If your skin turns red sometimes, or you tend to react weirdly when you try new products, you may have decided you’ve got sensitive skin. You’re not alone — “sensitive skin” is a term that gets thrown around a lot by all sorts of people. But what does it really mean? Can you officially be diagnosed with sensitive skin? How do you know if you have it? What do you do if your skin is really sensitive? Don’t worry — we’ve got the answers to all these questions… keep reading!
Can you be officially diagnosed with sensitive skin?
The short answer is no, you can’t. The term sensitive skin is not a diagnosis, rather it’s an umbrella term that’s used to describe skin that’s easily irritated or inflamed by certain products, ingredients, or the environment.
If your skin is prone to redness, dryness, stinging, burning, flakiness, or itchiness, you likely have sensitive skin. Basically, if your skin is finicky, it’s probably sensitive! You may also notice these symptoms get worse in certain circumstances — after you’re exposed to sunlight, when you’re in extreme temperatures, or as you apply beauty products or certain skincare.
If the description above sounds familiar, it’s important to distinguish between sensitive skin and a mild allergic reaction — known as “contact dermatitis.” If you have sensitive skin, it’s typically sensitive to multiple factors in a variety of circumstances. With contact dermatitis, however, you may develop a rash from your lotion, but not when your face is exposed on a windy day.
So what does having sensitive skin really mean?
For starters, if your skin is red and flaky, it’s possible that it’s simply dry and dehydrated. Yup, those are two different things! Read all about it in our story, then try using a quality hydrator + moisturizer and see if switching up your moisturizing routine helps your skin.
All of the characteristics of sensitive skin are also common with certain dermatological conditions — namely acne, rosacea, keratosis pilaris, and eczema. If you feel you have sensitive skin, it may be because you have one of these underlying conditions. Try setting up an appointment with your dermatologist to figure out if have one of these conditions.
Those with truly sensitive skin have what dermatologists refer to as a thin lipid barrier. This means your skin doesn’t have as thick of a fatty layer to protect it from harsh environmental aggressors, skincare ingredients, or the loss of moisture. If you have a weak immune system, it can also play into having sensitive skin — your body may have less strength to fight environmental aggressors and foreign ingredients.
Okay, I definitely have sensitive skin. Am I doomed?
We understand your fear of being red in the face for the rest of your life, but trust us — your world is not over.
Here are 9 helpful tips and tricks to keep your sensitive skin at bay!
1. Test out new products before using them.
Sensitive skin is just that — sensitive. And that means you never know what will cause irritation until you try it.
That doesn’t mean you cant ever step foot in Sephora again, it just means you should be diligent about testing new products on a patch of skin before you slather them all over your face or body. Try a small dot behind your ear or on your forearm — if your skin flares up it means that product is a no go.
Pro tip: If your skin does flare up, take a photo or make note of the ingredients. The next time you try a product that your skin decides makes it angry, cross reference the ingredient list — you may be able to find the common culprit that way, which will make avoiding that specific ingredient much easier.
2. Avoid harsh formulas!
Ingredient lists on skin products can be intimidating (what the heck is phenoxyethanol?!), but when you have sensitive skin it’s important to know what you should be avoiding. Common offenders are fragrance, benzoyl peroxide, sulfates, detergent-filed soaps, and petroleum.
Less can be more in this case — look for products with a shorter ingredient list without any of the aforementioned offenders.
Another good tip: The closer the ingredient is to the top of the list, the more of it is in the product, so keep a careful eye on those first few ingredients.
3. Stick to gentle, targeted treatment products.
People with sensitive skin get acne, too. The problem is that many acne products are too strong for delicate skin. But you’re in luck sensitive friends, SLMD Skincare has designed a blemish cream without harsh ingredients. It’s a sulfur-based Blemish Cream and it’s a perfect day or night treatment.
No matter what your condition is, if your skin is sensitive seek out gentle formulas that are made specifically for sensitive skin.
4. Simplify your skincare regimen.
Less is more. The more products you use the more chance for irritation. And unless you’re treating a specific condition, sometimes all you need is a gentle cleanser and a good moisturizer. If you have aging skin, add in 1 treatment product or serum, but keep it simple. If you’ve got acne, rosacea, or KP, find very targeted products for your condition so you’re specifically treating what you know you’re battling.
And remember that makeup counts too! See if you can also cut back on the number of products in your makeup regimen — you may find the silicone, dyes, or glitters in your foundations and highlighters are creating more sensitivity than they’re helping cover up that redness.
5. Choose fragrance-free products.
Fragrances in beauty products are some of the most common irritants. In fact, many of the ingredients in “fragrance” are known allergens. As crazy as it sounds, even products labeled as “unscented” may contain scents to cover up the natural odor of the product. Fragrance-free formulas are your best bet.
6. Use the 2 A’s — Acids and Alcohols — sparingly.
Acids, such as Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs) and Beta Hydroxy Acids (BHAs), are great for the skin, especially as exfoliators. However, some acids are too harsh for sensitive skin. Everyone needs to exfoliate, but someone with sensitive skin should only do so once a week or even once every other week, as opposed to the normal 2-3 times per week recommended for normal skin types.
That second A, alcohols, is another complex subject. There are two types of alcohols in your skincare products. The first type is commonly found in toners and astringents, and they strip the skin of natural protective oils. The second type actually benefits and moisturizes the skin — those are stearyl alcohol, cetyl alcohol, and cetearyl alcohol. Stay far away from products with ethanol or any other alcohols listed in the ingredients.
7. Avoid extra hot water & long showers.
We know, extra-long, extra hot showers are our favorite way to decompress too. Which is why it pains us to tell you that super-hot water — and staying under the water for too long — can be dehydrating in that it strips your skin of its natural oils. Think about your skin like butter on a knife. In cooler water, that butter stays put. But in hotter water, it will melt away. With sensitive skin, keep those natural lipids in place is crucial, so if you’ve got sensitive skin, steaming out your skin will likely cause a not-so-fun reaction.
If you tend to look like a lobster (or just feel extra itchy, dry, or dehydrated) when you get out of the shower in the morning, opt for a quick shower in lukewarm water — it may help with the redness. Turn down the temperature and save your skin!
8. Wash your face only twice a day — and do so very gently!
It may sound obvious, but sometimes it seems like the harder you scrub and rub your cleanser into your face, the cleaner your skin will be. You may even be using a cleansing brush that’s designed for a “deep clean” — but all that could be bad news for your sensitive skin.
When you wash your face, you’re stripping away all the good oils that it’s created to protect itself. When you have sensitive skin, this means your skin already has a weak lipid barrier, so overwashing or washing too aggressively will only irritate your sensitive skin.
To be gentle on that gorgeous, sensitive complexion, don’t “scrub” your face with a harsh sponge or washcloth. Instead, gently suds the cleanser onto your face with your hands and then splash water on your face to rinse. To dry off, pat your face dry with the towel — don’t rub it back and forth.
9. Change your sheets and pillowcases regularly.
Did you know your pillowcase is covered in a delicious combination of oil build up, product residue, dead skin, and sweat?! Gross, we know. All that extra bacteria and dirt can seriously irritate your skin. To avoid all that yucky stuff accumulating, make sure you wash your pillowcase and sheets at least once a week. (Or, if you’re as lazy as we are, pick up an extra set of pillowcases to change out so you can still avoid doing laundry for as long as you need to!)
Pro tip: Check your laundry detergent for irritants and fragrances. Detergent is a common culprit for itchy, red skin.
10. Always, always wear sunscreen!
We saved the most important for last, and we can’t say it enough: Everyone needs sunscreen. However, this is especially true for those with sensitive skin. The sun can cause your skin to become even redder and more inflamed than usual. Practice good sun protection by wearing sunscreen, a hat, and protective clothing. Your face and hands are most susceptible to irritation, so keep them covered when possible.
The catch-22 here is that the ingredients in sunscreen are some of the top irritants for sensitive skin. Look for a sunscreen specially formulated for sensitive skin, there are plenty to choose from and your skin will thank you in the long run.
Our favorite lightweight, everyday SPF is the Daily Moisturizer from SLMD Skincare. It’s great under makeup and goes on light, without feeling cakey or greasy — ideal for acne-prone and sensitive skin!
The bottom line on sensitive skin…
You may feel overwhelmed by this list, but we promise living with sensitive skin is manageable!
Now that you’ve figured out your skin is sensitive, try keeping a diary (or just a note in your phone!) with a list of the things that you did, put on, or ate right before your skin turned itchy and red. Before you know it, you’ll notice patterns. Over time, you’ll learn what triggers your skin and how to avoid it and protect yourself. Here’s to a red-free, flake-free complexion!