The term “sensitive skin” has sort of become a catch-all phrase many of us use for a myriad of different skin concerns, from general irritation to dryness and even specific conditions such as eczema and rosacea. But overusing the word “sensitive” to describe many of the skin conditions we experience isn’t always accurate, notes Craig A. Kraffert, MD, dermatologist in Redding, California. “Everyone has sensitive skin to a certain point—and sensitive can mean different things for different people, so it tends to be an overused adjective.”
While dermatologists do not acknowledge sensitivity as a skin condition in and of itself, they do treat patients with sensitive skin differently, recommending that they take certain precautions that someone else who does not show “sensitive skin” might not need. This might require a change in the use of certain household products; for example opting for moisturizers, soaps, detergents and cosmetics formulated without harsh chemicals, scents, fragrances or dyes.
What causes sensitive skin?
Although the exact etiology of sensitive skin is unknown, Shelley Fox, a nurse practitioner who specializes in adult and pediatric medical dermatology, cosmetic dermatology and laser surgery, explains that the main theory is that sensitive skin types have impaired epidermal barriers that make them more prone to irritation, especially during the winter months. “Dry, sensitive skin can begin within the first few months of life and is thought to be triggered by genetics, environmental factors and/or an impaired immune system response,” she says. “Those suffering from atopic dermatitis or eczema, very common skin conditions causing dry, sensitive, itchy skin, are thought to have the condition due to a genetic mutation, which makes them more susceptible to sensitive skin and rashes when they come in contact with irritants.”
How to care for your sensitive skin
Whether you’ve been battling sensitive skin since you were a child or only recently started experiencing irritation, the first step towards treating it is to change the way you care for your skin. Here are dermatologist-approved solutions that can help.
Discover the root of the problem
When it comes to understanding your skin and how best to manage it if you’re prone to sensitivity, Erum Ilyas, MD, a dermatologist at Montgomery Dermatology, recommends first making an appointment with your dermatologist to discover the culprit. “I cannot tell you how often the trigger can be pinpointed and avoided when it comes to allergic and irritant contact dermatitis,” she says. “Rosacea or seborrheic can be effectively managed separately allowing you to resume a skin care routine and precancerous spots can be treated directly with liquid nitrogen or field therapy with a prescription cream or photodynamic therapy.”
Always apply sunscreen
Many individuals suffering from sensitive skin are afraid to use sunscreen for fear that it might make their irritation even worse. But as long as you’re using a daily mineral (not chemical) sunscreen, your skin should be fine—and protected. “The chemical ingredients will be harsher, therefore they can irritate sensitive skin,” warns Alan J. Parks, MD, dermatologist and founder of Derm Warehouse. “Mineral sunscreen should not cause irritation for those with sensitive skin.” He suggests Nia 24 Sun Damage Prevention 100% Mineral Sunscreen, $49.
Use mild, gentle and unscented cleansers
Sensitive skin types become less irritated when they use cleansers that are free of harsh chemicals such as sodium lauryl sulfate, which is found in most soaps and scrubs. Though it helps the soap lather, it can be very irritating, warns Fox. She recommends CeraVe Hydrating Cleanser, $15, or Neutrogena Hydroboost Hydrating Cleansing Gel, $10, Cetaphil Gentle Skin Cleanser, $14, and Aveeno Positively Radiant Brightening Cleanser, $9.
Moisturize at least twice daily
When applying your moisturizer, which should be done both morning and night, make sure your skin is damp so that it will lock in moisture and hydrate more effectively. If your skin is acne-prone, Fox suggests using a non-comedogenic product moisturizer like CeraVe PM Face Moisturizer, $16. “It’s great for patients who have combination skin or who are using acne medications that cause dryness and sensitive skin,” she says. “Especially during the winter months, those who suffer with sensitive, dry skin will respond better to moisturizing with ointments compared to lotions or creams like CeraVe Healing Ointment, $17.” The key ingredient to look out for is ceramides, which are a very important component of the human skin barrier. “Ceramides are often lacking in the skin barrier of people with dry, sensitive skin, so using products containing them will help restore the skin barrier effectively,” she says.
Use a powdered exfoliator
“In many cases, powdered exfoliators are gentler on skin than alpha hydroxy acid exfoliators, depending on the ingredient base and preparation the product uses as its exfoliant,” explains Dr. Kraffert. “Today, some leading exfoliant cleansers rely on rice seed for physical exfoliation; however, after researching formulations with multiple different plant seed blends and preparation methods in our Korean laboratory, we discovered that for physical exfoliation of the skin, corn seed based formulas supplemented by wheat and rice bran provide the gentlest, most effective, and most consistent clinical results.” He recommends powdered cleansers that rely primarily on corn seed, such as Amarte Daily ExfoliPowder, $37, for sensitive skin, as the exfoliation will not inflame the skin.
Shower and bathe in lukewarm water
Hot water can exacerbate excessively dry skin, so Fox suggests bathing in lukewarm water for no longer than 10 minutes. “After bathing, avoid aggressively drying the skin with a towel—instead gently pat the skin dry,” she says. “For patients who not only suffer from dry skin, but also itchy skin, oatmeal baths can be very helpful as oats are believed to have anti-inflammatory properties.”