How to Tell If You Have Sensitive Skin (and What to Do About It)

If youre reading this, odds are youre into skincare. We all know an effective routine works with your skin type, but if you have sensitive skin, there are many more factors you need to take into account. To prevent irritation and flare-ups, you need to make sure all your products are free of ingredients that will send your skin into a panic. However, a lot of the time, finding the right products and routine can feel like a never-ending process of elimination.

With that said, theres a lot of confusion in the skincare space and plenty of myths. This can inspire someone to apply a plethora of AHAs and BHAs onto their skin and top them off with a strong dose of retinol. Using those ingredients in moderation can do wonders for the skin, but misusing active ingredients can lead to sensitized skin.

Indeed many things lead to skin sensitization (such as excess sun exposure), so figuring out whether or not your skin is actually sensitive isnt exactly straightforward. To better understand what sensitive skin is and how to determine whether or not you have it, we tapped three dermatologists—Karan Lal, MD, Anna Karp, MD, and Paul Jarrod Frank, MD—and asked them to clarify any confusion.

Meet the Expert

Karan Lal, MD, is an Arizona-based board-certified dermatologist. Anna Karp, MD, is a New York-based board-certified dermatologist. Paul Jarrod Frank, MD, is a board-certified cosmetic dermatologist in Manhattan.

What Is Sensitive Skin?

"Sensitive skin can be an ongoing condition caused by a treatment, age, or biological skin disorder," says Frank. In short, genetics are mainly to blame. In fact, research has even begun to identify the genes responsible for sensitive skin.1Furthermore, common skin conditions like eczema, rosacea, and psoriasis all fall under the sensitive skin umbrella. So, if your skin feels sore, is red, dry, or generally experiences negative reactions to external factors, it may be sensitive.

What Is Sensitized Skin?

"Sensitized skin is skin that becomes red, flaky, itchy, and/or burns after application of certain skincare products," explains Lal. Karp says sensitization can also be triggered by over-exfoliation, allergic reactions, and environmental conditions. To prevent reactions, she says to avoid those triggers to the best of your ability and adopt a gentle skincare routine.

How To Tell If You Have Sensitive or Sensitized Skin

Both sensitive and sensitized skin can look and feel similar when irritated—red, dry, flakey, itchy, bumpy, and present a burning sensation—but theres an easy way to make the distinction:"Sensitive skin is always reactive, while sensitized skin is a new symptom," explains Karp.

How to Treat Sensitive Skin

Thankfully, there are many ways to treat sensitive skin at home. Karp says to avoid products with benzoyl peroxide, alcohols, exfoliating scrubs, retinoids, essential oils, and AHA/BHA acids in higher concentrations. As for sensitive skin-friendly ingredients, she recommends incorporating barrier strengthening-ingredients like ceramides and niacinamide into your routine—SkinFixs Triple Lipid Barrier Cream ($54) is an excellent option for reinforcing the skin barrier and is full of soothing ingredients such as shea butter and peptides.

Many products that are safe for sensitive skin types will be marketed as gentle and fragrance-free, so look out for those call-outs. And make sure to use sunscreen—those with sensitive complexions are more prone to inflammation from UV rays than other skin types—but opt for a mineral SPF, as its less likely to irritate than a chemical one.

Unlike with other skin conditions, there arent in-office treatments you can get to treat sensitive skin, as its mainly a genetics issue. However, you can visit an allergist who can pinpoint what ingredients your skin is allergic to, or visit a dermatologist for patch testing so you can steer clear of products containing these irritants.

The 10 Best Sensitive Skin Products Under $10, According to a Dermatology Resident

Article Sources

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Bataille A, Le Gall-Ianotto C, Genin E, Misery L. Sensitive skin: lessons from transcriptomic studies. Front Med (Lausanne). 2019;6:115. doi:10.3389/fmed.2019.00115

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