Dos and don’ts for sensitive skin

To truly have sensitive skin means that your skin frequently reacts negatively to several different skin care products, cosmetics and even environmental factors. Underlying factors as well as genetic factors may cause your skin to have increased sensitivity. Learn what dermatologists view as sensitive skin and what you can do to care for it properly.

Woman applying tined moisturizer to sensitive skin

What is sensitive skin?

According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), sensitive skin is categorized into four different types: rosacea, acne, burning and stinging and contact dermatitis which includes allergies and irritants. Causes can include your genetic makeup, exposure to environmental factors such as sun, wind, heat and cold and overly dry skin that no longer protects the nerve endings from irritants. While many people may experience a rash or irritation to a particular skin product or cosmetic, you aren’t really classified as having sensitive skin unless you have frequent negative reactions to commonly used products.

Irritants to avoid

The AAD advises people with sensitive skin to be cautious of certain ingredients in products which can increase irritation and inflammation. Even though some products are listed as natural or hypoallergenic, these titles do not necessarily mean they do not contain ingredients that irritate sensitive skin. Products containing coconut oil and avocado may increase irritation in people with acne. Lactic acid, benaoic acid, alpha hydroxyl acids, vitamin C, azaelic acid and glycolic acid in products can increase burning and stinging of the skin. People who experience allergic reactions to cleansers and cosmetics should avoid products containing fragrances, essential oils, preservatives, formaldehyde and colors.

Caring for sensitive skin

People with sensitive skin do not need an extensive skin care routine — in fact, the least amount of products you use on your face, the better. Dermatologist Sonia Bedreshia-Bansal, M.D., FAAD of Danville, California suggests washing your face once a day with a mild cleanser. Soap, which can be drying, is not recommended. A mild, alcohol-free toner can be used and a cream-based moisturizer should be used while skin is still damp to hold in moisture. Dr. Bedreshia-Bansal also suggests using products that contain calming ingredients like chamomile, aloe or green tea polyphenois, however products with few ingredients are best.

When choosing cosmetics, opt for those which include 10 ingredients or less. Recommended products include:

  • Silicone-based foundation for less irritation
  • Face powder — contains fewer preservatives
  • Pencil eyeliner and eyebrow color instead of liquid
  • Earth-toned eyeshadows which are less irritating to skin than rich color shadows

Protecting your skin

Sensitive skin reacts negatively to environmental factors so it is important to protect your skin. The AAD strongly recommends using sunscreen or makeup foundation with a minimum of SPF 15 or higher to protect your skin from damage and irritation from the sun all year-round. Debra Jaliman, M.D., author of the book Skin Rules, suggests choosing a zinc-oxide based sunscreen. “I recommend patients stay away from sunscreens with chemicals,” Dr. Jaliman says. “Zinc-oxide based sunscreens are best as they are anti-inflammatory.”

Extreme cold and heat can also do damage to skin by drying it out. Keep the heat temperature down and use a humidifier in your home during the winter to keep air from drying out. Avoid taking baths or showers that are too hot — opt for warm instead. Always moisturize your body and face while still damp to keep moisture in.

Certain fabrics can also irritate your skin. When choosing fabrics, choose something breathable and light in texture. Clothing made of cotton, silk, linen and rayon allow the skin to breathe and draws moisture away from the body. Choose clothing that is loose and doesn’t rub against or irritate the skin.

Diet can affect skin

Eating a healthy diet is good for your entire body, but getting the right vitamins and nutrients can also benefit your skin. People with sensitive skin should try to eat foods rich in B vitamins which help to relieve dry, irritated skin. You can take a daily B-complex vitamin, but you should also try to get some of your B viatmins from the foods you eat. Foods rich in B vitamins include salmon, mackerel, tuna, sunflower seeds, almonds, whole grains and low-fat dairy products.

More on skin care

Dos and don’ts for dry skin
Dos and don’ts for aging skin
Dos and don’ts for oily skin


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