Askanesthetician's Blog

An esthetician explores skincare issues and concerns

Sensitive Skin – Causes and Treatments February 4, 2010

It isn’t uncommon for people to describe their skin as “sensitive” and “easily irritated”.  Actually all skin can become sensitive and irritated.  Perhaps our skin should come with a warning label:  “handle with care – easily damaged”.

Doctors believe that only about 2% of women have skin that can be diagnosed as “sensitive”.  Anyone else who believes they have a sensitive skin type is simply misdiagnosing themselves.  (Perhaps some people who claim to have sensitive skin think that by saying so they are bestowing a unique or special status on their skin as a way to make themselves feel different and special)   Further adding to the confusion over the term “sensitive skin” and what that truly means is the fact that products can be labeled “for sensitive skin” and “hypoallergenic” when there is absolutely no regulation over these terms.  As the FDA points out on its website:

There are no Federal standards or definitions that govern the use of the term “hypoallergenic.” The term means whatever a particular company wants it to mean. Manufacturers of cosmetics labeled as hypoallergenic are not required to submit substantiation of their hypoallergenicity claims to FDA.

The term “hypoallergenic” may have considerable market value in promoting cosmetic products to consumers on a retail basis, but dermatologists say it has very little meaning.

Most people who define their skin as sensitive probably do so because once (or even twice) they had an allergic reaction to a topical skincare product; their skin to become red, irritated, and even itchy.  But for skin to truly be labeled sensitive it has to show an inability to tolerate most cosmetic, while otherwise being healthy.   If one truly has sensitive skin the use of cosmetics, or the wrong skincare products, will cause the skin to itch, burn, sting, and feel tight as opposed to causing redness and breakouts.  And once again this is very rare.

If you have ever experienced a reaction to a cosmetic or skincare product that caused you to breakout or turn red than you probably experienced a temporary allergic reaction to an ingredient in the product, perhaps the fragrance. In addition, skin can become temporarily sensitive or sensitized from a long list of things that include:

  • over cleaning and over scrubbing
  • using skincare products that are too strong or harsh
  • over exfoliating
  • receiving treatments that are too harsh treatments for your skin (such as a chemical peel)
  • irritating skincare ingredients in products
  • environmental pollutants or irritants
  • hot water
  • sun exposure 

When you overload your skin with products you break down the stratum corneum, the very top layer of the epidermis that acts as a protective covering for the skin, to the point of causing irritation.  This triggers the body’s immune response in order to heal the damage and inflammation will follow.  For example perhaps you use a glycolic cleanser and then a moisturizer with AHA every night.  All those acids are meant to remove dead skin cells from the stratum corneum so in essence you end up giving yourself a chemical peel every night.  If you skin is prone to irritation the continued combination of those products will remove too much of the barrier you need on the top of your skin.  Once too much of that protective cover is removed environmental irritants will start to further breakdown your stratum corneum, and the result is dry, red, flaky skin.  If the irritation continues over time the skin’s immune and healing response will be impaired.  Lastly, if you are prone to acne you can cause more breakouts if your skin becomes sensitized since more bacteria can cross the skin’s protective barrier once it is compromised.

Once you find that your skin has become sensitized it is important to figure out what triggered the irritation.  Sometimes this is very easy.  You started using a new product and almost immediately your skin became irritated, red, and itched and so it obvious what caused the irritation.  But other times it is much harder to figure out what caused the irritation.  In that case perhaps a more drastic course of action is needed.  In her book Simple Skin Beauty dermatologist Ellen Marmur suggests putting your skin on a “detox” plan in order to figure out what caused the irritation or allergic reaction in the first place.  She suggests stopping to use all products, all at once.  On the plan you are allowed to use sunscreen, a gentle cleanser, and a moisturizer that contains no acids, antioxidants, or retinoids for an entire month.  This allows your skin to regain its natural balance as it goes through a complete growth cycle (which takes 28 days).  After the month is over you can start adding back one product at a time, one per week,  into your routine so that if your skin reacts you will know what caused it.

If your skin has shown sensitivity in the past you might want to avoid heavily fragranced products and harsh exfoliants (like scrubs).  Look at the ingredients in your products in order to assess the amount of acids (AHA) and retinoids in them.  Don’t just trust labels on products.  As I already mentioned above the terms “for sensitive skin” and “hypoallergenic” that you see on cosmetic labels and skincare products are meaningless.  Perhaps you will want to limit yourself to one lotion, serum, or moisturizer with those added ingredients.  In order to boost your skin’s protective barrier it is important to use a good moisturizer and sunscreen.  For immediate relief from irritation you can temporarily use a OTC cortisone cream like Cortaid.

Lastly, it is important for everyone, even if you have never had an adverse reaction from cosmetics or skincare products, to excerise some caution when it comes to your skin.  All skin needs some TLC in order to look its best so remember to treat it gently.

Sources and Further Reading:



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