The term “sensitive skin” has been getting a lot of buzz in the beauty industry lately. From foundations and serums to body washes and shampoos, brands are flooding the market with products aimed at those who suffer from sensitivities. But what is sensitive skin, really? Is it a skin type? Is it caused by environmental factors? And how, exactly, do you treat it?
We called on Dr. Frauke Neuser, principal scientist for Olay, and Dr. Renita Ahluwalia, a dermatologist with the Canadian Dermatology Centre, to answer frequently asked questions about sensitive skin, including what it is, how to prevent flare-ups and what products to use to soothe it.
What is sensitive skin and and how does it differ from reactive skin?
Even though it’s a term that’s often used to explain away painful symptoms, Ahluwalia notes that sensitive skin is not a medical diagnosis. “[It’s a self-reported], all-encompassing term that people use to describe a plethora of skin conditions where the skin can become red, bumpy, inflamed and irritated with symptoms including stinging, burning and pain.”
While sensitive skin can be a skin type you’re born with—some people are genetically predisposed to sensitivities, because their skin produces less oil or gets inflamed easily—it can also arise as a result of external factors like too hot (or too cold) temperatures, stress, pollution or as a reaction to a specific skincare ingredient.
Many people who describe their skin as sensitive often fall into the latter camp, and a more accurate term for what they’re experiencing is reactive skin—meaning that their skin reacts easily to certain elements.
What causes skin to be sensitive or reactive?
Skin sensitivities or reactions can be caused by genetics, environmental factors, specific skincare ingredients or even age—or a mix of those elements. Different people also suffer from varying degrees of sensitivity.
Many skin sensitivities are the result of a compromised skin barrier—which can leave skin more susceptible to irritation, explains Neuser. (The skin barrier is the protective outermost layer of the skin.)
It’s also common to develop skin sensitivities later in life, which can sometimes be caused by biological changes or stress and can be complicated by the fact that skin becomes drier and thinner with age.
Skincare and body care products can also contribute to a weakened skin barrier. “Well-meaning individuals trying to combat acne, aging or dullness using any and every [skincare product] they can find,” says Ahluwalia. In those situations, she advises taking a less-is-more approach. “It’s important to pay attention not only to the ingredients you’re using in your skincare, but also to the combination of ingredients and how they influence your skin.”
Is sensitive skin a seasonal ailment?
Sensitive skin is common year-round, but seasonal elements can trigger or aggravate it. “Some people suffer more in the winter, while others struggle more in the summer,” says Neuser.
Ahluwalia explains that harsh winter conditions can cause the skin barrier to break down, which in turn makes the skin more susceptible to irritation and dehydration. This can happen to any skin type that’s not properly hydrated in the cold winter months.
In the summer, air conditioning and UV rays can often trigger sensitive skin by irritating skin and disrupting its moisture levels, causing it to dry out.
Why does it seem like more people are experiencing sensitive skin than in the past?
There’s been an uptick in the number of people claiming to have sensitive skin, and there are a few reasons for this. Beauty counters and drugstore aisles are overflowing with skincare options, and Ahluwalia believes that the overuse of potent skincare ingredients—like retinol and AHAs (alpha hydroxy acids)—explains in part why more people seem to be suffering from irritated skin than ever before.
“People are constantly looking for the next best thing to solve their acne, their wrinkles or their dull complexion. Often people with pre-existing skin problems are the ones who try extra hard to find that magic trick,” she says. Used in excess, those products can strip the skin and make it more susceptible to irritation, thus making it more reactive.
However, not all experts agree that sensitive skin is actually on the rise. “Some believe that because there’s a heightened awareness around skin conditions like sensitivity,” says Neuser, “this can make it look like [the incidence of sensitivity is] increasing, although it actually isn’t.”
What ingredients should those with sensitive skin avoid?
This differs from person to person, says Ahluwalia. A few common triggers are fragrances, sulfates (like sodium lauryl sulfate) and chemical sunscreen filters (like oxybenzone), as well as acids such as lactic acid and glycolic acid.
Another factor to consider is the pH of your skin. The ideal pH level of skin is around 5.5. “The use of products that are too acidic or [not acidic enough] alter this pH and disrupt the skin barrier which leads to irritated skin,” says Ahluwalia. Many soaps and even tap water can also throw your skin’s pH out of whack.
What ingredients should those with sensitive skin look for?
Neuser recommends fragrance-free products that are specifically formulated for sensitive skin. “They not only avoid using common ingredients known to trigger sensitivity,” she says, “but they often also include ingredients like niacinamide, that can build the skin’s natural barrier and strengthen its resilience.”
Also reach for products with short ingredient lists. “A long list of ingredients includes more chances for reactions and cross-reactivity,” says Ahluwalia. She also advises looking for hydrators like ceramides—natural lipids found in the skin—as they help to maintain a healthy skin barrier.
Finally, it’s beneficial to choose a product with a pH level that’s similar to that of your skin. Some skincare products state their pH level on their packaging; if all else fails, you can also purchase pH test strips online to test your products yourself.
Besides skincare, what can people with sensitive skin do to help prevent flare-ups?
A gentle skincare routine is essential to keep sensitive skin healthy and strong, but lifestyle choices also come into play. To help prevent flare-ups, both Ahluwalia and Neuser suggest managing stress, maintaining a healthy, well-balanced diet (spicy food can trigger flare-ups in some people), exercising regularly to improve blood circulation and quitting smoking as it depletes nutrients in the skin.