Skip to content
My WebMD Sign In, Sign Up

Your friends love to shop at the cosmetics counter, but you hang back. Will that new eye shadow or wrinkle cream irritate your skin?

If so, you may have sensitive skin. There’s no textbook definition of sensitive skin, dermatologist Rachel Herschenfeld, MD, FAAD, says, but doctors know it when they see it.

Herschenfeld defines sensitive skin as skin that "reacts to many different products and often to products that other people tolerate easily." The products can include cosmetics, moisturizers, sunscreens, anti-aging creams, and more. The reaction can include redness, dryness, flaking, stinging,  bumps, and blisters.

Your skin reaction may be an allergy, or it just may be irritation. Irritation is more likely to cause stinging, Herschenfeld says. Allergic reactions tend to itch.

You can set yourself free from sensitive skin problems by finding the right products for your skin and using them the right way.

Sensitive Skin Care: The Right Cleansing Routine

Both Herschenfeld and dermatologist Robin Ashinoff, MD, recommend  using a gentle soap-free liquid cleanser instead of soap. Lathering your face with soap can be harsh on skin. But liquid soap-free cleansers are designed to avoid drying out sensitive skin.  They’re also free of fragrance and other unnecessary ingredients that only boost the risk of irritation, Herschenfeld says. Soap-free liquid cleansers can be removed with a tissue instead of rinsed, and the cleansers are also available in bar form.

What if you just don’t feel squeaky-clean without using soap? You can suds up with a gentle, moisturizing soap that is free of fragrance and dyes. Ashinoff says to look for one specifically labeled for sensitive skin. 

Here are other skin cleansing strategies you can use to cut down on skin irritation: 

  • Avoid products that contain acids. This includes salicylic acid, a staple in acne cleansers.
  • Don’t use soaps with deodorant or antibacterial ingredients. "I think they’re absolutely unnecessary in most skin care products," Herschenfeld says. "I do not recommend their use unless there’s an active infection that needs to be treated."
  • Be gentler. Using a rough wash cloth or buff puff can irritate your skin, Ashinoff says. Instead, gently cleanse your face with your fingertips or a soft cloth and pat dry.