Sensitive Skin 101

About Your Skin

About Your Skin

Sensitive Skin 101

Understanding Sensitive Skin

Does your skin seem to have a mind of its own? If you frequently experience unpleasant itching, burning, or stinging sensations, or if your skin reacts to just about anything – or seemingly nothing – then you might have what is known as sensitive skin syndrome. Though it can be baffling and frustrating, sensitive skin syndrome is a common condition that affects up to 60-70% of women and 50-60% of men.1

Sensitive skin reacts to irritants that don’t affect normal skin, becoming itchy, red and painful. People with sensitive skin are more likely to react to:

Soaps, lotions and cosmetic

Drastic temperature changes

Low air quality

Did You Know?

Sensitive skin symptoms generally show up within one hour following exposure to trigger factors and can persist for minutes or even hours2.

Signs & Symptoms

What to Look For

While your exact symptoms can vary, those with sensitive skin can experience various unpleasant sensations. All parts of the body can be affected, especially the face.3

Contact Irritants like Cosmetics

Hot or Cold Temperatures

Dry or Humid Air

Sun Exposure

High Stress Levels

Hormone Fluctuations


What to Avoid

Triggers for sensitive skin are many and varied. Some people with sensitive skin are highly sensitive to a wide range of irritants while others are mainly sensitive to environmental factors; still others react mostly to contact irritants, such as cosmetics.4

Did You Know?

Though you might think that a rich skin lotion will provide greater protection for sensitive skin, lotions with lighter textures are preferrable because they are easier to apply, so there is less rubbing and a lower chance of skin irritation4

Classifications of Sensitive Skin

Though sensitive skin isn’t caused by a skin disease, it can make you more susceptible to developing one and vice versa4

1. Primary

Sensitive skin with no associated skin disease

2. Secondary

A skin condition, such as contact dermatitis, rosacea or acne is also present

Causes of Sensitive Skin

The precise cause of sensitive skin is an ongoing topic of debate within the medical community. Currently, impaired barrier function is the prevailing theory. Poor skin barrier function makes skin more permeable and prone to dehydration. Increased permeability may also allow substances to penetrate more deeply into the skin where they can activate the skin’s immune response leading to inflammation, swelling and redness.

But not all sensitive skin patients are found to have impaired barrier function. Three categories of sensitive skin have been described:

Type I:

Low barrier function

Type II:

Normal barrier function with inflammatory changes

Type II:

Normal barrier function without inflammation but with reactivity problems

What's The Difference

Sensitive vs. Sensitized

Sensitive skin and sensitized skin can look and feel very similar. Both typically cause redness, dryness, itchiness, or burning. Both also involve I ncreased responsiveness of pain receptors in the skin.5 But they are two distinctly different conditions.

Skin can become sensitized in one of three ways:

1. Skin products that contain harsh ingredients or overdoing certain products, such as acid peels or retinol. Sensitization to a chemical irritant can provoke a reaction.

2. A diet that promotes inflammation - high in animal products, sugar and processed foods.

3. Exposure to environmental stressors such as pollution, harsh environments, or cigarette smoke.

Sensitive VS Sensitized

  • Inherited
  • Redness, dryness, itching or burning
  • Heightened pain response
  • Symptoms wax and wane but are chronic
  • Response is localized to the skin
  • Caused by impaired skin barrier
  • Multiple potential triggers
  • Acquired
  • Redness, dryness, itching or burning
  • Heightened pain response
  • Symptoms only appear when exposure to sensitized trigger occurs
  • Can cause an allergy to the triggering substance
  • Response an become systemic, including fever
  • Not caused by impaired barrier but can lead to barrier disfunction
  • Limited to specific triggers

Did You Know?

The risk of developing allergies is up to five times higher in individuals with sensitive skin6.

Managing Symptoms

1. Avoid Triggers

While you can’t control the weather, you might be able to control the air in your home or office to prevent skin from becoming excessively dry.
Unlike the weather, skin care products and chemicals are much more under your control. Your skin care products should contain as few ingredients as possible. It’s important to avoid harsh chemicals, particularly abrasives or chemical exfoliants, or drying agents, including ingredients such as tretinoin, alcohol, benzoyl peroxide and glycolic acid. It’s possible that once you avoid triggers and build up your skin’s barrier function, you may be able to use these ingredients in moderation.1

2. Restore Barrier Function

This three-phase moisturizing process can help gently restore and maintain a healthy skin barrier:

1. Passive moisturizers, such as vegetable oils or silicones, to reduce water loss and balance the skin’s pH.

2. Active moisturizers, like hyaluronic acid, to retain water in the skin’s outer layers.

3. Relipidizing agents, including ceramides to restore the skin’s lipids, which help protect the skin and retain moisture.4

Any products you use on your skin should hydrate without disrupting the skin’s protective lipids. Choose skin products that are as simple as possible, without contaminants, fragrances, alcohol, or harsh preservatives.1

Myths, Debunked


Sensitive skin is caused by an allergy.

Having sensitive skin makes your skin seem dry.

People with sensitive skin should only use organic, natural, or hypoallergenic skin care products.

Sensitive skin only affects the face.

If you have sensitive skin, you should not use makeup.


Sensitive skin and allergic skin are distinct conditions Sensitive skin is something you are born with, and allergic skin is an acquired immune response.

The struggle with dryness in sensitive skin is real. Sensitive skin loses moisture easily and as a result, becomes dry, red and irritable when triggered by irritants.

It depends on you and what your skin reacts to, which can be anything. While there are some ingredients that people with sensitive skin should avoid (see above) there are no products or ingredients that are guaranteed to be safe.

Your face is the part of your body that is most exposed to the weather and to airborne toxins and pollutants. It is the most common area affected by sensitive skin, but by no means the only area. All parts of the body, from your scalp to your feet, can be affected.

While it may be necessary to eliminate makeup from your routine while you are regaining control of your sensitive skin, by no means should you have to remain makeup-free indefinitely. Once our barrier function is restored, you can use makeup, but you’ll want to replace your old, irritating products.

1 Sensitive Skin Syndrome: An Update. Am J Clin Dermatol, 2020. 21(3): p. 401-409

2 Neuropsychiatric factors in sensitive skin. Clin Dermatol, 2017. 35(3): p. 281-284

3 Definition of Sensitive Skin: An Expert Position Paper from the Special Interest Group on Sensitive Skin of the International Forum for the Study of Itch. Acta Derm Venereol, 2017. 97(1): p. 4-6

4 Diagnosis and Treatment of Sensitive Skin Syndrome: An Algorithm for Clinical Practice. Actas Dermosifiliogr (Engl Ed), 2019. 110(10): p. 800-808

5 Intense pain influences the cortical processing of visual stimuli projected onto the sensitized skin. Pain, 2017. 158(4): p. 691-697

6 Sensitive skin. J Eur Acad Dermatol Venereol, 2016. 30 Suppl 1: p. 2-8