Has a new skincare cream or foundation ever caused your skin to become red, perhaps with tiny, acne-like bumps? Or do the scents of certain household products tend to disagree with you? Have you self-diagnosed yourself with sensitive skin and try to purchase only those labeled “hypoallergenic”?
While there is a difference between sensitive skin as a condition versus having a one-time reaction to an ingredient or compound in a product, the symptoms of sensitive skin are incredibly unpleasant, disruptive and something we want to avoid altogether at all costs.
Truly sensitive easily reacts to any or most products and is characterized by flushed areas of the cheeks, visibly broken capillaries, blotchiness, burning or stinging and irritation such as hives or peeling. Luckily, now more than ever, it’s fairly easy to navigate skincare, cosmetic and household brands to determine irritating ingredients. You can also implement simple lifestyle and general skincare tips to nurture your highly reactive skin.
Types of sensitive skin
According to dermatologist Leslie Baumann, MD, there are four types of sensitive skin, and each of them experience inflammation:
- Burning and stinging
- Contact dermatitis (allergies and irritants)
Sensitive skin types also include those with eczema and psoriasis and, although it mostly affects dry skin, oily and combination skins are also susceptible.
For those who frequently experience reactions to products, it’s best to have a dermatologist determine and diagnose their skin type. Factors that dermatologists consider include age, gender and race. They usually look for:
- Skin reactions, such as pustules, bumps or erosions
- Very dry skin that does not properly protect nerve endings
- A tendency toward blushing and flushing
Sensitive skin, such as those prone to acne, eczema and psoriasis, can be inherited. Skin irritation from a reaction to a certain skincare product, cosmetic or household product is not inherited.
Why sensitive skin needs special care
Sensitive skin tends to be thinner with fine pores. It reacts easily to product ingredients, secondary substances in common household items, sun exposure, wind exposure or even eating a certain food.
What to watch for if you have sensitive skin
The first step is to look for products that contain no fragrance, since fragrance is the #1 cause of reaction for sensitive skin. Keep in mind most products labeled “fragrance-free” are not 100% fragrance free because they contain about 1-2% of some fragrance to mask any natural scent. Certain ingredients to avoid include but are not limited to:
- Glycolic acid/alpha hydroxy acid (AHA)
- Alcohol-based products
- Antibacterial or deodorant soaps
- Retinols or retinoids, especially Retin-A
- Sodium Laurel Sulfates (SLSs)
- Propylene glycol
- Sunscreens containing PABA
- Botanical compounds including menthol, lavender and citrus oils
Recommended ingredients for sensitive skin
While no two skin types are alike, these ingredients are much less likely to irritate the skin:
- Vitamins A, C and E, although some may be allergic to vitamin C
- Ursolic acid, which is derived from rosemary, sage or apple skin and helps to rebuild the outer layers of skin
- A physical sunscreen of SPF 30 (no less) and includes zinc oxide or titanium dioxide
- Botanical compounds including cucumber, calendula or chamomile
General skincare tips for sensitive skin
Always select brands and products that are dermatologist-tested or clinical-based and are labeled “hypoallergenic” or “allergy tested.” However, keep in mind these terms do not guarantee you won’t have a reaction – they’re just less likely to irritate. Read the labels on products and choose those with 10 or fewer ingredients. Surprisingly, natural skincare brands aren’t always the best option. While they sound like a logical choice for sensitive skin, many of them contain active plant and botanical compounds and fragrances that could irritate just as much as a synthetic blend can.
Other skincare tips include:
- Have a few go-to products and avoid using multiple brands.
- Limit how often you wash your face. Most sensitive types can use plain water in the morning and a cleanser at night, when it’s the most crucial to wash off oils, makeup, perspiration and other pore-clogging impurities.
- Choose an alcohol-free toner and use it in a spritzer (which causes less amount of friction to the skin).
- Always moisturize, especially in winter. Sensitive skin needs to maintain a balanced moisture barrier.
- Exfoliate 1-2 times per week and avoid exfoliators with large, fragmented beads. Look for ones with smaller, perfectly spherical beads, or make your own using 3 tbsp of brown sugar or baking soda mixed with 1-2 tbsp of water.
- Limit showers to 5-10 minutes and use lukewarm water. If skin is very dry, focus on washing the armpits, groin and feet only. Pat dry instead of rubbing.
Lifestyle tips for sensitive skin
Along with avoiding fragrance-based products, there are several other common irritants to avoid:
- Quaternium 15 – a specialized ammonium salt that is used as a preservative in many cosmetics, industrial substances and even some clothing
- Nickel – usually found in earring posts and zippers
- Balsam of Peru – a sticky, aromatic liquid that is used in skincare products (including baby powder), fragrances and some foods
When it comes to diet, choose foods with essential fatty acids (for oil production) and vitamins A, C and E (for the antioxidants). When it comes to clothes, choose cotton and avoid wool (too rough) and synthetic fabrics (which cause more perspiration).
Other lifestyle factors include:
- Purify your home or environment by opening windows to get in fresh air. In the winter, consider purchasing a humidifier and avoid overheating rooms.
- When it comes to cosmetics, avoid applying too much eyeshadow or eyeliner in certain colors, such as greens, purples, bright blues, and choose neutrals (brown and black) since they contain less colorants and dyes. Avoid using liquid eyeliner and choose pencil. Avoid waterproof mascara since they contain thick waxes and require a special cleanser to remove. Use a silicone-based foundation and throw out all old cosmetics (for example, a lip gloss that is more than six months old).
When purchasing skincare products at a specialty or department store that offers testers, avoid applying the products directly to face and especially the eyes. Instead, apply product behind the ear, since the skin is similar to the skin on the face.
Keep in mind there are few federal rules or standards that skincare companies must comply with when labeling products for sensitive skin. Also, the FDA regulates the manufacture and marketing of products but not which ingredients are used. For those who need further information, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Library of Medicine (NLM) Specialized Information Sources offer websites that list brands and products with potentially irritating ingredients.