Skin is the largest organ of the human body. So, it's not something you can ignore when it is dry, itchy, red, flaky or irritated.
A study suggests that 71% of people suffer from skin sensitivity, but everyone can suffer from it at some point in their lives.
Having sensitive skin isn’t a medical diagnosis but a clue that something isn’t right. And getting to the root cause can make it easier to find relief and prevent sensitivity issues in the future.
Read on to understand the causes of sensitive skin and how you can keep your body's largest organ happy.
What does sensitive skin mean?
Skin sensitivity means different things to different people. This is why it can be difficult to pinpoint the exact causes or even consistently identify skin sensitivity as a symptom of a more significant issue.
“Sensitive skin is caused when the sensory nerve endings in the upper layers of the skin, responding to sensations like touch, pain, warmth and cold, become irritated,” said Trevor Thompson, MD, a dermatologist with Banner Health. “The irritation occurs when the skin’s natural barrier is weakened or broken down by various triggers.”
Certain products or environmental factors can cause these triggers. Soaps, detergents, fragrances, perfumes and skin care products can cause skin sensitivity. Exposure to cold, sun and wind can cause skin irritation. Even getting older can make us more susceptible to irritated skin.
Your skin sensitivity could also signal an underlying medical condition.
“Conditions like rosacea, psoriasis, eczema and allergic contact dermatitis could be mistaken for sensitive skin,” Dr. Thompson said. “These conditions can flare up and cause sudden skin sensitivity or irritation.”
Tips for keeping your skin healthy and comfortable
Don’t let sensitive skin be a living nightmare. Dr. Thompson shared some ways you can achieve your best skin.
1. Avoid overwashing or exfoliating too often
Cleansing and exfoliation are both important steps in one’s skincare routine. Washing removes dirt, oil, makeup and can help prevent breakouts, while exfoliation can remove excess oil and dead skin cells that can clog pores. Just try not to overdo it.
“Overwashing often can strip natural oil levels from your skin and create unwarranted sensitivity,” Dr. Thompson said. “Exfoliating can be especially harsh on some skin types, such as those with rosacea, allergies or older skin.”
Stick to mild, gentle cleansers and use a gentle liquid exfoliator versus a physical exfoliator (any scrubs or polishes).
2. Keep it simple
Avoid products that add fragrances, dyes/colors and preservatives. Fewer ingredients mean fewer chances to react to something.
“Generally speaking, look for fragrance-free, dye-free, paraben-free and hypoallergenic products,” Dr. Thompson said. “Products like these are a good place to start when looking for sensitive skin care products.”
3. Perform a test
Testing can help you figure out what may be contributing to your symptoms. You can develop a reaction to products over time that you have tolerated in the past. Additionally, companies can change ingredients without major changes to packaging design.
If you are concerned about your response to a new skin product, apply a small amount of the product in a concealed area, like the inside of your arm. If you notice no redness or reaction to the product after applying it to the same spot for several days, you are likely not allergic to the product.
Additional testing for common topical allergens can be performed by your health care provider via patch testing.
4. Avoid long, hot showers
Excess heat isn’t great for the skin. Hot water can strip your skin of moisture and increase your skin’s dryness and sensitivity.
Stick to lukewarm water when cleansing and take short five-to-10-minute showers with warm—not hot—water.
Drink lots of water to help flush away toxins and rehydrate. Drinking water has many potential health and beauty benefits, detoxifying and beautifying the skin from within. Limit caffeine and alcohol, which dehydrate the skin.
6. Safeguard against the sun
Wear protective clothing and a large hat to minimize sun damage risk and sensitivity. In addition, choose a fragrance-free sunscreen formulated for sensitive skin.
“Look for ones with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide,” Dr. Thompson said. “You’ll want to choose a broad-spectrum sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher.”
[Also read “How to Select the Best Sunscreen and Protect Your Skin.”]
7. Contact a dermatologist
Even if you’re careful about what you put on your face and body, you can still have a reaction. Some reactions may be mild, while others may be more serious.
If you suspect skin sensitivity, schedule an appointment with an allergist and/or dermatologist.
Call 911 or visit your nearest urgent care if you experience difficulty breathing, trouble swallowing and/or swelling in the mouth, throat or face. These are signs of a rare but life-threatening allergic reaction known as anaphylaxis.
Your skin is the largest organ in your body, so it’s bound to be sensitive occasionally. You may find that certain products or environmental factors cause you to get red, itchy or burning skin. However, there are medical conditions that can cause similar symptoms as well.
Contact your dermatologist to determine the cause of your problem and develop a treatment plan to get your skin clear—no matter the reason.
Need help treating sensitive skin?
Schedule an appointment with a dermatologist.