Updated 10/05/22. With so many skincare products containing potent and effective active ingredients, you might notice you experience a stinging sensation when they’re applied. It might not last very long, but it’s definitely happening. Is this a good thing? Does it mean the products are working effectively? Or, is it a bad thing? In this post, I’ll answer all of this and more.
What Does It Mean When Skincare Products Sting?
A stinging sensation happens due to an inflammatory reaction to a skincare product. The face has nerve fibers that are close to the skin’s surface. When a skincare product is applied that’s either not agreeable with your skin or has a lower pH than your skin, you can get varying degrees of sensation.
Since there are also blood vessels that are close to the surface of the skin, this inflammatory reaction can also lead to redness.
The 3 Levels of Sting
The first level is the mildest. It’s a slight sensation that dissipates quickly (usually within five seconds). You can feel something happening, but it resolves on its own without any visible redness.
This is a little more intense than the tingle level. It’s a mild prickling sensation that will go away on its own but may take around 10 seconds to do so. The skin may or may not look slightly pink and flushed.
This is the most intense level. It’s a moderate to severe prickling sensation that continues for a long while. When skincare products sting, you’ll feel it a lot. If it continues for more than a minute, you’ll likely enter the burning-feeling phase (not good!).
Sometimes a sting will go away on its own, but other times, it won’t go away until whatever caused it has been rinsed or washed off. Depending on the severity of the sensation, the skin will get a flushed, red look.
What Are the Common Causes of a Stinging Sensation?
There are many possible reasons why your skincare products sting. Here are some of the most common.
- The product has a lower pH than your skin (such as those that contain exfoliating acids).
- The product is highly fragranced with perfumes or essential oils, such as citrus or mint oils.
- The product contains solvent alcohols like SD Alcohol 40 or Denatured Alcohol.
- Your moisture barrier is compromised, whether that’s from the changing of the seasons, a severe lack of oil or water, or using harsh products. (Learn all about your moisture barrier and how to repair it if it’s damaged.)
- Your skin is naturally sensitive. This is common in Skin Types 4, 5, and 9. (Don’t know your skin type? Take the Skin Type Quiz to find out!)
- Your skin simply isn’t agreeing with a product. In this case, it can be difficult to know exactly which ingredient it is.
- You’re taking an oral medication that lists stinging as a side effect.
Is It Ever Okay or Considered Normal for Skincare Products to Sting?
There are a few instances in which a sensation can be expected. One is when you’re using an exfoliating acid product, such as one with glycolic, lactic, malic, or salicylic acids. They work by lowering the skin’s pH, putting it in an acidic state. Sometimes, a slight tingle, stingle, or sting can be expected. If it’s stronger than that or lasts longer than it should, consider switching to something gentler. I like the Ultra Gentle Smoothing Serum. I formulated it specifically for sensitive skin types.
Another instance is if you apply a product to broken skin, such as a freshly picked, open blemish. Unless it’s a drying spot treatment, I wouldn’t recommend doing this, as it could cause further irritation.
So, unless it’s an exfoliating acid product, you should feel nothing when skincare products are applied. A lack of a stinging sensation means your barrier is intact and functioning properly.
My Exfoliating Acid Serum Used to Sting, But Now It Doesn’t. Does This Mean It’s Not Working Anymore?
Many people will notice a stingle or a sting when they first start using exfoliating acids. This is completely expected. After a while, though, this can go away. Why? Because exfoliating acids actually improve lipid production to repair the skin barrier (cool, right?). As the barrier becomes stronger, less of a sting will be felt.
The problem is that some people associate stinging with efficacy. It’s the “no pain, no gain” mentality. If you keep trying to chase the sting by moving up to a higher percentage of acids, you could cause damage to your skin by keeping it in a state of inflammation. The goal is for you not to experience much of a tingle, stingle, or sting at all!
When Is It Not Normal for Skincare Products to Sting?
It’s not normal to experience a stinging sensation when you’re using a product that doesn’t lower the skin’s pH or when you’re using a product that stings and then leads to dry, patchy skin (a condition known as contact dermatitis). If you do feel a stinging sensation in these cases, stop using the product so as to not damage your skin.
Note: Sometimes, eye creams can cause the eyes to sting and water. This isn’t usually due to the formulation of the eye cream itself but to its application. You shouldn’t be applying it close enough to your lash line to where it could seep into your eyes.
The Bottom Line
All of those active ingredients won’t do your skin any good if you’re constantly putting it in a state of irritation and inflammation. Healthy skin starts with calm, hydrated skin. You want to focus on strengthening your moisture barrier to seal in water and avoid sensitivity! That way, your skin won’t be as reactive.
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. Her hands-on experience as an esthetician and trusted skin care expert has created a real-world solution — products that are formulated for nine different types of skin so your face will get exactly what it needs to look and feel its best. 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.”