Top 10 Tips for Cleansing Sensitive Skin

By: Gallagher Flinn

Your facial tissue is pretty fragile, so treat sensitive skin delicately.
Your facial tissue is pretty fragile, so treat sensitive skin delicately.
flashfilm/Getty Images

Caring for sensitive skin is a pain in the neck. For whatever reason, having sensitive skin means that the epidermis, the layer of dead cells and glands that forms a protective barrier between your dermis and the outside world, has been damaged. There are tons of potential factors that contribute to sensitive skin. You may have inherited it from your parents. It may be a problem in your diet or fluid intake (drink more water and eat more veggies!). Or, the issue could be environmental -- there are probably a lot more cases of dry skin in the plains of Mongolia than in the swamps of Florida. People with sensitive skin are more vulnerable to acne, rosacea, eczema and contact allergens, not to mention all the stinging and itchy dryness that accompany the condition. In a lot of cases, sensitive skin is something you'll have to deal with your whole life, but that doesn't mean there aren't proper practices to alleviate the problem. Here are 10 tips for cleansing sensitive skin.


10: Have Only a Few Go-to Products

It's easy to be tempted into buying products with exotic plant extracts, but a simple, regular cleansing regimen will do your sensitive skin much more good than sporadic blasts of anti-aging toner and the latest expensive goops. Unless a dermatologist advises otherwise, try to limit what you use to cleanse your skin to only two or three products at a time -- a gentle soap, sunscreen, and a moisturizer once or twice a day is plenty for most people. Your sensitive skin comes into contact with a terrible range of chemicals every day, from air pollution to bacteria and plain old dirt. Soaps and body washes are often complicated cocktails, and the more diverse the chemicals you're putting on your skin, the greater the chance that you're introducing an irritant. Also, if you use only a few products and a condition develops, you and your dermatologist will be able to quickly narrow down which ingredient is causing the problem.


9: Gentle Is Best

It feels great to scrub your skin until it shines, but keep in mind that the oils you're scrubbing off your body are part of what keeps your skin healthy. While it's true that exfoliating dead skin cells and oil is important, there's a reason your body produces them. Dead skin cells form the barrier between your dermis (the under part of your skin) and the outside world. And sebum, the oil your skin produces, guards against skin cells' dehydration.

If you do have sensitive skin, you may have found that gentle skin cleansers don't really leave your skin feeling all that clean. While it usually isn't necessary (and is sometimes counterproductive) to get that ultra-fresh, scrubbed, shiny feeling, try starting with the gentlest skin cleansers and working your way up to harder stuff. Gauge your cleanser's effectiveness by asking yourself these two questions:


  • Do I have to wash my face twice to remove all my makeup?
  • Do I have to rub my skin so hard that it hurts?

If the answer to either of these is yes, you're washing your face too roughly and should choose a more potent cleanser.

8: Don't Be Fooled by Antimicrobial Cleansers

Germs -- they're everywhere. But that's OK! While it's hard not to think of bacteria as nasty, disease-causing germs, some of the bacteria on your skin actually help protect you by keeping more dangerous strains at bay. And while it's important to keep the bacteria on your body under control, you don't need to go overboard. In a Columbia University study, one group washed their hands with antimicrobial cleansers while another washed theirs with conventional hand soaps. As it turned out, both groups had the same reduction in bacteria on their hands -- what mattered most wasn't the cleanser they used, but the attention and time paid to scrubbing [source: Yarosh].

It's one thing to use antimicrobial hand soap, but never use these cleansers for your face. Though sensitive skin is vulnerable to acne, and it might seem like a good idea to annihilate all those germs with a good antiseptic, remember that antimicrobials are comprised of harsh chemicals that dry out and damage your skin. Plus, research shows that antimicrobial cleansers actually help breed stronger bacteria. Don't believe the hype. There's no reason to use antimicrobial cleansers unless you're a health care professional.


7: Limit How Often You Wash Your Face

Whether you do it at night or morning, noon and night, cleansing your skin means drying it out. Period. Even when you get out of the shower, as the water evaporates from your body, it's taking moisture from your cells with it. Wash your face once in the morning with a gentle soap, and then cleanse it again at night before you apply a moisturizer. The most important thing for cleansing sensitive skin is to strike a balance between keeping your skin free of dirt and grime and giving your body a fighting chance to create and retain as strong a barrier as possible between your dermis and the outside world.


6: Know What's Going into Your Skin

Always read the labels on the back of skin-care products. Knowing what the ingredients are means knowing what to avoid. It can be overwhelming to sift through a list of unpronounceable chemicals on the back of a bottle, but it's absolutely necessary. Some ingredients are good for normal and combination skins, but terribly harsh for cleansing sensitive skin. Here's a list of some of the more common chemicals that can irritate, sting and dry out sensitive skin:

  • Acetone
  • Alcohol
  • Witch hazel
  • Alpha hydroxy acids (glycolic acid)
  • Benzoic acid
  • Bronopol
  • Cinnamic acid compounds
  • Dowicil 200
  • Formaldehyde
  • Lactic acid
  • Propylene glycol
  • Quaternary ammonium compounds
  • Sodium lauryl sulfate
  • Sorbic acid
  • Urea
  • Vitamin C

[source: Baumann]


5: Avoid Fragrances and Colorings

Fragrances and colorings are part of what makes soaps attractive, but they're also a potential hazard for people with sensitive skin -- even when they come from natural plant extracts and essential oils. Because it doesn't have the same protection that normal skin does, sensitive skin can also be more vulnerable to certain allergens in fragrance. Where the epidermis and lipid coatings (the layer of dead cells and the oil that protect you) are thin, it's easier for foreign substances to enter the body. Since many allergies can be created through repeated exposure to certain irritants, problems may develop from using cleansers that contain them. Here are a few to watch out for:

  • Camphor
  • Cinnamon
  • Citrus
  • Eucalyptus
  • Fragrance
  • Lavender
  • Menthol
  • Peppermint
  • Rosewater

Soaps with fragrances also can be more of a problem in geographical areas with higher mineral content in the water, which makes it harder to build up and rinse off lather. Soap residue on the skin can then leach into the body over a long period of time, increasing sensitivity to allergens.


4: Never Mind the Lather

You may have heard that working up a rich lather is the best way to thoroughly cleanse your skin. The truth of the matter is that you don't need a cleanser with a foamy lather to get good and clean. In fact, the materials used to make soap sudsy are often just detergents and surfactants, which break up the oil that dry, sensitive skin desperately needs.

If you've got very oily skin, this might seem like a nonissue. That cool, clean polish you get after lathering up can feel wonderful after a day of dealing with a greasy face. But when you overuse these cleansers, they will ultimately hurt your skin's ability to defend itself.


And what about the classic sudsy soak? Sorry, bubble bath lovers. Bubble bath formula is mostly just detergent and scent -- it's designed to foam up prettily, not to go easy on sensitive skin.

3: What Else Besides Soap?

Many people mistakenly assume that when they're done cleansing sensitive skin, the work is done. But you've got to moisturize! Moisturizers sit on clean skin to form a protective barrier that traps water to keep your skin from dehydrating. People with acne or oily skin can opt for non-oily moisturizers and gels that better suits their skin type. Most moisturizers also serve double-duty as a UV blocker or an anti-inflammatory, protecting you from the sun and cooling skin cells damaged by inflammation to give them a chance to recover.

One ingredient to look for is ursolic acid, a chemical that's found in rosemary, sage and apple skin. In lab tests, ursolic acid was found to help rebuild the outer layers of damaged skin [source: Yarosh]. Be careful, though, when you're shopping for these products. Just because a moisturizer has rosemary or sage extracts in it doesn't meant that the ursolic acid content is going to be powerful enough to do any good. Make sure to look for moisturizers and anti-inflammatories that specifically mention ursolic acid in the list of ingredients.


2: Tailor Your Skin Regimen for the Season

Your skin changes with the seasons, and what may have worked in the bonny springtime won't necessarily be effective when the humidity drops and winter starts to take its toll. In winter, not only does cold air chap and dry out skin, but you also spend much more time indoors, where the air is even drier. You may need to increase the amount of moisturizer you use.

Getting too much vitamin A in winter can also be a problem, as it's linked to decreased oil production [source: Kunin]. While this can be a boon for people with oily skin, it can also exacerbate problems with flaking and redness during cold weather. If winter makes your skin dry out, and you use a topical ointment containing vitamin A (it shows up in acne, psoriasis and skin rejuvenation products), you might want to ease up.


Wear sunscreen in the summer, even if you're not going outside. Sunscreen and products that contain UV blockers are a good idea year-round, but they're especially important in the summer when stronger rays dehydrate, wrinkle and threaten skin cancer.

1: Shower Carefully

Limit your skin cleansing regimen to as little exposure to hot water as possible. Hot water softens up the natural oils on your skin to wash them away, but it also leaches out moisture from your skin. If your skin is extremely sensitive or dry, take your showers and baths as cool as you can stand it, and limit yourself to only five or 10 minutes in the water. Be sparing with soap, too. There's usually no reason to wash everywhere and expose your entire body to chemicals that will dry it out or irritate it. On an average day, washing just your genitals, armpits and feet is usually fine.

After your shower, pat yourself dry. Every moment, you're losing moisture as water evaporates off your skin, but rubbing will only make skin irritation worse.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles


  • Larsen, Joanne. "Vitamin A & Carotenes." Ask the Dietitian. 2009. (Aug. 20, 2009)
  • Baumann, Leslie. "The Skin Type Solution." Bantam Books. 2006.
  • Kunin, Audrey. "The DERMAdoctor Skinstruction Manual." Simon & Schuster. 2005.
  • Yarosh, Daniel. "The New Science of Perfect Skin." Broadway Books. 2008.