifest the same way for everyone. Its severity can range from moderate discomfort to severe reactions, and its frequency can fluctuate from the occasional flare-up to more persistent, daily sensitivity.
Eminence Organics Product Support Representative and Certified Esthetician Josie Barton says: “Sensitive skin is typically described as skin that endures the regular occurrence of unpleasant sensations such as heat, stinging, burning and tingling caused by forms of stimulation that wouldn’t normally create this type of reaction in a ‘normal’ skin type.” If you find your skin is easily irritated by environmental stressors like sun, wind and pollution, and/or topical products like lotions or fragrances, you may have sensitive skin.
Sensitive skin is typically described as skin that endures the regular occurrence of unpleasant sensations such as heat, stinging, burning and tingling caused by forms of stimulation that wouldn’t normally create this type of reaction in a ‘normal’ skin type.
Sensitive Skin Vs. Sensitized Skin
There is a key distinction to be made between “sensitive” and “sensitized” skin. According to The International Dermal Institute: “There is sensitive skin (a genetic trait) and there is sensitized skin, a growing phenomenon worldwide caused by increased exposure to pollution, stress and chemicals.” Sensitive and sensitized skin share several of the same symptoms, but their root causes differ.
Sensitive skin is a skin type. It is caused by a genetic predisposition to skin sensitivity and irritation. It is also a common symptom of genetic conditions like psoriasis, eczema and rosacea. You cannot change your skin type, but you can adjust your daily habits and skin care routine to manage its symptoms.
On the other hand, sensitized skin is a skin condition. It is characterized by skin irritation that builds over time due to environmental influences and lifestyle choices. Skincare by Alana says: “Some of the biggest factors causing sensitized skin are pollution, stress and alcohol consumption.” Unlike sensitive skin, the symptoms of sensitized skin can be “fixed” over time with targeted skin care products and lifestyle changes.
Sensitive and sensitized skin share a key characteristic - a compromised lipid barrier. Your skin’s lipid barrier is its protective, fatty outer layer that performs two functions: It keeps water in and environmental stressors (like UV rays, harsh chemicals and pollution) out. Emily Newsom, MD tells SELF: “You can think of your skin barrier like a brick wall put together with mortar between the skin cells.” In sensitive or sensitized skin, that mortar has been weakened and is more permeable. When an irritant sneaks through the lipid barrier, your immune system issues an inflammatory response. That response - characterized by redness, pain and itching - is what you experience as sensitivity.
Signs & Symptoms
Signs of sensitive and sensitized skin also overlap. However, symptoms in sensitized skin often disappear once its lipid barrier has been repaired, while in sensitive skin they tend to be more persistent. Both display a range of symptoms that occur minutes to hours after contact with a particular ingredient or environmental trigger. Here are five telltale signs of sensitive skin:
1. Flushes Easily
Everyday Health says: “Whether your face turns red after cleansing or just from facing a gust of chilly wind, your skin’s propensity to flush is a sign that its barrier function is compromised.” This redness is due to an inflammatory response from your immune system, which rushes blood to the surface of your skin in an attempt to heal it.
2. Prone To Rashes & Bumps
When sensitive skin is exposed to a trigger, it will often react with a red, flaky or bumpy rash. Healthgrades says this is especially true for topical products like facial serums and moisturizers that are meant to be left on the skin rather than rinsed off.
In addition to rashes and bumps, sensitive skin may feel itchy and tight - particularly after cleansing with products that contain harsh chemicals or artificial fragrances. It is often accompanied by dryness and/or dehydration, which can also leave skin feeling prickly and parched.
4. Beauty Products Sting Or Burn
Dr. Elizabeth Tanzi tells Allure: "You know you have sensitive skin if the majority of the products you place on your skin causes stinging or redness." Because sensitive skin has a broken lipid barrier, fragrances and active ingredients can penetrate more easily and deeply, causing a stinging, burning or prickling sensation.
5. Reacts To Fragrance
Dermatologists agree that fragrance is one of the most notorious causes of skin irritation and sensitivity. From laundry detergents to personal care products, many consumer goods contain synthetic fragrances that can cause a reaction in sensitive skin.
Tips For Sensitive Skin
You may not be able to change your sensitive skin type, but there are several tips you can follow to keep your symptoms under wraps:
1. Avoid Long, Hot Showers
It’s time to swap your long, hot showers for shorter, lukewarm ones. Why? Sensitive skin often reacts negatively to heat exposure which breaks down the skin’s lipid barrier. Melissa Piliang, MD tells SELF: “Think about it like butter on a knife. If you put it under cold water, the fat on the knife doesn’t go anywhere. But if you put it under warm water, those lipids will melt away. It’s the same kind of issue with the lipid layer in our skin. If you put your skin in hot water or use harsh soaps, then it tends to wash that outer protective fatty layer away.”
2. Be Aware Of Triggers
One of the best ways to manage your symptoms is to be aware of the environmental and lifestyle triggers that cause your skin to react. The more you know, the better you can identify them and take precautionary measures. Triggers differ from person to person, but often include:
- Seasonal changes
- Stress and lack of sleep
3. Skip Harsh Chemicals & Artificial Fragrances
Harsh chemicals and artificial fragrances are two of the biggest contributors to lipid barrier damage. To keep your skin’s health intact, Women’s Health advises: “Look for products free from fragrances and paraben preservatives, two common causes of irritation and flare-ups.” Choose natural skin care brands like Eminence Organics that do not use parabens, sodium lauryl sulfates, synthetic dyes, petrochemicals and phthalates in their formulations.
4. Choose Calming Ingredients
In addition, reach for products that contain calming ingredients. Well+Good suggests these superstar ingredients, chosen for their anti-inflammatory properties and ability to enhance your skin’s lipid barrier:
- Hyaluronic acid
- Olive oil
- Shea butter
- Sunflower seed oil
- Coconut oil
5. Perform A Patch Test
Always perform a patch test before adding new products to your skin care routine. Women’s Health advises: “Do a test run on a small, inconspicuous patch of skin (like behind your ear) before applying. Wait at least 24 hours for signs of irritation, redness, or other skin freak-outs. If your skin is hypersensitive, repeat this test run on a patch next to your eye. All clear? You’re safe to apply with abandon.”
One of the best ways to maintain a healthy lipid barrier is to moisturize - day and night. An effective moisturizer will replenish skin’s outer layer and prevent water loss, helping to prevent penetration by potential irritants. When choosing a moisturizer, we recommend looking for ingredients that are high in fatty acids (like shea butter, jojoba oil and coconut oil), as well as humectants (like hyaluronic acid) that work to increase hydration and lock in moisture.
7. Apply SPF
Sensitive skin is extra-responsive to the sun’s rays - and UV protection is a must. However, as dermatologist Shari Marchbein tells Allure: “People with sensitive skin can have a hard time finding sunscreens, as most are made with chemical UV blockers that can cause stinging, burning, irritations and redness when applied to the skin.” We suggest using a mineral sunscreen that contains physical blockers like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide to shield your skin from damaging UV rays.
8. Simplify Your Beauty Routine
Sensitive skin is easily overwhelmed by an abundance of products. Dr. Ilyse Lefkowicz tells Refinery29: “I always suggest patients with sensitive skin to simplify their skin care routine. Strip it down to the basics by using gentle cleansers and moisturizers without lots of detergents and fragrances. Then, slowly introduce other agents one at a time.” As always, perform a patch test before adding additional products to your routine.
Sensitive Skin Care Routine
When it comes to sensitive skin, less is more. We recommend starting simple with these essential skin care steps.
Dermatologists recommend using a gel or cream cleanser that removes impurities without causing irritation or unnecessary dryness. When cleansing, use your fingertips rather than a washcloth or brush, rinse with cool water and gently pat your face dry. Most importantly, don’t overdo it. Skincare By Alana says: “For sensitive skin, washing the face once per day should be enough to keep it clean.”
We recommend: Stone Crop Gel Wash
This gel cleanser gently washes away excess dirt and oil without over-stripping the skin. Stone crop deeply hydrates, while chamomile and shea butter calm and restore dry skin.
Say goodbye to alcohol-based, astringent toners that can leave your face feeling tight and itchy. Instead, use a toner or facial mist with skin-soothing ingredients that will help improve the appearance of redness and inflammation.
We recommend: Stone Crop Hydrating Mist
Refreshing Stone Crop Hydrating Mist is infused with stone crop juice and aloe to hydrate and heal dry skin, revealing a soft and fresh complexion. Meredith says in her 5-star review: “I mist this on my face after cleansing and before I apply my nighttime moisturizer or daytime sunscreen and LOVE it! I have pretty sensitive skin that gets easily irritated and itchy and this always calms, hydrates and smooths my skin. It is amazing how much better my skin looks and feels after misting this on! I can't be without it! Thank you, Eminence!”
Pro Tip: Bustle’s beauty editors recommend skipping cotton pads when applying your favorite toner. Instead, warm a few spritzes between your palms, then gently press the product into your skin. They say: “Your body heat will help your skin absorb the toner, and you won’t risk irritation from running a cotton pad across your face.”
For sensitive skin, look for moisturizers that not only replenish your skin’s moisture barrier but also contain soothing ingredients that will calm and comfort your complexion.
We recommend: Calm Skin Chamomile Moisturizer
Chamomile, calendula and arnica combine in this moisturizer to soothe chapped cheeks and reduce redness due to dryness. Carmen says: “When my skin becomes red and itchy from the winds and change of weather, this is the only non-medicinal moisturizer I have used so far that will calm my skin overnight. I used to slather it on my face only when I suffer from redness and itchiness, but I am now using it every day.”
If your skin is both sensitive and oily, our expert estheticians recommend lightweight Rosehip Whip Moisturizer, which helps reduce discomfort and even the appearance of easily irritated dry skin.
Now that you’ve mastered the essentials, it’s time to let the fun begin. We recommend introducing these extras one at a time to your skin care routine.
Sensitive skin can still be exfoliated, gently. Skincare By Alana advises: “Try limiting exfoliation to once or twice per week. It can help remove dead skin cells and freshen up your skin, but overdoing it can make your skin feel raw or irritated.” Skip harsh scrubs and opt instead for gentle peels that don’t aggravate your complexion.
We recommend: Calm Skin Chamomile Exfoliating Peel
This peel uses lactic and mandelic acids to gently exfoliate sensitive skin without irritation. It is formulated with soothing ingredients like chamomile, calendula and arnica flower that relieve redness due to dryness and leave skin feeling soft, smooth and revitalized.
Face masks are one of the best ways to soothe sensitive skin. They not only offer the ultimate pampering experience but also deliver calming ingredients to the skin. Dr. Annie Chiu tells Fitness Magazine: “I think masks are great for targeted skin problems, like dry or sensitive skin.”
We recommend: Calm Skin Arnica Masque
Eminence Organics Product Support Representative and Certified Esthetician Alicia Hawthorne says this gentle mask “helps to diminish signs of redness while relieving and softening dry skin. Arnica, marigold and shea butter all work together to soothe dry, sensitive skin.” Allure is also a fan of this soothing treatment, calling it one of the Best Face Masks For Reducing Redness. Dermatologist Arash Akhavan tells the beauty mag: “It contains arnica and calming oils, such as linseed oil, which soothe irritated skin.”
Bustle says serums and oils “provide the ultimate comfort to reactive skin: … [they] help alleviate dry patches and redness and strengthen skin to create a barrier against outside irritants.”
We recommend: Facial Recovery Oil
This award-winning facial oil is formulated with the purest Biodynamic® ingredients to tone and hydrate skin. Eminence Organics expert Alicia says: “Amazing to hydrate, soothe and reduce redness due to dryness. It can be applied under your moisturizer, worn on its own or simply used by adding a couple of drops to your moisturizer. It also has beautiful oils in it to help soothe dry skin: ylang ylang, clary sage oil and sage leaf extract.”
Do you have sensitive skin? Browse more of our skin care products, specially selected for sensitive skin types and experience them at an Eminence Organics partner spa near you.
We’d love to hear which products help calm and soothe your complexion! Share your recommendations with us in the comments below and join the conversation on social media.