The Telltale Signs To Deciding If You Have Sensitive Skin

Not all irritation is created equal.

by Madge Maril and Natasha Marsh
Originally Published: 
sensitive skin

Dry. Oily. Combination. Not so long ago, there were only three household-name skin types — then sensitive skin arrived. Although skin sensitivity has always been a certifiable "thing," it's only recently established itself as a mainstream skin type, too, leading shoppers everywhere who once thought of themselves as one of the big three to begin wondering, 'Do I have sensitive skin?'

Short answer: maybe. But the concept of "sensitive skin" is more nebulous than it seems at first glance. "This is indeed very much like the term 'clean beauty' or 'hypoallergenic,' where there really is no standard definition and the term means something different depending on whom you are talking to," says Robin Schaffran M.D., the chief dermatologist at Balmlabs. "The way I define sensitive skin is that it is a specific type of skin that is very easily irritated and largely intolerant of many different topical products which, when used, often cause symptoms of burning and stinging, with or without accompanying rashes."

This means that there is a solid difference between sensitive skin and sensitized skin, a term used to describe irritated skin. Did you start using retinol or a heavy-duty face scrub before you began wondering if you have sensitive skin? You might've triggered sensitization. "Sensitized skin refers to skin that becomes irritated, for instance after using a strong product, while sensitive skin is very easily irritated, even by products or environments that don’t normally cause irritation," explains Founder of Skin Joy Dermatology, Saya Obayan, M.D., M.P.H. "It’s important to spot the difference because sensitization can be corrected by stopping whatever is irritating the skin,” Obayan continues. “Once the product is stopped, and with some moisturizing and gentle cleansing, the skin can return to normal."

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If you can rule out any inflammatory products — and you're still experiencing irritated skin — then you might fall into the sensitive skin type. However, that doesn't necessarily move you out of another type you've always identified with or experienced, like dry or combination. Obayan notes that sensitive skin is "typically found in combination with dry skin," though can occur with oily and combination skin types as well.

With that in mind, it's time to break down the sensitive skin signs. Ahead, what to watch out for if you think you're a sensitive skin type, too.

Sensitive Skin Sign: Burning, Itching, & Redness

Does your skin turn red or begin feeling itchy when you smooth on a cult-favorite, ultra-gentle moisturizer that none of your friends have a problem with? That's a red flag. "Common signs of sensitive skin include burning, stinging, itching, and redness. These often occur when using over-the-counter products like facial cleansers, moisturizers, or sunscreens," says Obayan. "Studies show sensitive skin tends to have easily triggered nerves. Because these nerves are easily triggered, it doesn’t take much for them to cause itch, pain, and redness."

Let's talk about that redness for a second though. It can be scary to experience, honestly — especially when it occurs just from washing your face or applying sunscreen — though know that it's an attempt from your body to heal. "When skin is irritated, it causes an inflammatory reaction which releases different inflammatory proteins and causes blood vessels in the skin to open up or dilate. The increased blood flow makes the skin look more red, but flushes away any toxins in the skin," Obayan explains. "This is the skin’s way of showing that it’s been damaged and it's protecting itself. A similar reaction happens when you are sunburned."

Sensitive Skin Sign: Your Environment Is A Trigger

If the weather outside is frightful, your skin might not feel that delightful. "Some people develop sensitive skin in the winter when the air is cold and dry," Obayan says. "Some people do have sensitive skin their entire lives and need to avoid products and climates that trigger their skin. Moisturizing and hydrating can help."

But OK, let's say you can't just up and move because your skin's finicky. Understandable. There are ways to coexist with your sensitive skin that don't involve cross-country house swaps. Obayan says the key to living with this skin type is finding gentle and non-irritating products: "Frequently, there is an issue with the skin barrier such as low production of ceramides and oils such as squalene. Using moisturizing products containing ceramides, squalene, oils, and lipids can be very helpful in restoring the skin barrier in those with sensitive skin."

"Other products that can help sensitive skin include calming ingredients that help manage irritation and include things with CBD and niacinamide," adds Schaffran. "It’s also important when you have rashes from sensitive skin that you treat the rashes as well, usually with some type of prescription cream."

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Sensitive Skin Sign: Your Acne Needs Sensitive Products

Acne skin care products aren't exactly known for being gentle on skin, and it can be an uphill battle of treating acne, then irritated skin, then more acne — so on, so forth. Stop the cycle in its tracks by moisturizing properly and focusing on gentler acne treatments. Obayan recommends using "a gentle form of salicylic acid called lipohydroxy acid, which is less irritating," and cleansers or lotions with less than four percent of benzoyl peroxide.

"Using more gentle treatments like bakuchiol and adapalene instead of Retin-A or tretinoin can be very helpful for people with sensitive skin," she notes. "Stick with lotions, creams, and oils instead of gels, which tend to contain alcohol and are more drying and irritating."

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