Updated: 3/10/21. Almost everyone thinks their skin is sensitive. In fact, whenever I ask my clients whether or not they have sensitive skin, four out of five will say “yes.” Many of them, however, don’t know the the specific type of sensitivity they’re experiencing, and that’s important, because you first have to understand it to know how best to address it.
What is Sensitive Skin?
Sensitive skin is difficult to define, because it can manifest in different ways. Generally speaking, though, I view sensitive skin as skin that is easily reactive (meaning you have to think twice before you slather on any new products). I would divide people with sensitive skin into two categories: those who truly have a genetic predisposition for sensitivity and those who are making their skin sensitive because of something they’re doing. Most people who struggle with sensitivity fall into the latter category. If you’re wondering whether or not you have sensitive skin, consider that the people most likely to experience sensitivity are fair, thin-skinned people, such as those of European descent (think Irish, Scottish, and Scandinavian).
The Four Types of Skin Sensitivity
There are four types of sensitivity that I’ve seen most often throughout my 30 years of experience as an esthetician. It’s important to keep in mind that a person can experience more than one of these sensitivities simultaneously.
1. Allergic Sensitivity
An allergy occurs when the body’s immune system sees a substance as harmful and overreacts to it, whether that’s something internal or something external (such as a product that was applied topically). Anyone can have an allergy, so all skin types can experience this kind of sensitivity. Because your skin acts as an excretory system to get rid of things the body doesn’t agree with, food allergies can manifest on the skin. A food sensitivity can appear around the mouth, neck, or face — basically anywhere food has come into contact with your skin.
It can be tricky to treat an allergic sensitivity, because you ultimately need to find the root cause. This is where a little detective work comes in. Because allergic reactions typically happen within 24 hours of coming into contact with an allergen, it’s a good idea to retrace your steps. Keep in mind that, when it comes to topical products, it’s unlikely to suddenly react to something you’ve been using for a long period of time, so it’s a good idea to consider anything new you’ve introduced into your routine.
Characteristics of Allergic Sensitivity
- Erythema (redness)
- Skin Rash and/or itching
- Hives or welts
- Skin feels hot to the touch
Common Causes of Allergic Sensitivity
- Internal inflammation (I’ve seen skin reactions triggered by birth control, IUDs, and food allergies from shellfish, strawberries, soy, and peanuts)
- Certain plant compounds found in skincare products (two common culprits are chamomile and azulene, as both are related to ragweed)
How to Deal with Allergic Sensitivity
- Stop using suspected allergens. This means skincare products, foods, or anything else you suspect is causing the reaction in the first place.
- Simplify your routine and focus on calming the skin. Stick to the basics, like a cleanser and moisturizer, and stop using active ingredients, like retinoids and exfoliating acids. As long as you’ve used it before, reach for the Rapid Response Detox Masque to put out the fire and calm the skin. Place it in the fridge before use for an extra soothing effect.
- Use ice compresses on affected areas. This will reduce inflammation and soothe the skin.
- Consult with your doctor. If you’re experiencing enough swelling, itching, or discomfort, your doctor may recommend an antihistamine. If the problems persist, you can ask your doctor or an allergist to perform an allergy test to get to the bottom of it.
- Check whether any of your usual products have been reformulated. I once had a client who reacted to a moisturizer she had been using for a long time. This reaction occurred right after she started using a brand new bottle of the moisturizer. Come to find out, the company had reformulated it ever so slightly without mentioning anything to their customers about the change. It was only one ingredient, but it was enough to throw my client’s skin completely out of whack and set off an allergic response.
2. Breakout-Prone Sensitivity
If skincare products (especially those with a heavy or rich texture) cause clogged pores or breakouts, this could be you. A breakout will occur when someone’s skin produces a lot of thick, sticky oil. This traps dead skin cells in the pore lining and keeps oxygen from circulating through the pore, which creates the perfect environment for bacteria to thrive. The underlying cause of breakouts is hard to pinpoint (here are 11 potential causes), as it can be anything from genetics to a simple case of bad luck. There are, however, certain things you can do to minimize this type of sensitivity.
Characteristics of Breakout-Prone Sensitivity
- Bumpy skin texture (closed comedones)
- Blemishes (pustules and cysts)
Common Culprits of Breakout-Prone Sensitivity
- Sonic cleansing brushes
- Liquid foundations (especially long-wear)
- Liquid primers
- Cream blushes
- Facial oils in their pure form
- Water-resistant sunscreen (especially when combined with heat from the sun)
How to Deal with Breakout-Prone Sensitivity
- Use lightweight skincare products. Avoid products that are too thick in texture as well as heavy oils and sunscreens (especially water-resistant sunscreens).
- Don’t experiment with products too much. This will only put you at unnecessary risk for clogged pores and breakouts. Think, “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it,” and be sure that any time you try new products you patch test and introduce one at a time.
- Introduce active ingredients into your routine slowly. If you’re breakout-prone and already have clogged pores, be aware that active ingredients like exfoliating acids or retinoids can cause an initial “purging.” This is when active blemishes come to the surface as the rate of skin cell turnover increases. This will dissipate once your skin cells get reorganized, but in order to minimize purging, you should introduce active ingredients into your routine slowly. Start with just once a week and build up from there.
- Use calming and anti-bacterial ingredients in your skincare routine. The logic behind this is that you should avoid irritation and inflammation, which can trigger breakouts, and keep pores clear without drying out the skin. Rapid Response Detox Masque is perfect for soothing and hydrating skin while simultaneously getting rid of bacteria.
- Educate yourself about makeup and how it affects your skin. If you wear makeup, stop doing these 12 things. Your skin will thank you for it.
There’s one more thing. If you’ve suddenly started breaking out and don’t know why, start by asking yourself these 10 questions.
3. Heat-Activated Sensitivity
Some people have skin that is sensitive to heat. This is because heat causes an increase in blood flow to the capillaries (small blood vessels just below the skin’s surface). This causes capillaries to dilate and expand, which makes them more visible and causes the skin to appear red. Once the skin is cooled down and the internal temperature is lowered, capillaries will constrict again, and the redness will go away. Ideally, it’s best to avoid this repeated stretching and constricting, because it can eventually lead to permanently enlarged capillaries that remain visible on the skin’s surface. If you are someone who struggles with rosacea, you will be especially prone to heat-activated sensitivity.
Characteristics of Heat-Activated Sensitivity
- Redness and flushing
- Skin feels hot to the touch
- Visible capillaries
Common Causes of Heat-Activated Sensitivity
- Intense Exercise
- Hot showers
- Sun exposure
- Saunas or steam rooms
How to Deal with Heat-Activated Sensitivity
- Avoid exposing your skin to high temperatures whenever possible. This includes avoiding hot water, intense exercise (like hot yoga), and even eating spicy foods.
- Look for products with soothing ingredients. Soothing ingredients include red marine algae, licorice extract, and sea whip (all found in our Redness Care Firming Serum). Other ingredients to look for include allantoin, green tea, and oat kernel extract.
- Cool the skin down manually. Use an ice compress or try placing your products in the fridge before application, so they are cooling to the skin.
If you have red, broken capillaries, start doing these nine things.
4. Dry/Dehydrated Sensitivity
The underlying cause of almost any dry/dehydrated sensitivity is a fragile or disrupted moisture barrier. When the skin’s moisture barrier is compromised, it causes microscopic cracks to open up. These cracks allow moisture to escape and irritants to penetrate the skin. This can sometimes lead to a burning or stinging sensation, which is an inflammatory reaction to something that has been applied topically to skin with a disrupted moisture barrier.
Characteristics of Dry/Dehydrated Sensitivity
- Flaking or peeling
- Eczema-prone skin
- Rough texture
- Stinging or burning sensation
Common Causes of Dry/Dehydrated Sensitivity
- Dry climates or airplane travel
- Changing seasons (hello, winter!)
- Ingredients such as synthetic fragrances and perfumes, some essential oils, avobenzone or sodium lauryl sulfate
- Harsh, drying products such as foaming cleansers and prescription acne treatments
- Over-exfoliating with acids (this can lower your skin’s pH to the point where it disrupts your moisture barrier)
How to Deal with Dry/Dehydrated Sensitivity
- Cut back on exfoliation. This includes physical exfoliators like scrubs, cleansing brushes, and washcloths, as well as acid exfoliators.
- Use a gentle cleanser that won’t strip the skin of moisture. Also, avoid products that are heavily fragranced, as this will further irritate sensitive skin.
- Start using a hydrating toner like Moisture Infusion Toner after cleansing.
- Look for a moisturizer with barrier-repairing ingredients. See how my Skin Recovery Lotion dramatically repaired my nephew’s skin! Wow, right?
Click here to read the full list of barrier-repairing ingredients and learn more ways to strengthen a damaged moisture barrier.
I hope you found this helpful in understanding why your oh-so-delicate skin acts the way it does.
Celebrity Esthetician & Skincare Expert
As an esthetician trained in cosmetic chemistry, Renée Rouleau has spent 30 years researching skin, educating her audience, and building an award-winning line of products. Trusted by celebrities, editors, bloggers, and skincare obsessives around the globe, her vast real-world knowledge and constant research are why Marie Claire calls her “the most passionate skin practitioner we know.”