Sensitive Skin Solutions

How to find the right products and right routine for your sensitive skin.

From the WebMD Archives

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.


Sensitive Skin Care Products: Moisturizers and Sunscreens

Moisturizers can prevent sensitive skin from becoming dry and irritated, but keep things simple. Avoid products with fragrance or lots of ingredients, Herschenfeld says.

Sunscreens are essential for avoiding sun damage and its aging effects on skin. There are two types of sunscreens:

  • Chemical sunscreens work by absorbing the sun’s rays. "Probably, for some people, the chemical components can be a little irritating," Herschenfeld says.
  • Physical sunscreens work by reflecting or blocking the light. They contain zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, which are less likely to provoke reactions in people with sensitive skin or allergies to chemical sunscreens.

"Read the label," Ashinoff says. Look for "chemical-free" and "sensitive skin" formulas. "They’re not entirely chemical-free, and they may have heavy concentrations of titanium or zinc oxide," she says.

There’s no specific sun-protection factor (SPF) that’s best for sensitive skin, Herschenfeld says. "In general, I recommend an SPF of 30. Unless you’ve had skin cancer, be cautious about using too high an SPF. Active ingredients can be irritating and are present in higher concentrations for higher SPFs," she says.

Choosing Cosmetics to Avoid Sensitive Skin Problems

Your face doesn’t have to go au naturel, but you might have to resort to trial and error to find skin-friendly cosmetics.

  • Choose foundations and other cosmetics that are fragrance free. "Fragrance is just such a common allergen that I prefer to have people avoid it," Herschenfeld says.
  • Consider hypoallergenic cosmetics. While these products are not necessarily a sure bet for reducing allergic reaction, they may be helpful for some people, Herschenfeld says. "There really isn’t an FDA definition for that term. There’s no guarantee. It could be ‘all-natural, hypoallergenic’ and have a plant extract in it that doesn’t agree with your skin."
  • Test new products. Herschenfeld suggests applying a new product twice a day to a small patch of your skin, such as the area near the inside of your elbow. If it doesn’t irritate your skin after a week, then try using it on your face. You can also use the patch test for other skin products, such as sunscreens and anti-aging creams.
  • Add one new cosmetic product at a time to your regimen. "Don’t start a whole bunch of products at one time," Herschenfeld says. "If you use five things that are new to you and then end up with a rash, you’re never going to figure out what caused it."


Antiaging Products for Sensitive Skin Care

Prescription retinoids, which are derivatives of vitamin A, work well against wrinkles. But most people with sensitive skin don’t tolerate them well.

"There are gentler options," Herschenfeld says. "Rather than using something like tretinoin or tazarotene or adapalene, which are the prescription-active ones, try nonprescription, milder things, such as retinol products."

Even gentler, she says, are anti-aging products that contain retinaldehyde, another type of over-the-counter (OTC) vitamin A derivative.

What about hydroxy acids, which exfoliate the skin? For people with sensitive skin, results can be mixed. "Some can be drying and irritating in higher concentrations, and some can actually be very soothing and moisturizing," Ashinoff says.

Again, you may only discover how they affect your skin by trial and error. Compare labels and look for a mild OTC product with a low percentage of hydroxy acids, Herschenfeld says.

Botanical ingredients show up in many anti-aging products, but experts caution against getting swept away by their appeal. They’re usually not good for sensitive skin.

"They’re often composed of lots of different compounds, many of which can be irritating or cause allergies," Herschenfeld says. "Botanicals are not necessary in most of our skin-care products, particularly for people with sensitive skin."

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on November 27, 2012



Rachel Herschenfeld, MD, FAAD, dermatologist, Dermatology Partners, Wellesley, Mass.

Robin Ashinoff, MD, director of cosmetic dermatology and Mohs’ and laser surgery, Hackensack Medical Center, N.J.

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