The Best Skincare Regimen For Sensitive Skin, With Products That Actually Work (For A Change)
There are a few different definitions for the word sensitive, but the one that resonates most with me is “easily offended or upset.” My skin takes offense to almost everything, and shows me how it feels through cystic acne, dry patches, allergic reactions, and bouts of dermatitis. I’ve come to understand and appreciate its particular nature, though, and now we get along pretty well — so long as I stick to my go-to skincare regimen for sensitive skin.
But finding cleansers, serums, and spot treatments that are gentle enough keep my face calm yet powerful enough to actually do something is no easy feat, and there have been a lot of missteps along the way. For me, trendy acid exfoliators result in redness and irritation, retinoids trigger angry breakouts, and most clay masks leave my barrier tight and stripped — and as a beauty editor living and working in the era of the #shelfie, these limitations feel particularly disappointing. The joy of finding a treatment that seems to magically soothe my reactive skin more than makes up for it, though.
Ahead, the 19 products that have earned a permanent spot in my sensitive skincare lineup, from cleansing balms to hydrating masks and more. (Oh, and pro tip: You don’t even have to have sensitive skin to use them.)
Over-cleansing can strip the skin of its natural oils and leave sensitive faces dry and flaking, which is exactly why I skip out on a full face wash routine in the mornings. Instead, I splash on a little bit of Cleansing Water. Formulated with minimal, natural ingredients (like cucumber, aloe water, and coconut water), it gently cleanses and tones in one fell swoop. (Plus, there are crystals in the bottle for extra good vibes.)
Little known fact: Hard water might be to blame for random irritation. Since the water in my area is harsh and mineral-filled, I load up on this water-resistant cleansing balm while I’m in the shower to keep my skin safe. The best part? You can either remove it with a cotton pad (which leaves behind a bouncy layer of moisture) or rinse it off completely.
If I wear makeup, I always opt for a double cleanse situation when it’s time to remove it. This oil cleanser from One Love Organics, enriched with plant-based vitamin B to detoxify and balance, removes it all in one shot — no scrubbing necessary.
Sometimes an oil cleanser isn’t enough to really give pores a deep clean. In those instances, I reach for Ceramic Slip. It features kaolin clay to absorb excess dirt and oil, and balances it out with olive oil esters and neroli to keep skin soft and hydrated.
Toners and Mists
I had a really hard time finding a toner I liked — so many of them include alcohol and added fragrance (both of which can cause irritation). Now I just make (and sell) my own with a blend of distilled water and tea tree oil, an essential oil that’s known to gently unclog pores and kill acne-causing bacteria.
I’ve stashed a bottle of Dr. Roebuck’s Bondi Hydrating Mist in my purse so that it’s with me everywhere I go. I adore its thirst-quenching blend of aloe vera and cucumber so much that I even use it as a makeup setting spray.
IMHO, this is a must for stressed skin. Hemp seed oil (aka, CBD) helps reduce redness and calm active breakouts, while rosehip oil features vitamins A and C to provide anti-aging benefits and next-level moisturization.
While not *technically* a serum, Aurelia’s lightweight cream can be mixed in with any serum or moisturizer to add a quick hit of good bacteria to your skin; which has all types of benefits, like improved microbiome function (to keep bad bacteria out and moisture in) and reduced inflammation. Since I've started using this, my skin feels less reactive — I think because my barrier is stronger.
Moisturizers and Night Creams
Finding moisturizers that provide adequate hydration without clogging my acne-prone pores has been my biggest skincare challenge yet, but Biossance’s Squalane and Probiotic Gel Moisturizer does exactly that. Made with squalane — a plant-derived version of squalene, which naturally occurs in our skin to lock in moisture — it sinks into the skin like a dream and keeps it moisturized beyond belief.
If a cure for dry, flaking skin is what you’re after, then Weleda Skin Food is what you need. This super-thick moisturizer can be used on face or body to provide the ultimate dewy glow (minus the greasy finish).
Whenever my skin is in the midst of a reaction of any kind — acne, redness, swelling, whatever — I slather my face in Taui’s Egyptian healing balm. There are only four natural, organic ingredients inside (olive oil, beeswax, honey, and propolis), but they work together to pack a powerfully soothing punch.
More of a sleeping mask than a moisturizer, Kat Rudu’s Jet Set Mask Cream is a savior for dry skin. I can personally promise that the botanical blend of plumping hyaluronic acid, soothing cucumber, and barrier-repairing macadamia nut oil will transform your skin overnight. (At least, that's what it did for mine!)
Face oils are my favorite thing ever — I’ll sometimes skip all the previous skincare products in favor of a single coat of oil at night — and this one from Flower & Bone Supply is my number one. Made with a slew of natural, organic ingredients including jojoba, carrot seed, and sea buckthorn oils; rosehip, nettles, comfrey, chamomile, lavender, and calendula herbs; and essential oils like frankincense and sandalwood, I liken it to Vintner’s Daughters’ iconic formula — but better (and only $18, too).
Universal Face Oil is packed with algae, which is incredible for soothing dry, inflamed skin; watermelon seed oil, an acne-fighting agent; and moringa, an antioxidant superfood that protects skin from pollution. This has quickly become one of my sensitive skin go-tos, since it’s light enough to wear during the day (yes, even under makeup).
Sure, this Herbivore Botanicals oil is extremely hydrating/soothing/glow-inducing — but the real reason I love Lapis is because its brilliant blue color looks great sitting on my bathroom sink and the smell is seriously intoxicating (both are courtesy of jasmine sambac oil).
Need to shrink a pimple fast — without any of the irritating effects of salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide? Invest in a vial of Living Libations Dew Dab to take down blemishes in a few hours, thanks to chamomile oil (to calm) and frankincense oil (to brighten).
Clay masks can be drying, but are sometimes necessary to de-gunk clogged pores. I like Grown Alchemist’s version since it utilizes white clay — the gentlest kind there is — and mixes it with antioxidant-rich wheatgerm and cranberry extract to keep sensitive skin protected from the elements.
Jordan Samuel Skin Hydrate Facial Serum also acts as a moisturizing mask when mixed with a dollop of the Sensitive Skin Cleanser (below). I personally like to leave this mixture on for 20 minutes when my skin is extra-dry, and it always feels — and looks — soft and dewy afterwards.
Use this to cleanse at night, then mix with the above serum for a super-moisturizing 20-minute mask.
Powdered rose quartz and pearl extract work double duty in Poppy and Someday’s dry mask: The fine granules slough away dead skin cells *and* refract light, to leave skin fresh and glowy. Since the mask features kaolin clay as well, I love to mix it with Manuka honey for an extra dose of hydration.