Dermatologists’ Facts About Sensitive Skin


Sensitive skin is a term that we hear many people say when describing my skin. Maybe you’ve heard people say: “Yeah, I can’t use that exfoliator because my skin is sensitive.” “I cannot stand near cigarette smoke because my skin is super sensitive to it.” Or you’ve seen skincare products formulated just for “sensitive skin”. 

But what is sensitive skin really? Is it allergies? Rashes? Eczema? There’s so much we don’t know about sensitive skin! But if there is anyone who is familiar with the topic, it’s the people who are medically trained and certified in skin science. Also known as — dermatologists. 

Dermatologists hear the phrase “sensitive skin” from many patients, most of whom don’t actually know what sensitive skin means. So in this article, we are going to talk about some facts about sensitive skin from dermatologists to clear up the misconceptions we have about it!

Sensitive skin is not a medical diagnosis

We often talk about sensitive skin as if it’s a skin type the way oily and dry skin is. However, sensitive skin means something quite different for a dermatologist. If you tell your dermatologist that you have sensitive skin, their assumption is that your skin is just more reactive than an average person’s. Skin that is sensitive is basically skin that is easily irritated by environmental factors like the climate and weather or ingredients in products such as fragrances and sulfates. The skin reacts to this irritant in the form of itchiness, redness, a burning or stinging sensation, and sometimes even flaking or peeling. There are many different things that you can be sensitive to and the triggers are very much dependent on an individual. A dermatologists’ job would be to figure out what is causing the irritation to a patient so they can accurately advise what to avoid and what products to treat it.

The sensitivity of the skin is related to the skin barrier

Imagine your skin barrier is like a brick wall. The skin cells are like the bricks themselves, and the mortar that holds them together is a “glue” made of lipids known as ceramides. This barrier needs to be strong and held together for the wall to stand up. Similarly, when this skin barrier is strong it can properly protect us. This lipid barrier (also known as a fatty barrier) has two main functions: to retain water in the skin and to prevent damaging irritants such as the wind, UV rays, and harsh chemicals. When your skin is sensitive, it means that the lipid barrier is very weak and thin, making it more vulnerable to penetration from irritants that can cause inflammation. Sensitive skin often lacks the lipid glue in certain parts, making the barrier permeable, and hence the skin a lot more susceptible to damage. It is the compromised skin barrier that results in reactivity. If you’re wondering why dry skin is often associated with sensitivity, it’s because moisture escapes faster from the skin when the barrier is weak.

The immune system plays a role in the sensitivity of your skin

So we know how irritants get into the skin. The next is understanding how the redness and inflammation occurs. When an irritant penetrates the skin barrier, your body’s immune system produces a reaction that results in redness and inflammation. The manifestation of irritation is your body responding to the irritant. The immune system becomes overactive in response to the irritant which is perceived as a threat. All the physical symptoms of redness, swelling, itchiness, and flaking are the products of the immune system’s reaction to the irritant.

Aging often exacerbates your skin’s sensitivity

Your skin’s sensitivity can increase with age. When we age, the skin begins to lose its structure and elasticity. Collagen production stops in our forties, and it is usually decreasing throughout our twenties and thirties. The loss of collagen often results in the thinning of the skin, as well as increased dryness and moisture begin to escape. The lipid barrier also starts to weaken as we age, because it renews itself less frequently, resulting in a barrier that can easily be compromised. This also explains why we need to change up our skincare routines as we age because products that once worked with our young, supple skin will likely no longer be effective in giving our skin the extra moisture and hydration boost that is needed. As we age, the skin functions begin to deteriorate and perform less effectively, hence our skincare products have to make up for this decrease in performance by working extra hard.

Don’t over-cleanse your skin or use overly harsh cleansers

Overcleaning your skin is one of the worst things you can do to sensitive skin. Too much cleansing can further strip your already weak and thin lipid barrier. Get a super gentle cleanser and pick one with no sulfates. Sulfates are usually found in cleansers that can foam up and lather, so try to steer clear of them. Micellar water is another good option for removing makeup gently. Don’t use hot water on your skin either as this can “melt” the lipid barrier. Lukewarm water is the best temperature. Also, don’t wash your face more than once a day. Keep the cleansing for at night when you need to remove all the build-up on your face.

Make patch tests a habit whenever using new products

This might be a hassle in the beginning but your skin will thank you later. Whenever you get a new product, test a little bit on the inner part of your arm first to gauge how your skin will react to the product. If your inner arm is not red and irritated after a week of trying it, you can test it on the side of your neck. Should there be some irritation and redness, stop using the product as it is a sign that you are allergic to it. You will be able to figure out what formulations cause you irritation through patch tests. If you are not sure or don’t want to go through the long process of testing out every single new product, go to a dermatologist who can prescribe you the most suitable products for your skin. They will be able to identify what ingredients might be too harsh for your skin to handle. This will save you lots of time and money trying out new stuff.


Taking extra care with your sensitive skin is the most important thing to do. It may be more inconvenient, but you will not regret these extra precautions when you don’t experience itchiness and redness on a daily basis.

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