What is sensitive skin? Although up to 50 percent of women say they have it, the exact definition varies depending on whom you ask. And despite the vast number of skin-care products targeted at treating sensitive skin, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Sensitive skin reactions can range from breakouts to allergic reactions or even dry, chapped skin.
The organ most exposed to the elements, skin faces an onslaught of external stressors such as dry air, harsh winds and pollution. The health of our skin is also affected by internal factors such as diet, stress, lifestyle choices (smoking, alcohol, caffeine consumption) and genetics.
If you think you have sensitive skin, first be sure the products you use are made with gentle ingredients. When trying a new product, test a dime-size amount on a small area of your skin before using it liberally.
Below, we discuss the four most common types of sensitive skin and look at beneficial (as well as potentially troublesome) ingredients for each condition.
One of the most common sensitive skin conditions is acne, caused by oily skin and high levels of the bacteria Propionibacterium acnes. Genetics play a large role in our susceptibility to acne, but acne can be aggravated by personal-care products that clog pores.
Avoid creamy, occlusive products such as shea butter and coconut oil, as well as alcohol-based products that can dry skin—when sebaceous glands become dehydrated they overproduce oil to compensate. A few other acne-causers commonly found in skin-care products include isopropyl isostearate, isopropyl myristate, sodium lauryl sulfate and peppermint oil, says Leslie Baumann, a doctor and author of The Skin Type Solution. Also check the ingredients in hair-care products, including shampoo, conditioner and styling products, as residue from these products often ends up on skin. (If the ingredients include potential acne-aggravators, wash your face after you wash and condition your hair, or look for products free of those ingredients.)
Use products with antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. Many dermatologists recommend benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid for major acne breakouts, but for some these products can cause side effects including drying, burning or irritating the skin. Before turning to these harsher options, try caring for acne with natural antibacterials and anti-inflammatories. One trial found that a 5 percent tea tree oil gel worked similarly to benzoyl peroxide against acne but with fewer side effects. Another study shows that thyme tincture may be more effective at treating acne than prescription creams. Witch hazel may also reduce skin inflammation. “Prevention is the mainstay of treatment,” Baumann says. “Products should be used even when acne has cleared to prevent recurrence.”
Another of the most common sensitive skin conditions, rosacea plagues an estimated 16 million Americans. This skin sensitivity can cause flushing, pimples and broken blood vessels on the face, and may be worsened by consuming hot beverages, spicy foods or alcohol. The cause of rosacea is still largely unknown, although theories name bacteria, genetics and excessive sun exposure as possibilities.
Avoid skin-care products containing vitamin C and alpha hydroxyl acids (AHAs). These common anti-aging ingredients are acidic and can cause stinging, as can many products tailored for anti-aging. Also steer clear of alcohol, witch hazel, fragrance, menthol, peppermint and eucalyptus oil, all common rosacea irritants, according to the National Rosacea Society. Avoid using hot water, loofahs or rough washcloths, which can aggravate the condition.
Use soothing skin-care products with anti-inflammatory ingredients such as argan oil, feverfew, chamomile, green tea, cucumber and grapeseed oil extract. These natural ingredients may help prevent facial flushing and inflammation. “Despite the many theories and available treatments, over-the-counter and prescription topical creams and gels are pretty disappointing in terms of results,” Baumann says. Sun exposure can also trigger rosacea outbreaks, so protect skin with an SPF 30 mineral-based sunscreen that lists zinc and titanium dioxide as active ingredients.
Burning and Stinging
The causes behind burning or stinging skin are largely unknown. Skin seems to suffer from these sensations because of environmental factors (cold, heat, wind) or overuse of skin-care products with potentially irritating ingredients. Reaction times range from immediate to several days later.
Avoid lactic acid, azaelic acid, benzoic acid, glycolic acid, vitamin C and AHA, all of which can cause stinging according to the American Academy of Dermatology. Also forgo use of “anti-aging” skin-care products. Using ingredients aimed at sloughing away dead skin cells can strip skin, making it more susceptible to irritation. Be especially cautious of the ingredient retinol, a derivative of vitamin A found in skin-care products and sunscreen, and avobenzone, a UVA blocker found in some sunscreens. Even some natural botanicals and essential oils (such as capsaicin, eucalyptus oil, menthol, peppermint and witch hazel) can cause sensitive skin to sting.
Use gentle, high-quality skin-care products with minimal ingredients to help calm skin, and don’t change up your routine frequently—find a couple of products that work and stick with them. Choose products made with anti-inflammatory ingredients such as arnica, green tea, resveratrol and feverfew. A dermatologist can conduct tests to help determine which ingredients cause adverse reactions for you.
Contact dermatitis is inflammation of the skin that occurs when skin comes in contact with an allergen or irritant, resulting in a red, itchy rash. “If your skin gets red, itchy and/or flaky, blame little gaps in your skin’s protective layer that allow irritants in,” Baumann says. It’s difficult to predict what will cause an allergic reaction, so ask your dermatologist to conduct a patch test to safely test your skin.
Avoid skin-care products with harsh ingredients such as dyes, preservatives and perfumes, as well as formaldehyde, benzoyl peroxide, lanolin, parabens and propylene glycol. Even plant essential oils or herbal extracts can result in a rash, especially for those with ragweed allergies. (If you have ragweed allergies, avoid related plant-based ingredients such as chamomile, calendula and feverfew.) Also steer clear of foaming cleansers, which often contain ingredients that can injure the skin’s barrier and allow in allergens. If you suspect a reaction to a certain product, discontinue use immediately.
Use hydrating ingredients such as cholesterol, ceramides and fatty acids to shore up the skin’s barriers and reduce risk of irritation. Contact dermatitis is different for each individual, so it’s difficult to say which ingredients are best to use. If you suspect an allergic reaction after using a new skin-care product, stop using it immediately. Seek a dermatologist if skin does not improve within a few days.
Don’t trust a product label just because it says “natural”—this unregulated label means nothing. Read ingredient labels to determine safety. The Environmental Working Group recently released an app version of its popular Skin Deep Cosmetics database, which offers safety information on personal-care product ingredients.
Mother Earth Living associate editor Gina DeBacker is a natural beauty enthusiast who occasionally suffers from sensitive skin. Gina lives in Lawrence, Kansas, with her husband and dog.