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Sensitive Skin Care: The Signs & Symptoms

Does your skin have a sensitive side? Caring for this skin type can be a struggle - and choosing the right skin care products 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?

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. If you are already certain you have sensitive skin, check out this skin care routine designed for your skin type.

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.

This skin type 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 usually create this type of reaction in a ‘normal’ skin type

Irritant Sensitivity Vs Allergic Sensitivity

According to Dr. Hooman Khorasani, Dermatologic and Cosmetic Surgeon, there are two different types of sensitivity - irritant sensitivity and allergic sensitivity. 

“An irritant sensitivity is something that irritates everyone’s skin and is independent of your immune system. Although most skin reacts to an irritant, someone with sensitive skin would see a more dramatic reaction,” explains Dr. Khorasani. These symptoms may include itchiness, redness, dryness, rashes, or breakouts. In comparison, an allergic sensitivity is dependent on your immune system, and it requires a prior exposure to the allergen. Because an allergic sensitivity is due to each specific immune system, unlike an irritant sensitivity, only a portion of the population is impacted.

Regardless of the causes, sensitive skin is a skin type, caused by a genetic predisposition to skin sensitivity and irritation. It’s also a common symptom of genetic conditions like psoriasis, eczema and rosacea. You can’t change your skin type, but you can adjust your daily habits and skin care routine to manage its symptoms. 

Woman checking the skin on her face

How To Know If You Have Sensitive Or Sensitized Skin

Another point of confusion with your potentially sensitive skin is whether it’s sensitive at all - or whether it’s actually sensitized.  Sensitized skin is a skin condition, which 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.

Sensitive Skin Symptoms & Signs

Signs of sensitive and sensitized skin also overlap. However, sensitized skin symptoms 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

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.

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. In an attempt to heal, blood rushes to the surface of your sensitive skin.

2. Prone To Rashes & Bumps

When sensitive skin on the face 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.

3. Itchy

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’s 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.

Watch this In The Mix as Lead Skin Care Trainer Natalie Pergar demonstrates three easy steps for categorizing your skin.

Do you suffer from sensitive skin? Check out this step-by-step skin care routine designed for your skin type. Let us know in the comments below or on social media how you cope with your skin type.

This post was originally published in August, 2018 and has been updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.