The Sensitive Skin Myth

If you think your face flare-ups are due to “sensitive skin,” you may be wrong.

From the WebMD Archives

A sensitive skin reaction can flare up at any time. Bonnie Roth, for instance, recently finished a relaxing facial and soon began to feel the healthy tingling effects of the deep cleansing -- or so she thought. Instead, it was a bad reaction to the products used during her treatment. “My skin was completely broken out, red, and blotchy,” explains the 57-year-old, South Orange, N.J. resident. Sadly, skin outbreaks are not new territory for Roth. She describes herself as having sensitive skin.

She has plenty of company. “A majority of women would say they have it,” says Elizabeth Hale, MD, clinical associate professor of dermatology at NYU’s School of Medicine. But, she says, “only a small part of the population truly has sensitive skin.” So why do so many of us walk around with patchy spots and reddish skin? And what does “sensitive skin” really mean?

What’s really “sensitive skin”?

While there is no dermatological definition for sensitive skin, the term is used to describe the skin condition of people who easily break out in rashes and get blotchy, itchy, or stinging skin in response to products or the weather. The majority of women don’t have a serious skin problem, but rosacea, a skin disorder with facial flushing and red blotches, can make skin sensitive; so can eczema.

Once you’ve seen a dermatologist and have ruled out serious problems, most skin trouble, it turns out, is of our own doing. To uncover our younger-looking selves, we use too many microdermabrasions, chemical peels, and retinoids that strip the skin of its protective barrier, says Jeffrey S. Dover, MD, FRCPC, associate clinical professor at Yale University and co-author of The Youth Equation: Take 10 Years Off Your Face.

Facial products and skin reactions

Retin-A, for instance, slows premature aging and sun damage. It isn’t supposed to cause extremely red skin or excessive peeling, so if that happens when you use it, cut down to twice weekly. If you’re still reacting, your skin may be too sensitive for the product.

Those with easily irritated skin should play it safe with their face. Skip products containing the following, says Hale: alcohol, beta hydroxy acids, and retinoids. Lanolin, used in many moisturizers to soften skin, can also cause allergic reactions; so can common preservatives that extend a product’s shelf life, such as parabens and quaternium-15.


Other sources of skin irritations include fragrances that companies use to mask the chemical smells in unscented creams (it’s best to use “fragrance free” products) and formaldehyde (found in nail polish and perfume). Best way to find out if you’re sensitive to ingredients in a product? Dab the product on the skin of your forearm and leave it for 24 hours. If there’s no reaction, there’s no problem. But if redness, itching, or blistering occur, this product’s not for you. 

Bonnie Roth discovered that the culprit behind her major-league breakout wasn’t sensitive skin at all. Instead, she was reacting to a vitamin C–based cream touted for improving the skin’s radiance. She now consults her dermatologist before using anything new. “It’s all about keeping it simple,” she says.

WebMD Magazine - Feature Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on February 23, 2009


SOURCES: Jeffrey S. Dover MD, FRCPC, Associate Clinical Professor, Yale University, New Haven, CT. Elizabeth Hale, M.D., Clinical Associate Professor of Dermatology, NYU’s School of Medicine

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