Sensitive Skin Care: Do I Really Need Different Products?

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

A product’s label says it’s made just for sensitive skin, or it’s hypoallergenic, or it’s extra gentle. Can you believe these claims? Do you need to buy special products if your skin is sensitive? Not necessarily.

The back of the package may tell you more than the label on the front. Check the ingredients list, not the marketing claims, before you buy, says Annie Chiu, MD, a dermatologist in Redondo Beach, CA.

Avoid things that could irritate your skin, Chiu says. Watch out for harsh ingredients often found in cleansers, moisturizers, or anti-aging creams. These include fragrances, dyes, exfoliants like alpha- or beta-hydroxy acids or salicylic acid, sulfates, and preservatives.

Don’t feel like you have to search for moisturizers, cleansers, or other products that claim to be made for sensitive skin. It may take some trial and error to find products that don’t bother you, Chiu says. But inexpensive, over-the-counter items designed to be extra gentle and fragrance-free are a good place to start.

Are Label Claims True?

While many labels say they’re made for sensitive skin, gentle on your skin, or even hypoallergenic, there’s no guarantee these claims are true.

The FDA doesn’t regulate makeup or skin care products that claim to clean, moisturize, or beautify. It may require proof for products that claim to treat skin problems like allergies. Sometimes it sends warnings to manufacturers that make claims they can’t support.

Even skin care products that say they’re hypoallergenic or made for sensitive skin could cause problems, Chiu says. Labels can be misleading. Some cosmetics contain formaldehyde releasers as preservatives. Even though they can irritate your skin, you may not see them on the list of ingredients.

Labels that state a skin care product is fragrance-free or unscented may not be true, according to the FDA. That goes for shampoo, body lotion, shaving cream, and bath gel, too.

The FDA doesn’t regulate scents in products unless there’s a claim that the ingredient benefits your health. Some skin care products that claim to be unscented may still contain fragrances. They’re just used to mask other odors, not to change how the product smells.

What Products Help Sensitive Skin?

Healthy skin acts as a natural barrier for your body. It keeps moisture in and irritants out. Sensitive skin may just be a poor barrier for some reason.

It isn’t always a condition your doctor can diagnose, Chiu says. It usually means your skin gets easily inflamed or reacts to certain ingredients. Cosmetics and skin care products are common triggers for a sensitive skin flare.

To keep your skin healthy, clean, moisturize, and protect it with sunscreen every day. If you have sensitive skin, creams or lotions with glycerin, hyaluronic acid, petrolatum (mineral oil jelly), ceramides, or lipids may be good choices. These products help your skin hold in moisture and act as a barrier.

Lotions with chamomile, aloe, and green tea polyphenols may soothe sensitive skin. Use cream-based moisturizers on dry skin to ease irritation. You only need to cleanse or wash your face once a day.

Test a small amount of any new skin care product on the skin of your arm or behind your knee to see if it bothers you. Another good tip is to stick with products you already use. You know they don’t bother your skin. New isn’t always better.

Just because a skin care product contains natural ingredients or plant extracts doesn’t mean it won’t make your skin inflamed or itchy. The term “all-natural” is misleading, Chiu says. Plant extracts and essential oils can irritate sensitive skin. Products marketed as “natural” or “green” aren’t certified or tested to make sure they’re less irritating.

Show Sources


American Academy of Dermatology: “Learn the language of skin care labels,” “Saving face 101: How to customize your skin care routine with your skin type.”

Annie Chiu, MD, Derm Institute, Redondo Beach, CA.

Anais Brasileiros de Dermatologia: “Sensitive skin: review of an ascending concept.”

FDA: “Are Some Cosmetics Promising Too Much?” “Fragrances in Cosmetics.”

Contact Dermatitis: “Formaldehyde in cosmetics in patch tested dermatitis patients with and without contact allergy to formaldehyde.”

Yonsei Medical Journal: “An Update of the Defensive Barrier Function of Skin.”

Plastic Reconstructive Surgery Global Open: “Skincare Bootcamp: The Evolving Role of Skincare.”

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