Sensitive Skin Solutions

Medically Reviewed by Hansa D. Bhargava, MD on January 11, 2018
5 min read

Drugstore shelves have no shortage of makeup, cleansers, and lotions labeled “for sensitive skin.” But how do you know if you should use these products? And if do have sensitive skin, will they really help?

There’s no official definition for sensitive skin, says Temitayo Ogunleye, MD, assistant professor of clinical dermatology at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine. But most doctors think of it as skin that’s irritated by things that don’t bother most people.

It’s actually quite simple, Ogunleye says: If your skin burns, itches, or gets red and inflamed after you apply makeup or skin-care products, those are good signs that you have sensitive skin. The harder part, she says, is finding out what causes it.

For some people, those symptoms are a signs of an allergy or a mild form of a skin disease like eczema or rosacea, says Leila Tolaymat, MD, a dermatologist at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida. “These conditions can flare-up in certain situations, like when the skin is exposed to certain ingredients or environments,” she says. Your doctor can help you sort out if you have one of these issues or if a skin care product is the cause.

Skin can be sensitive to many different ingredients, so there’s no one skin-care rule everyone should follow. But some products can cause more problems than others, and some general guidelines can make living with sensitive skin easier.

Avoid fragrances. Scented soaps, lotions, and liquid cleansers often have ingredients that can irritate sensitive skin, Tolaymat says. Because companies aren’t required to label every chemical or ingredient that goes into a fragrance, it can be hard to pinpoint and keep track of the ones that cause your problems.

What about scented products with all-natural ingredients, like essential oils or plant-based botanicals? Ogunleye says just because something is natural doesn’t mean your skin won’t react to it. “You really don’t need fragrance in your lotion or your soap, so it’s best to find a product without any at all,” she says.

Even products labeled “unscented” may have added chemicals to mask the smell of active ingredients with strong odors. Instead, look for products labeled “fragrance-free,” which means that they have no scents -- not even masking ingredients. That goes for soaps and lotions, as well as other products that might touch your skin, like shampoo, household cleaners, deodorant, and laundry detergent.  

Watch out for preservatives. Chemicals called parabens, which are added to lotions and cosmetics to prevent bacteria growth and make them last longer, may bother some people with sensitive skin, Tolaymat says. If you’ve had a bad reaction to a product with an ingredient like propylparaben or butylparaben, try swapping it for a paraben-free product.

Other ingredients to watch for include methylchloroisothiazolinone and methylisothiazolinone. These preservatives are common causes of skin irritation and allergy.

Skip the toner. Tolaymat tells her patients with easily irritated skin to avoid alcohol-based facial toners and astringents, which are designed to remove oils and dirt. “There’s a lot of overlap between sensitive skin and dry skin, and products with alcohol can be bad for both,” she says.

As long as you’re washing your face twice a day with a liquid cleanser, Tolaymat says, toners aren’t a necessary part of most people’s skin-care routine. She recommends skipping them entirely, or asking your dermatologist to suggest a gentler alternative. 

Try one new product at a time. When you’re making changes to help your sensitive skin, take it slowly. “A lot of my patients will change their entire skin-care routine at once,” Ogunleye says. “When they have a bad reaction, they can’t figure out which product caused it.” There could be one specific ingredient to blame or a mix of products that don’t work well together.

Introduce one new product at a time, and wait a few weeks to see if it helps. If your dermatologist recommends or prescribes something new, tell them what products you already use on a regular basis.

Choose makeup carefully. “People with sensitive skin can wear makeup, even if they’ve had bad reactions in the past,” Ogunleye says. “They just have to find the right products, which can take some trial and error.”

Tolaymat suggests a few basic tips: avoid fragrances and preservatives, and look for formulas that are oil-free and non-comedogenic. This means that a product is designed to not clog pores, which can lead to acne and cause flare-ups of sensitive skin. Be sure to wash your face at the end of the day, too -- sleeping in makeup can cause irritation and breakouts.

Use physical sunblocks. There are two main types of sunblocks on the market: chemical and physical. The first type uses chemicals like oxybenzone, avobenzone, and octocrylene, which absorb the sun’s rays and break them down. The second type uses tiny mineral compounds, like zinc or titanium, that sit on top of the skin and deflect the sun’s rays.

Many people can use either type of sunscreen with no problems. But some can have allergic reactions to chemical blockers. Sometimes, ultraviolet radiation can even combine with common sunscreen chemicals (a problem called a photoallergy) and trigger a rash or blisters when a person goes out in the sun.

The American Academy of Dermatology recommends that people with sensitive skin choose physical sunscreens with the active ingredients zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. They should also avoid sunscreens that have fragrances, oils, and para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA) -- another common allergen. 

Don’t ignore new breakouts or reactions. Everyone gets pimples or irritated skin once in a while. But if you see sudden changes, a dermatologist can help you figure out if you have a treatable condition or a sensitivity to something in your skin-care routine.

Even if you haven’t switched products lately, one of them could still be to blame. “The body has to be exposed to something for a while before an allergy develops, so you could be using a product for a long time and suddenly have a bad reaction to it,” Tolaymat says. “Manufacturers can also change the ingredients in a product without making the consumer aware of it.”