What is sensitive skin?
There are two different kinds of sensitive skin. There is the kind that is sensitive to the touch and the kind that feels sensitive. If you have the kind that is sensitive to the touch, it just means your skin tends to turn red merely by being touched. I have several clients who turn bright red merely by lightly touching their faces. This type of sensitive skin is of little concern when figuring out your skin type. Reactive skin or skin that feels sensitive will itch, burn, or feel irritated when certain disagreeable products are applied. There are many ingredients in the world of cosmetics that can irritate even nonsensitive skin, let alone someone with sensitivities.
You usually know if you have sensitive skin. You’ve experienced it firsthand over the years. You’ve tried dozens of products and skin care lines and have probably reacted to many. If you’ve finally discovered something that doesn’t cause a reaction, you’ll be prone to sticking with what you’ve found for fear of getting “burned”—literally.
It’s hard to determine exactly what products and which ingredients are causing your skin to turn red, burn, or breakout. In case you haven’t discovered the ill effects of the following ingredient on your own, let me advise you: stay away from products that contain fragrance. Many companies add fragrance to their products. A lot of the department store product lines started out as perfumeries and then branched out into skin care and cosmetics. They tend to add their signature fragrance to all (or most) of the products in their line, distinguishing them at least aromatically as their own. These products may smell good, but if you have sensitive skin, watch out. Perfumes and fragrances are not good (or desirable) ingredients for skin care products. If you are sensitive, your skin will no doubt let you know. Along with skin sensitivities, many people are simply allergic to fragrance.
Why is it sensitive? Sensitivities can be caused for many reasons. You may have inherited sensitive skin from one or both parents. You may have spent a lifetime using harsh soaps and drying products on your skin that will inevitably lead to sensitivities. If you have or are currently using Retin-A and/or AHAs, or have had strong glycolic or chemical peels, your skin will no doubt be sensitive. Laser resurfacing may also bring about long-term sensitivities. Couperose skin tends to be sensitive because the capillaries sit so close to the surface and can be reactive. Thin skin is usually more sensitive than thick skin. Thin skin is less impervious to irritants than thick, more protective skin. And finally, skin that has been abused in the sun can become sensitive over time.
What to use on sensitive skin. It may be easier to list what not to use on sensitive skin since what you can use will vary greatly depending on how sensitive you are.
- You want to avoid abrasive scrubs. Although exfoliation is vital to healthy skin, you don’t want to cause more sensitivity by using a harsh scrub. Just imagine rubbing abrasive particles on sensitive skin. It doesn’t even sound good, and it will feel even worse. The gel-type gommage I talk about (and use in my salon) is the best alternative to an irritating scrub.
- Soap is another undesirable product. People with sensitive skin want to be especially careful to use only non-alkaline products on their skin. This is very important.
- Once again, avoid fragrance as an ingredient in your face products. Fragrance will almost always cause a reaction even on skins that aren’t considered sensitive.
- Heat will further exacerbate sensitive skin. As with burns, you want to treat the skin gently, never using anything extreme.
- You must avoid strong peels. These will do little to benefit the skin and can go a long way to furthering any sensitivities and redness you may already have. It is doubtful a person with very sensitive skin would be able to tolerate a strong peel, but high-percentage acid peels should definitely be avoided.
- The sun and wind can cause irritation with any skin, especially sensitive skin. Try to cover up as much of your face as possible in cold and/or sunny conditions.
Recommending what to use on sensitive skin will vary based on the oil content of your skin and the origin of the sensitivities. Most product lines address sensitivities, but a sensitive skin type will probably go through more trial and error using products than other kinds of skin. See Determining Skin Type for information about how to determine how much oil your skin is producing, which is where you want to start as far as determining what products you’ll use and for what skin type.
For more information, see:
- Are you sensitive to fragrance?
- Sensitive Skin: Q & A
- Proper pH & your skin care products
- PLEASE—No Hot Water!