Is Sensitive Skin a Myth?

Medically Reviewed by Stephanie S. Gardner, MD on January 29, 2018
3 min read

Does your skin seem extra sensitive? Many people say they have sensitive skin, but it isn’t easy to define.

That’s because sensitive skin is a catch-all term, not one health condition. You may or may not have a problem your doctor can diagnose and treat. And your skin can act up for different reasons.

“Typically, these are people with more easily irritated skin, either with inflammation, redness, itching, or stinging sensations,” says Annie Chiu, MD, a dermatologist at The Derm Institute in Redondo Beach, CA.

But many people who say they have sensitive skin don’t have visible signs of a problem, like a rash or flakes. That doesn’t mean they’re imagining things. It just means we don’t fully understand why some skin is more likely to react, or how to diagnose it.

That’s partly because sensitive skin isn’t the same for every person. Your skin may not react to the same things or in the same way as someone else’s. So it’s hard for your doctor to know what’s going on.

People with sensitive skin often have contact dermatitis. Your skin may react to makeup, chemicals, your own sweat, too much sun, or tight clothing. You may think you’re allergic to these items, but dermatitis isn’t the same as a skin allergy.

“Sensitive skin is more about easily inflamed skin that’s more reactive to certain ingredients or products. Allergic skin reactions can happen to anyone, not just someone with sensitive skin,” Chiu says. “The classic example would be reacting to poison ivy. That’s a true allergic reaction. It doesn’t matter if you have sensitive, oily, or combination skin. It just causes an allergic reaction in the skin.”

If you feel like your skin is sensitive when you're exposed to certain things, your doctor can give you a patch test. He’ll mark off little squares on your skin and spread them with different chemicals or natural products to see if anything causes a reaction.

Often the problem is dry skin caused by hot or cold weather, or low humidity in the air. If you use lots of skin care products to treat dry skin, you might react to one of those too.

Why do some people still think sensitive skin is a myth? Even if your skin seems very sensitive, you may not have clear symptoms or signs of skin diseases that show up on tests.

You could tell your doctor that your skin stings, burns, or itches when you use a certain kind of makeup or soap. But it might not get red, swollen, scaly, or pitted even after a patch test. Women complain about sensitive skin more often than men, but patch test studies show that skin reactions affect men and women equally.

Your skin is a barrier designed to protect you. Its outer layer helps you hold in moisture so your body doesn’t dry out. Sensitive skin may be more permeable than normal skin. That means it doesn’t work well as a barrier. Things that irritate or inflame your skin get in more easily.

“People with sensitive skin typically have slightly compromised skin barriers either due to genetics, dryness, or baseline inflammation from conditions like eczema,” Chiu says.

It could be that your skin doesn’t have enough ceramides. These fatty acids help your skin act as a protective layer. People with low ceramide levels often have more sensitive skin reactions.

Your skin also responds to what’s going on in your life. People with sensitive skin often report more stress, anxiety, or tension. Your skin senses the extra stress and reacts to it.

One way to ward off a flare-up is to figure out what bothers your skin and remove it from your routine, Chiu says. Watch out for ingredients in soaps, shampoos, and over-the-counter skin products that might bother you. “Those with sensitive skin might want to be careful or consider avoiding common ingredients like alcohol, sulfates, benzoyl peroxide, and only use retinoids with caution,” she says.

Look for products that contain ceramides to help your skin act as a healthy barrier.