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Itching, burning, redness? Does that describe your skin? Over 50% of people report having sensitive skin, so you are not alone. Sensitive skin can occur anywhere on the body but is most often reported on the face. Facial skin is typically exposed more to the environment and comes into contact with more products. People are also more likely to notice skin irritation on the face than on other parts of the body.

Sensitive skin is most likely to be caused by a damage to the skin barrier function.

What is sensitive skin?

Factors involved in sensitive skin

Sensitive skin is defined as an unpleasant sensory response to stimuli that should not provoke such sensations. Sensitive skin is reactive and the result can be feelings of redness, itching, inflammation, and burning. In more severe conditions swelling, peeling and open sores can occur.

Reactions can occur as a result on using a skin care product topically, or from clothing that touches the skin. If it is form clothing it could be related to detergents.

Sensitive skin can appear very dry and irritated due to loss of moisture from the skin. Some people with sensitive skin can be prone to breakouts. It is not considered a medical condition like dermatitis that is diagnosed by a physician.

External or environmental factors that include pollution, changes in climate, or exposure to certain ingredients either natural or synthetic can cause skin to be more reactive.

What causes sensitive skin?

Sensitive skin is mainly due to disruptions or damage to the skin barrier function. The skin barrier is composed of lipids, and compounds collectively referred to as natural moisturizing factor (NMF) that hold moisture in your skin. Damage to the skin barrier results in loss of moisture from the skin. The result is that skin becomes more dry, scaly and irritated. Read more about the skin barrier function in our blog here.

Emotional stress can also be a factor for reactive skin. Emotional stress increases hormones (glucocorticoids)in the body that affect the skin barrier in a negative way and cause the skin to loose moisture. Again, this leads to dry skin and more sensitivity.

Lifestyle, poor nutrition, allergies and food sensitivities can also impact the skin causing sensitive skin.

Harsh weather that includes sun exposure, heat and cold as well as wind, affect the skin barrier and can cause sensitive skin. Even pollution can lead to sensitive skin.

Neurosensory defects in skin are are thought to be related to sensitive skin in some cases. This means the nerves in the skin may be faster to respond than normal and give increased stimulation.

Heading into winter, the increase in dry air will cause more sensitivity. Skin around the eyes can sometimes be more affected than the rest of the face. This skin is thinner than the skin on the rest of the face.

People with skin disorders such as eczema, rosacea or dermatitis can have skin reactions more frequently.

Other causes of sensitive skin

Age – as we age changes in the skin can cause it to be more sensitive due to loss of moisture.

Medications – some medications such as those that treat hypertension or to treat cancer can cause reactive skin.

Hormones – hormonal changes that occur with the menstrual cycle can lead to sensitive skin.

Allergies – allergies can look like sensitivities, but they are different. Allergies are the result of a specific trigger. If you can identify that trigger or allergen, you can rid yourself of the reactions it causes.

Genetics can play a role.

Unfortunately, people with extremely dry skin often have sensitive skin but putting on a moisturizer causes irritation. It is important to keep your skin moisturized to prevent it from becoming sensitive.

How do I treat or prevent sensitive skin?

Because sensitive skin is related to disruptions in the skin barrier system, it is important to support that system. This means:

Keep showers to a minimum and keep water temperature down. No hot showers or baths!

Use a mild cleanser and do not use a cleanser more than 1-2 times daily.

Do not over exfoliate. Extreme treatments like chemical peels and derma planing can damage the skin barrier.

Cover your skin to keep sun exposure to a minimum as well as drying winds.

Moisturizing

Moisturize to decrease risk of sensitive skin

Moisturizing is extremely important, although some people find this difficult because a moisturizer itself can trigger reactions. If sensitive skin is found on your body (arms and legs), try a body oil to lock in moisture. The best time to use a body oil is immediately after a bath or shower.

If it presents on your hands, moisturize every time you wash. Use a thick cream like Dream Lake Body Butter. Use Knuckle Balm for areas where skin is cracked or flaking.

Many sites will recommend using a product labeled as Hypoallergenic. This word is typically associated with ingredients that have a lower risk of causing an allergic reaction, but the FDA does not recognize a definition for hypoallergenic. There is no assurance that something labeled hypoallergenic will not cause a reaction.

It’s good to use products that contain anti-oxidants and anti-inflammatories as these can both sooth reactive skin as well as rebuild the skin barrier function. Some ingredients that fit the bill include green tea, calendula. Rice bran oil which is rich in phytosterols has been shown to reduce skin redness. These ingredients are all in our Springtide Face Cream. You can also keep a face/body spray handy to spritz the face for hydration. These misters also contain anti-inflammatory properties from herbs to help calm sensitive skin.

If something causes your skin to react at one point in time, that does not mean it will cause a reaction at another point in time. The important thing to do is to protect your skin barrier function with extra moisturizing.

References

Farage MA. The Prevalence of Sensitive Skin. Front Med (Lausanne). 2019 May 17;6:98. doi: 10.3389/fmed.2019.00098. PMID: 31157225; PMCID: PMC6533878. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31157225/

Garg A, Chren MM, Sands LP, Matsui MS, Marenus KD, Feingold KR, Elias PM. Psychological stress perturbs epidermal permeability barrier homeostasis: implications for the pathogenesis of stress-associated skin disorders. Arch Dermatol. 2001 Jan;137(1):53-9. doi: 10.1001/archderm.137.1.53. PMID: 11176661. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11176661/