Sensitive Skin Overview

Fair skinned woman up close.
Sensitive skin is easily flushed and irritated.
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You welcome sensitivity in your family and friends, but when it shows up in your skin, the trait isn't appreciated. If your skin gets easily flushed, itchy or inflamed when exposed to cosmetics or environmental factors like cold weather, the sun or pollution, you may have sensitive skin [source: Scirrotto].

However, many people who think they have sensitive skin may simply be allergic to ingredients in their skin care products [source: Zamosky]. They may also just have skin that's too dry or injured to protect nerve endings, which causes skin to react adversely to cosmetics or environmental factors. Aging can also increase skin's sensitivity, especially when the humidity level drops, but simply using different skin care products or moisturizing regularly may prevent these symptoms [source: WebMD].


Only a dermatologist can determine if your sensitive skin is a reaction to cosmetics or an indication of a more serious condition, such as rosacea or eczema. These diseases are sometimes confused with sensitive skin, but they're actually chronic skin conditions that cause itching and inflammation.

If your skin seems unusually sensitive, you can help relieve your symptoms by avoiding harsh cleansers, moisturizing regularly and using cosmetics with fewer and gentler ingredients [source: WebMD]. Be sure to read the ingredient labels on each skin care product you buy, and don't rely on manufacturers' claims that a product is hypoallergenic -- the U.S. Food and Drug Administration doesn't regulate the validity of these claims.

Whether you have a skin condition or an allergy to certain cosmetic ingredients, you can avoid redness, dryness and other issues associated with sensitive skin. Keep reading to learn what causes these problems.


Sensitive Skin Causes

You might have accepted your irritated skin as a part of life, but sensitive skin has a few easily treatable causes. Rosacea is one common culprit of sensitive skin. This chronic disease manifests in small, pus-filled red bumps on the face, and the condition can vary in severity. Although there's no cure for rosacea, there are treatments, such as topical medications and oral antibiotics, which can lessen irritation. If you think you may have rosacea, talk to a dermatologist [source: Mayo Clinic].

Another condition that's often mistaken for sensitive skin is eczema. Eczema is a chronic condition that causes inflammation of the skin and patches of thick, cracked skin on the hands, feet, knees, ankles, wrists or chest [source: Mayo Clinic]. The exact cause of eczema is unknown, but it's thought to be linked to an overactive response of the immune system to unidentified triggers. There are many different types of eczema, but the most common is known as atopic dermatitis, and it affects 9 to 30 percent of the U.S. population [source: WebMD]. If you have eczema, your doctor may prescribe oral medications or ointments that contain steroids [source: Mayo Clinic].


In addition to underlying medical causes, sensitive skin can also be caused by severely damaged skin or a reaction to sun or wind exposure [source: WebMD]. Ingredients in the skin care products you use can also cause skin sensitivity. Keep reading to learn more about these irritants.

Sensitive Skin Irritants

Red, blotchy skin isn't the norm when cleansing your face, but if your cleanser or moisturizer irritates your skin, you may be having an allergic reaction to an ingredient. If you suspect a certain ingredient is causing the reaction, avoid products that contain it [source: WebMD].

Fragrances and preservatives are the most common culprits when it comes to sensitivity or allergies to skin care products. Try products labeled "fragrance-free" or "without perfume" -- even products labeled "unscented" could contain fragrances that mask chemical scents. Preservatives are more difficult to avoid -- any skin care product that contains water must contain some preservatives. Parabens are the most commonly used preservatives, and they include Quaternium-15, DMDM hydantoin, phenoxyethanol, methylchloroisothiazolinone and formaldehyde -- all have been linked to skin allergies [source: WebMD].


Some other ingredients in over-the-counter skin care products can also irritate sensitive skin and should be avoided -- these include alcohol, beta hydroxyl acids and retinoids. Also, steer clear of antibacterial or deodorant soaps -- use mild soaps or soap-free cleansers instead [source: Zamosky].

Keep reading to learn more about caring for sensitive skin.


Sensitive Skin Care

Whether you have a chronic skin condition or skin that just always seems to be irritated, making a few small changes in your daily skin care regimen can help improve your skin.

Avoid using soaps that contain fragrances or have antibacterial or deodorant properties. Instead, choose a mild, soap-free cleanser with a low pH that's less likely to irritate your skin [source: WebMD]. As a general rule, purchase cosmetics that contain as few ingredients as possible, and limit your use of hydroxy acids, granulated scrubs and alcohol-based toners. If your sensitive skin is already irritated, try products that contain rose, lavender or chamomile to soothe red, itchy skin, and to exfoliate, opt for a gentle scrub that contains blueberry seeds [source: Scirrotto].


Using a daily moisturizer can help relieve skin that's become sensitive as a result of overdrying. You can also keep your hydrated by taking short showers in tepid water, gently patting skin dry and applying a moisturizer within three minutes of showering to lock moisture in [source: American Academy of Dermatologists].

Whether your sensitive skin is the result of an ongoing medical condition or a reaction to a product, it requires extra care. Check out the links on the following page for more information on treating sensitive skin.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • American Academy of Dermatology. "Dermatologists' Top 10 Tips for Relieving Dry Skin." (Accessed 9/24/09)
  • Mayo Clinic. "Atopic dermatitis (eczema)." 8/22/09. (Accessed 9/24/09)
  • Mayo Clinic. "Rosacea." 11/15/08. (Accessed 9/24/09)
  • Scirrotto, Julia. "Soothing Solutions for Sensitive Skin." WebMD. 9/16/08. (Accessed 9/24/09)
  • WebMD. "20 Common Questions about Sensitive Skin." 2/7/09. (Accessed 9/24/09)
  • WebMD. "Eczema." 2/7/09. (Accessed 9/24/09)
  • WebMD. "Rosacea -- Home Treatment." 7/24/07. (Accessed 9/24/09)
  • WebMD. "Skin Reactions to Beauty Products." (Accessed 10/23/09)
  • Zamosky, Lisa. "The Sensitive Skin Myth." WebMD. 2/23/09. (Accessed 9/24/09)