Seventy percent of adults say they have sensitive skin, according to a 2019 study. Erum Ilyas, MD, a dermatologist at Schweiger Dermatology, explains that sensitive skin is not a medical condition in and of itself. The self-diagnosed condition can mean different things to different people. “Usually when people say they have sensitive skin, they are implying that their skin gets irritated really easily,” he says.
Your skin can get irritated for a variety of reasons, from dryness to allergies and even because of products designed to irritate it with the goal of creating a youthful appearance.
According to Ilyas, contact dermatitis is the most common cause of his patients’ skin concerns. The skin becomes red, itchy or swollen after using certain products. In most cases, he does a patch test, in which he applies a small amount of a common allergen to a patch and presses it against the skin to see how the skin reacts. There are 35 such everyday allergens that he uses to test such ingredients as preservatives and dyes found in many products“It is always fascinating to see what comes up as reactive on these tests, and it is so helpful to know what to look for and avoid in ingredient labels. [It] takes away the guessing game or trial-and-error.”
Scientists don’t yet know the cause of rosacea, which is characterized by redness, bumps and visible blood vessels on the skin. Many people mistake it for acne. Ilyas says that if you have rosacea, “less is more,” in terms of skincare, as you’re likely sensitive to many products.
If your skin is only sensitive in certain consistent spots, it could be due to sun damage. Over time, you can develop pre-cancerous spots called actinic keratoses. Ilyas says applying products may sting or burn these areas. A dermatologist can use liquid nitrogen or prescription creams to treat these spots.
Rather than a sensitivity to products, people with seborrheic dermatitis have skin that reacts to the yeast normally living on our body. Your skin may feel irritated after exposure to heat, sweat or stress. Even though it may sting when you apply products, Ilyas explains that this response is not from an allergic reaction to the product. It’s due to “skin being very sensitive at [the] baseline.”
Common Skincare Ingredients That Cause Irritation
Whether or not you have an underlying skin condition, there are many ingredients in common skincare products that can aggravate your skin. And it’s not always cleansers and moisturizers that are to blame. Sometimes you even find ingredients in shampoos and hair dyes that can hurt your skin.
- alpha hydroxy acid (AHA)
- beta hydroxy acid (BHA)
- salicylic acid
- vitamin C
Sometimes, explains Sejal Patel, PharmD and founder of Plantkos, it’s not just one ingredient that causes a problem but a combination of them or the time of day you use them. If you use vitamin C and retinol, she says, consider using vitamin C in the morning and retinol at night, since retinol can increase your skin’s reactivity to the sun. Using both alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) and beta hydroxy acid (BHA) is usually fine, but synthetic BHAs contain salicylic acid, which can raise your sensitivity to AHA. She recommends insteads willow-bark extract, which has BHAs, but not salicylic acid, and is less likely to cause a reaction when used with AHA.
Preservatives are chemicals added to products that help the product stay safe over time. They prevent the growth of microbes and keep the cleanser or cream the right consistency. However, some preservatives that can irritate your skin are:
- paraphenylenediamine (PPD). Liz Jane, MD, says this ingredient, found in permanent hair dyes, can cause a rash at the hairline, nape of the neck and around the ears.
Companies add essential oils to skincare products to help kill microbes, exfoliate your skin or add fragrance. Some that can cause reactions are:
- tea tree oil
- vitamin C or citrus extracts
What Else Can You Do?
In some cases, your dermatologist may suggest cortisone creams, antihistamine treatments or acne medicines to help manage skin irritation, but there are many at-home remedies that can help as well, says Ilyas.
- use daily moisturizer
- sleep with a humidifier on
- wash with cool water
- keep warm showers short
- use only clean makeup applicators
- avoid products with added fragrances
- regularly apply a mild lotion and use a humidifier at night to alleviate reactions caused by dry skin
use antihistamines or occasional steroid creams if needed for itchiness and inflammation but never on the face
wear protective sunscreen every day
shower every other day
keep a journal to figure out what may be a causative agent