Caring for sensitive skin can be tricky and discovering what exactly causes your reactions can be a long undertaking, but knowing what signs to look can simplify the process. Our guide to caring for sensitive skin will help you learn more about what sensitive skin is, the main causes of sensitivity, and the best ways to care for your skin.

What is sensitive skin?

More than half of women in the United States believe they have sensitive skin that is highly reactive or easily irritated. However, the definition of sensitive skin may vary by individual.

Sensitive skin describes a spectrum of reactive skin conditions. Broadly speaking, skin sensitivity occurs when its barrier function is compromised, causing irritation (redness, burning, itching, stinging) as an immune response. The skin barrier function refers to the uppermost layer of skin, which consists of microscopic, flattened layers of skin cells and oils, creating a protective shield that keeps potential irritants and harmful substances out of the body.

Causes of sensitive skin

While everyone's skin reacts differently under certain circumstances, common irritants that can cause sensitivity include:

  • Urban pollutants
  • Changing hormone levels
  • Cosmetic treatements, such as lasers, peels and retinols
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Stress

For some, sensitive skin may be a symptom of a skin disorder, such as psoriasis or eczema. If a skin disorder is causing your sensitive skin, we recommend consulting your physician for treatment.

On the other end of the sensitive skin spectrum are temporary weaknesses in the skin barrier. This includes reactions such as hives (urticaria) and contact dermatitis. When skin comes into contact with an allergen, it triggers an inflammatory response, such as:

  • Allergic Reaction: Common symptoms include redness, bumps, scaling, itchiness and swelling
  • Hives: Usually raised, red areas of the skin that appear anywhere on the body.
  • Eczema: Presents itself as a scaly, itchy rash that often affects the face, elbows and knees.
  • Contact Dermatitis: Rashes that appear after trying a new cosmetic or skincare product, certain materials like latex, or a detergent.

If any of these symptoms persist and become chronic, consult a trained allergist to help you develop a treatment plan.

When the possibility of a skin disorder is ruled out, but your skin is still reactive, there may be other causes. Hives in particular can be triggered by external physical factors like bug bites, cold, heat, exercise, pressure and exposure to sunlight. To help you manage these reactions, we created the guidelines below.

Caring for sensitive skin

For anyone with sensitive skin, these simple steps are a holistic approach to begin reducing the possibility of a reaction and helping the skin heal.

1.     Keep a skin diary to track any skin reactions to new foods, skincare or cosmetics. Because there can be more than one cause for a skin reaction, a written account can help you go back and identify potential irritants.

2.     Avoid foaming cleansers. PEG (polyethylene glycol) surfactants, which cause the foaming action in many facial cleansers, strip the skin of its natural oils, causing dryness and unbalancing the skin’s barrier function.

To cleanse skin without stripping it, look for cleansers that use non-comedogenic oils (oils that don’t clog pores) as an alternative. Cleansing oils remove impurities without disturbing the skin’s essential moisture.

3.     Avoid alcohol-based skincare and cosmetic products. Not every product with alcohol is problematic for skin, but products with a high percentage of isopropyl or SD Alcohol 40 can dehydrate and harm the skin’s barrier function. Alcohol-based and astringent toners, in particular, can aggravate sensitive skin.

Instead, try hydrating toners with moisturizing ingredients to replenish your skin if you feel that a toner is necessary in your skincare regimen.

4.     Be cautious when using aggressive skincare treatments. Many anti-aging treatments contain harsh ingredients to remove the top layers of skin. This includes retinols, beta hydroxyl acids, alpha hydroxy acids, salicylic acids and some physical exfoliators. Physical exfoliators made of ground-up nuts, sugars or sand have sharp edges that can cause micro-tears to the delicate skin on your face and neck. When your skin’s barrier function isn’t working at its best, these can further damage and erode it.

If you do wish to use chemical exfoliators, be sure to let your dermatologist or aesthetician know about your sensitive skin before any treatments or facials. Or, try enzymatic exfoliators that are gentle but still give many of the same benefits.

5.     Consider the effect your hair products may be having on your skin, too. Shampoo, conditioner, and hair coloring agents can irritate skin when they come into contact with it. In the shower while you’re rinsing your hair, the chemical residue may cause irritation on your shoulders and back.

If you have very sensitive skin, look for allergen-free shampoos or make your own. Colloidal Oatmeal, a scientifically-proven skin protectant and soother is a great base for an at-home shampoo.

6.     Avoid touching your face throughout the day. Even with regular hand-washing, our hands come into contact with all types of potential irritants and bacteria. Touch your face only in the morning and evenings when cleansing it applying makeup. Be sure to wash any makeup brushes you use with a gentle brush cleaner. Depending on the brushes you use, you may be able to use your favorite facial cleanser to wash them as well.

7.     Consider having a full-panel allergy test to ensure you’re not reacting to any common allergens in the environment or food allergies. Keep the results on hand in case you need to show a doctor or aesthetician the exact name of the substances you’re allergic to.  

8.     Manage stress and establish a healthy sleep schedule. Stress and sleep are significant lifestyle factors that affect skin’s health. One clinical studies shows that sleep deprivation and stress disrupts skin barrier function in healthy women. Skin’s recovery is also slowed by a lack of sleep and the body’s stress response.

Prioritize sleep and stress management techniques to help your skin’s resilience. Good sleeping habits, such as having an evening ritual to help signal to the brain that it's bedtime, will improve sleep quality. Find your happy place, whether it is meditation, your favorite sport or exercise, or leisure reading, to help diminish stress.


Sensitive skin can be soothed and healed with a few changes in your lifestyle. Finding what works best for your skin will also help you gain a deeper understanding of yourself and help you make the best choices. With time and some testing, sensitive skin can glow and help rebuild your confidence in your favorite skincare and beauty products.