Top 10 Tips for Moisturizing Sensitive Skin

By: Dave Roos

Beautiful Skin Image Gallery Sensitive skin is an unfortunate condition that cosmetics and pharmaceutical companies know well. See more pictures of ways to get beautiful skin.
© Vitaly

Fall and winter can be tough on people with dry, sensitive skin. As the air gets cooler and drier, sensitive skin can easily turn red, crackly and itchy -- if not downright ugly.

Dermatologists haven't settled on an official definition of sensitive skin, since it encompasses a tremendous array of symptoms and underlying causes. In general, sensitive skin is characterized by a tendency to become inflamed or irritated.


According to a 2001 survey of adults in the United Kingdom, 50 percent of women and 40 percent of men identified themselves as having sensitive skin. A full 10 percent of women and 5.8 percent of men said they had "very sensitive skin" [source: Berardesca et al].

Cosmetics and pharmaceutical companies know these numbers well. They've responded by flooding the beauty aisle with products targeted at the lucrative sensitive skin market.

But for people with sensitive skin, topical creams and lotions can sometimes make things worse. That's because sensitive skin is prone to outbreaks of contact dermatitis caused by allergens and irritants -- ingredients that even show up in products designed for sensitive skin [source: AAD].

However, HowStuffWorks has looked beyond the beauty magazine blurbs and questionable home remedies to assemble the following 10 tips for keeping sensitive skin healthy and moisturized -- even in the worst weather.

10: Change Your Bathing Routine

The first tip for moisturizing sensitive skin starts in your bath or shower. One question you should ask yourself is, "Am I bathing too often?"

Some dermatologists argue that people with sensitive skin should take as few as two or three baths or showers a week during the winter months [source: Brody]. This will keep your skin's natural oils from being stripped away by hot water and soap.


Of course, that means that you shouldn't use as much hot water and soap when you bathe. Baths and showers should be lukewarm, not scalding hot [source: Singer]. A hot bath actually draws moisture out of your skin, which is bad news. (We'll talk more about the dangers of soap on the next page.)

When you're done with your bath or shower, make sure that you dry off your skin gently. Don't rub it roughly with big back-and-forth motions. Instead, skin care experts say you should pat your skin lightly with a towel, so you don't damage healthy skin cells.

If you're going to apply a moisturizer -- and we'll talk more about moisturizers later -- the best time to do it is right after the bath or shower, preferably while your skin is still damp. Moisturizers contain ingredients called humectants that can actually draw moisture in from the surface of the skin [source: Kraft et al].

9: Go Easy on the Soap

Regular soap can wreak havoc on sensitive skin.
Regular soap can wreak havoc on sensitive skin.
Darren Robb/Getty Images

Common household soap can do some serious damage to sensitive skin. To retain moisture in your skin, stay away from deodorant soaps or soaps that contain heavy fragrances, antibacterial elements or alcohol [source: AAD]. All of these ingredients strip essential oils from the skin and leaves sensitive skin vulnerable to a host of allergens and irritants.

All soaps are made of a combination of alkali (base) and some kind of oil or fat, but research has shown that soaps with lower alkali content are less irritating to skin [source: Brody]. Some of the least irritating bath soaps aren't actually soaps at all. They're called syndets, a shortened name for synthetic detergents.


Cetaphil is another famously mild "soap" that isn't really soap at all. It's specifically advertised as a "soap-free, non-alkaline" cleanser. Liquid cleansers and moisturizing bars routinely rank as the least irritating "soaps" on the market in dermatological tests [sources: Brody, Lakshmi and Ring].

8: Avoid Fragrances

Cosmetics and pharmaceutical companies use fragrances to impart a clean, sweet and psychologically pleasing odor to their products. While it may seem nice to smell like a field of blossoming wildflowers, these artificial and natural additives can wreak havoc on sensitive skin.

In fact, dermatologists agree that fragrances in products like moisturizers and soaps are the main cause of irritation for people with sensitive skin [source: Mayo Clinic]. The problem is that there are more than 5,000 different fragrances that are used to make moisturizers and other skin care products, so it's very difficult to pinpoint exactly which fragrance is the culprit [source: AAD].


The best advice when looking for a sensitive skin moisturizer is to stick with products that are "fragrance-free," not just "unscented." Unscented could mean that fragrances were used to neutralize any odors created by other ingredients [source: AAD].

If you check the back of the box, look for "fragrances" among the ingredients. They're also called "parfums" in Europe, so look for that name on the boxes of your more exotic products.

7: Take a Closer Look at Preservatives

Preservatives may keep bacteria from ruining your skin care products, but they can cause trouble for people with sensitive skin.
Preservatives may keep bacteria from ruining your skin care products, but they can cause trouble for people with sensitive skin.
Michaelangelo Gratton/Getty Images

Next to fragrances, preservatives found in cosmetic and skin care products are the most common allergens and irritants for people with sensitive skin [source: Mayo Clinic].

Any product that contains oil and water must also contain some kind of preservative to keep bacteria and fungi from forming. Since most skin care products contain either oil or water, it's hard to find one that doesn't contain preservatives.


Some of the most common preservatives found in cosmetic and skin care products are paraben, imidazolidinyl urea, Quaternium-15, DMDM hydantoin, phenoxyethanol, methylchloroisothiazolinone, and formaldehyde. All have been associated with skin allergies [source: WebMD].

If you discover that you're allergic to a preservative, there are preservative-free products available on the market, but they're a little harder to find. Some preservative-free products include an expiration date or must be stored in the refrigerator.

6: Read the Box

Reading the list of ingredients on the back of a skin care product box isn't the most thrilling experience, but it could help isolate the cause of your skin sensitivities.

For example, if you try a new moisturizer and it burns or irritates your skin, take a look at the ingredients and pay close attention to the items near the top of the list. Ingredients are always listed in order of volume, from largest to smallest [source: Noble].


The two major sets of ingredients in most moisturizers are emollients and humectants. Emollients are oils and lipids designed to replace depleted the lipid barriers between skin cells [source: Kraft et al]. Some common emollients are lanolin, mineral oil, coconut oil, palm oil, petrolatum, shea butter and sunflower seed oil. Emollients are responsible for the slightly greasy, slippery feel of some moisturizers.

Humectants are ingredients that absorb water molecules from the air and hold them to the skin's surface [source: Mayo Clinic]. Some common humectants used in moisturizers are glycerin, propylene glycol and certain proteins.

Many of the most common emollients and humectants have been linked to allergic reactions in people with sensitive skin. If the trial-and-error system doesn't work for you, make an appointment with a dermatologist. He or she can conduct a patch test to determine the specific synthetic and natural ingredients that irritate your skin the most.

5: Don't Believe the Hypoallergenic Hype

Hypoallergenic products don't prevent skin irritation, but they do make the condition less likely to occur.
Hypoallergenic products don't prevent skin irritation, but they do make the condition less likely to occur.
Win Initiative/Getty Images

Many people with sensitive skin automatically assume that a skin care product labeled "hypoallergenic" must contain fewer allergens than a product designed for normal skin.

According to the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which regulates American cosmetics and pharmaceuticals, there are absolutely no criteria surrounding use of the term hypoallergenic [source: FDA]. It's purely a marketing buzzword.


So, just because a moisturizer is labeled hypoallergenic, don't go and slather it all over your face. At the very least, you should conduct your own patch test by applying a small amount of the product to the inside of your forearm. Look for adverse reactions before using it elsewhere.

4: Remember That Natural Isn't Necessarily Better

A walk down the beauty aisle at the grocery store can feel like a trip to the produce section. There are dozens of different products advertising "all-natural" (and delicious) ingredients like grape seed oil, avocado, cucumber, milk, honey, beer, vanilla and more.

For people with sensitive skin, it's important to realize that natural ingredients can be just as irritating as their synthetic cousins. People are allergic to all sorts of natural foods like peanuts, shellfish and gluten. And don't forget about that "all-natural" poison ivy plant growing in your background.


For example, a pediatric dermatology study in France found that more than one-third of children under the age of 15 had skin sensitivity to products containing oat oil, a popular ingredient in skin care products [source: Reuters].

If you already know you have highly sensitive skin, steer clear of natural ingredients that are used as a fragrance. Like all fragrances, even "natural" perfumes are some of the biggest skin irritation culprits on the market [source: Bolton].

3: Keep It Simple

In skin care, less is more -- most of the time.
In skin care, less is more -- most of the time.
Jonathan Kantor/Getty Images

Many dermatologists will tell you that some of the best moisturizing solutions for sensitive skin are also some of the oldest and simplest.

Good old petroleum jelly has been a beauty fixture since the 1860s. Mineral oil has also been prescribed as a skin moisturizer for more than a century. Even though both products have oddly unnatural origins -- they're accidental byproducts of oil drilling and gasoline production -- they've also proven to be reliable treatments for dry, sensitive skin [source: Brody].


Mineral oil is an occlusive. Occlusives coat the skin with a protective layer that blocks the loss of moisture through evaporation [source: Baumann]. Along with humectants and emollients, occlusives are common ingredients in moisturizers.

Mineral oil is the active ingredient in baby oil, the old standby for moisturizing the sensitive bottoms of infants and their equally sensitive parents. Be aware that the classic baby oil recipe includes fragrances that could cause irritation. You can also buy pure mineral oil or fragrance-free baby oils.

Remember, though, that not all body parts are created equal. What's good for your hands and elbows might not be best for your face. If you already have oily, acne-prone skin, then oil-based products like petroleum jelly and mineral oil aren't the best choices for moisturizing your face.

2: Pump Up the Humidity

If dry, cold winter air is sucking the moisture out of your skin, then fight back with a humidifier. Humidifiers are inexpensive devices that increase the relative humidity of the air and effectively keep moisture inside sensitive skin -- without any fancy products.

There are many different kinds of humidifiers. Some use heat to create steam, while others simply circulate the moisture from a container of slowly evaporating water. Some homes and buildings have humidifiers built into their central heating and cooling systems. These systems use a hydrometer to measure relative air moisture levels and automatically maintain a desired 30 to 50 percent humidity reading [source: Mayo Clinic].


Remember to keep your humidifier clean and change the water frequently -- preferably daily. You don't want to circulate bacteria and fungi around the room as you sleep.

1: Drink Water in Moderation

If you have dry, sensitive skin, drink lots of water to stay hydrated -- but don't expect it to take care of your skin moisture issues.
If you have dry, sensitive skin, drink lots of water to stay hydrated -- but don't expect it to take care of your skin moisture issues.
Thomas Northcut/Getty Images

There are a lot of myths surrounding the simple act of drinking water. Guzzling glass after glass of water is linked to everything from weight loss to detoxification to clearer, healthier and more moisturized skin.

The only real water-related danger to skin health is dehydration, a state in which you're actively losing more water than you're ingesting. One of the most important components of healthy skin is collagen, which binds to water inside skin cells [source: Brownstein]. Dehydrated skin can lose its rigidity as a result of moisture loss.

But considering that the human body is already 60 percent water, how much of a difference can a few glasses of extra agua really make? Not much, say dermatologists [source: Aubrey]. Once you're sufficiently hydrated, your body just flushes out the excess [source: Brownstein].

The bottom line is this: Drink up if you suffer from dry, sensitive skin, but don't expect your problems to be solved by chugging eight glasses of water a day.

For more information on skin care, take a look at the links on the next page.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles


  • American Academy of Dermatology. "Cosmeceutical Facts and Your Skin" (August 27, 2009)
  • American Academy of Dermatology. "Dry Skin and Keratosis Pilaris." (August 27, 2009)
  • American Academy of Dermatology. "Sensitive Skin." (August 27, 2009)
  • Aubrey, Allison. "Five Myths About Drinking Water." National Public Radio. April 3, 2008 (August 27, 2009)
  • Baumann, Leslie S. "Oils and Mineral Oil." Skin & Allergy News. January 2008 (September 3, 2009)
  • Berardesca, Enzo et al. "Sensitive Skin Syndrome." Informa Health Care, 2006
  • Bolton, Meg, "When it comes to skin care, botanical isn't always better." Baylor College of Medicine. October 27, 2004 (August 27, 2009)
  • Brody, Jane E. "Personal Health." The New York Times. January 12, 1983 (August 27, 2009)
  • Brownstein, Joseph. "10 Common Skin Myths -- Exposed!" ABC News. June 26, 2008 (August 27, 2009)
  • Kraft, J.N. et al. "Moisturizers: What They Are and a Practical Approach to Product Selection." Medscape. June 16, 2005 (August 31, 2009)
  • Lakshmi, C. et al. "Irritancy ranking of 31 cleansers in the Indian market in a 24-h patch test." International Journal of Cosmetic Science. July 11, 2008 (August 27, 2009)
  • Mayo Clinic. "Humidifiers: Moisture in the air eases skin, breathing problems." (August 31, 2009)
  • Mayo Clinic. "Moisturizers: Options for softer skin." (August 27, 2009)
  • Noble, Julie. "Natural Cosmetics: Hype or Hope?" Discovery Health. (August 27, 2009)
  • Reuters Health. "Kids with sensitive skin may be allergic to oats." November 14, 2007
  • Ring, Johannes et al. "Handbook of Atopic Eczema." Birkhäuser, 2006
  • Singer, Natasha. "Help Skin Survive a Cruel Season." The New York Times. January 5, 2006 (August 27, 2009)
  • U.S. Food and Drug Administration. "Hypoallergenic Cosmetics." October 18, 2000 (August 27, 2009)
  • WebMD. "Skin Reactions to Beauty Products." (September 1, 2009)