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What’s the best skincare for sensitive skin?

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22 December 2021|3 min read

Key Points

  • Sensitive skin reacts quickly to sun, products and allergens. 
  • There’s no official definition of sensitive skin, so it’s not a skin type or a condition.
  • Sensitive skin may be caused by a range of things. 
  • People with sensitive skin should avoid exfoliation and products containing scents or acids. 

Did you know that just over half of women and just below half of the men in industrialised countries self-identify as having sensitive skin? 

Chances are if you’ve landed on this article, you’re one of those people and you know how hard sensitive skin may be to navigate. 

People with sensitive skin tend to have more problems with acne and rosacea and their skin easily stings and burns.

- Dr Elizabeth Dawes-Higgs

And it may be even harder to know if what you’re using is the best skincare for sensitive skin. Chances are, it could be making the problem worse. 

So, what’s the best skincare for sensitive skin? And what is considered sensitive skin? We talked to Dermatologist, Dr Elizabeth Dawes-Higgs for some expert insight on all things sensitive skin. 

What exactly is sensitive skin? 

Unfortunately, even though so many people self-identify as having sensitive skin, there’s no official consensus on the definition of sensitive skin.  

But in general, if your skin reacts easily to products, sun or allergens, you probably consider it pretty sensitive. 

It’s just like how some people have happy healthy hair and some have easily damaged hair. Some of us have resilient skin, and others need to be a little more careful. 

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Sensitive skin may be caused by a range of things.

How do you know if you have sensitive skin? 

Dr Liz shares her expert knowledge about this complex issue.

“The term ‘sensitive skin’ usually means that your skin is more likely to become inflamed or irritated by topical products,” she says. 

She explains that if you’re unsure if your skin is sensitive or not, just take note of whether it reacts when you apply skin products like makeup or sunscreen. 

Dr Liz also points out that there is a spectrum of sensitivity. Some people have only slightly sensitive skin and others, unfortunately, have very sensitive skin. The latter may need to be quite selective with products. 

But what sort of reactions are we talking about? 

“People with sensitive skin tend to have more problems with acne and rosacea and their skin easily stings and burns,” says Dr Liz. 

So, short term reactions, not things like wrinkles and pigmentation – those are generally just the characteristics of aging skin

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“People with sensitive skin tend to have more problems with acne and rosacea and their skin easily stings and burns,” says Dr Liz.

Is sensitive skin a skin type or condition? 

The term ‘sensitive skin’ is widely used. But it’s not a medical diagnosis. So, technically it’s neither a skin type nor a condition. But, for people who self-identify as having sensitive skin, it’s a very real issue. 

The research community has also found that the lack of definition or classification makes it hard to study. A 2015 literature review confirmed that “there is no consensus on the definition and the symptom profile of sensitive skin.” It looked at 20 studies about ‘sensitive skin’ and found that the term has been defined by a range of different and inconsistent characteristics. 

Some looked solely at neurosensory discomfort and others considered visible skin irritation, such as erythema and dryness. The review also found that out of the 20 studies, only eight addressed the ethnicity of the subjects. And only one compared skin types of people from more than one ethnicity. 

So, there are not any specific criteria for diagnosis and no consensus in the research about the definition of ‘sensitive skin’.

What causes sensitive skin? 

Like teenage pimples or adult acne, the causes of sensitive skin aren’t always one simple issue. It may often be a combination of things. 

There are a few physiological aspects that might contribute to a person’s level of sensitivity though. 

Impaired skin barrier function

The most commonly identified issue is impaired skin barrier function, which basically means the natural barrier is damaged and can’t protect itself from the outside environment. This may be due to a range of factors. 

Allergic predisposition

Another association with sensitive skin is allergens or atopy. The sensitivity of someone's skin could be an outcome of how sensitive that person is to common allergens. This sensitivity or atopy means your immune system could be easily triggered by things in the environment – including skincare products. 

Inflammatory or vascular responsiveness

Basically, how your blood vessel responds to specific stimuli. Increased vascular reactivity may be associated with sensitive skin, which makes sense since allergic reactions may often cause inflammation responses. 

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Dr Liz says, “Try to avoid products that contain fragrances and colours”.

Which products should people with sensitive skin avoid? 

Now, you’re reading this article to find out what are the best skincare products for sensitive skin – and we’re getting to that. You may want to know more about skin hydration and dry lips treatments too.

But there’s something a little more pressing than what you use with sensitive skin – and that’s what not to use. 

Dr Liz says, “Try to avoid products that contain fragrances and colours and be mindful of products containing preservatives. It’s also a good idea to avoid products that contain acidic ingredients such as glycolic and lactic acid.”   

So, unfortunately, heavily scented products and those that contain glycolic acid aren't usually safe for sensitive skin.

What about natural oils? Is tea tree good for sensitive skin? Unfortunately, no. It could potentially cause skin irritation. 

And for those asking how often you should exfoliate sensitive skin? Dr Liz recommends you avoid facial scrubs altogether as these may be irritating. 

Products that may help sensitive skin 

If you’re thinking, that’s all great – but how do I take care of my face skin or my dry cracked hands?

Dr Liz suggests anti-inflammatory products, such as those containing chamomile or aloe vera, which could sometimes help with the stinging associated with sensitive skin. And using a gentle wash is also ideal.

Also, this is not permission to avoid using a good sunscreen – We Are Feel Good Sensitive Sunscreen Lotion SPF50+ was created specifically for sensitive skin. 

Want to know more? Discover what is SPF and how does sunscreen work?

Be kind to your sensitive skin 

Everywhere you look online, someone is doing a face mask or some sort of light treatment. You may be feeling the pressure to experiment. After all, it’s one of the best things to do to feel good about yourself, right? 

Just remember, if you have sensitive skin then these things may be doing more harm than good. 

Reach out to a dermatologist before you try anything new or extreme and get informed. Also, check out foods for good skin to see if they may help.

At the end of the day, Dr Liz says the treatment and care of sensitive skin are all about reducing irritation and inflammation. So, be kind to your skin. 

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Dr Elizabeth Dawes-Higgs is an award winning dermatologist with extensive experience in the world of medicine, business leadership and education. She is passionate about a range of topics including laser dermatology, the treatment of scarring and skin cancer management.

Reviewed by the healthylife Advisory Board December 2021.

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This article is for informational purposes only and does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Any information published on this website or by this brand is not intended as a substitute for medical advice. If you have any concerns or questions about your health you should consult with a health professional.