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5 ways to calm sensitive skin, according to dermatology experts

When it comes to sensitive skin, a simple approach is often best.

Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Apr 4, 2024 • 10 min read
Medically reviewed by Elise Griffin, PA-C
Woman with sensitive skin
Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Apr 4, 2024 • 10 min read
Medically reviewed by Elise Griffin, PA-C
We’re here to share what we know — but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider if you have questions.

In this article

What is sensitive skin?
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Summary

  • Sensitive skin is common: 50-60% of men and 60-70% of women experience this condition.

  • Sensitive skin is characterized by unpleasant feelings such as tingling, burning, stinging, or pain in response to stimuli that do not typically cause them.

  • External variables such as pollution, climate, food, and irritants in some cosmetic items can cause skin sensitivity.

  • Adjustments to your skincare regimen can help soothe sensitive skin and avoid bothersome responses.

  • Dermatology experts have acknowledged the increasing incidence of sensitive skin.

  • Redness, dryness, and sensitivity are common symptoms of sensitive skin, and certain skin care products can help alleviate them.

Skin sensitivity is a prevalent issue. Research has shown that 50–60% of men and 60–70% of women worldwide have sensitive skin to some extent or have had skin sensitivities at some point in their lives.¹ Outside variables such as pollution, climate, food, and irritants in some cosmetic items can trigger sensitivity, causing the skin to feel tight, itchy, or inflamed.

While the weather is beyond your control, you can still protect and soothe your skin and help avoid those bothersome responses. Here, Curology’s licensed dermatology professionals unpack skin sensitivity and the best methods to help calm sensitive skin.

What is sensitive skin?

There are 3 fundamental skin types: normal, dry, and oily.² Sensitive skin describes skin type that becomes reactive to chemicals, skincare products, or high temperatures. The condition is characterized by the emergence of unpleasant feelings (such as tingling, burning, stinging, or pain) in response to stimuli that do not typically cause them.³

Sensitive skin can appear normal or show temporary symptoms like redness. This skin type has no recognized medical criteria, meaning it’s unexpected in most circumstances. The skin simply reacts, turning red, dry, tight, or flaky. It’s not an immune condition, but rather one that affects the skin’s nervous system.⁴

The face is more vulnerable to sensitivity as it is usually exposed to weather extremes, climatic shifts, and other environmental assaults.⁵ The prevalence of self-reported sensitive skin on the face is considerably higher in women than men. However, although more women encounter different symptoms, men may experience more severe symptoms than women.⁶

What contributes to sensitive skin?

Several factors contribute to these sensory reactions—let’s look into a handful of them.

Cosmetics

Sensitive skin responses may result from certain substances in skincare and cosmetics. The main cause of sensitive skin, particularly in women, is overuse and occasionally improper use of cosmetics.⁷ Irritating substances in cosmetics, such as alcohol and fragrances, increase the likelihood of symptoms. Some products or substances may cause your symptoms to flare up if you have sensitive skin.

Allergic or irritant contact dermatitis

Preservatives and perfumes, in particular, are common allergies in household cleaning products.⁸ The cleaning chemicals, such as detergents and surfactants, may be too abrasive, causing sensitive skin to respond. For example, skin reactions to detergent are among the most prevalent. Harsh cleansers, such as soaps, cause skin irritation along with erythema (redness) and itching mainly due to damage to the skin barrier.⁹

Climate changes

The skin is the most exposed organ to the environment; therefore, it is inclined to have a high climate sensitivity.¹⁰ Sensitive skin can react to various factors, including wind, humidity, dryness, and temperature swings.¹¹ UV radiation may also affect susceptible skin.

Skin barrier impairment

A compromised skin barrier is a common underlying cause of most cases of sensitive skin. Ceramides are a crucial part of the barrier that protects your skin.¹² Although the skin naturally produces them, several internal and external events can cause their levels to drop. An altered or decreased barrier function (the protective shield that shields against sun and pollution damage) is one of the defining characteristics of sensitive or easily irritated skin. The skin becomes more irritable than usual when the epidermal barrier is disrupted.¹³

What are the symptoms of sensitive skin?

The International Forum for the Study of Itch (IFSI) classifies sensitive skin as a syndrome.¹⁴ The unpleasant experiences mentioned are reactions to situations that ordinarily shouldn't cause them, and no identifiable skin condition may account for these uncomfortable feelings. The symptoms of sensitive skin can extend beyond the face and impact other body parts.¹⁵

Sensitive skin might show up like this:

  • Red, inflamed, and itchy skin

  • Burning or stinging skin

  • Tightness or tingling

These are all signs of sensitive skin, and they can linger for several hours. People with skin sensitivities may need to modify their skincare routines and adjust various aspects of their lives to find comfort.

What are the best expert-approved tips to help calm sensitive skin?

Several strategies can help you manage skin sensitivity.

1. Use gentle cleansers

Every excellent skincare regimen begins with a cleanser. It removes build-up, excess oil, and makeup while hydrating, soothing, and repairing skin. Instead of scrubbing, use a mild cleanser, such as micellar water, for sensitive skin. Cleansers with harsh surfactants can harm the lipids and proteins in the skin, resulting in tightness, dryness, irritation, and even itching after washing.¹⁶

For sensitive skin, you need an ultra-gentle, non-irritating cleanser that protects the skin barrier.¹⁷ Ensure you don’t overdo it, as irritation can arise from over-cleaning or over-exfoliating delicate skin.

2. Apply sun protection

Sun protection is essential for everyone, but especially those with sensitive skin, as it may react to UV radiation and flush; acute exposure to UV radiation can trigger inflammation and increased blood flow to the area.¹⁸ Some people’s sensitive skin causes them to get severe sunburns. However, using an unsuitable sunscreen can potentially exacerbate an allergic reaction. Use physical sunscreens with titanium dioxide or zinc oxide that offer UV protection while minimizing skin irritation or sensitivity.¹⁹

Choose a sunscreen with a high sun protection factor without perfumes, parabens, and other cosmetic preservatives to minimize the possibility of adverse reactions if you have sensitive skin.²⁰ Apply generous sunscreen daily for optimal protection against UV radiation.*

3. Avoid fragranced products

Steer clear of fragrances and perfumes, which can irritate sensitive skin and cause itching and redness. Low-molecular-weight compounds present in scented items can produce skin sensitization and allergic contact dermatitis in the event of high exposure.²¹ The umbrella word “fragrance” can cover up several chemical substances. Some chemicals and additives irritate sensitive skin in the same way that specific environmental conditions do.

Cosmetic preservatives like parabens can damage your skin’s natural protective layer, leading to skin irritation.²² So, you’d want to avoid them as you’d want to use products that maintain your skin barrier function, ensuring your sensitive skin is protected as much as possible. Every product you use on your face should be fragrance-free to minimize skin irritation or damage. If unsure, perform a patch test and see what happens. Even better, stay away from them completely if you can.

4. Moisturize regularly

Hydrating creams, lotions, and ointments help retain the moisture already in your skin. Use a moisturizer as soon as you dry off from a shower or bath or after washing your face.

Try our Curology Gel Moisturizer. Its lightweight, buildable consistency makes incorporating this daily moisturizer into your routine simple. You can also incorporate our Barrier Balm for its hydrating and protective properties.

5. Stay hydrated

The first thing you should do to help manage sensitive skin is to be regularly hydrated. Other than drinking water, consider consuming fruits and vegetables that are high in water content, such as watermelon, strawberries, peaches, broccoli, lettuce, and cucumbers. Studies have shown that consuming fruits or fruit extracts can strongly improve skin hydration and reduce water loss through the skin.²³

Curology offers personalized skincare

The licensed dermatology providers at Curology provide solutions that can treat rosacea, fine lines, wrinkles, acne, and hyperpigmentation as part of our full-service skincare offerings. Our professionals can prescribe a personalized formula and treatment plan for your skincare needs. Start your 30-day trial** today.

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FAQs

What are the common symptoms of sensitive skin?

You may have sensitive skin if you experience redness, itching, burning, or stinging on your skin, especially after using skincare products.²⁴ Additional signs include dry spots, itching, redness in the face, frequent rashes, and responses to harsh weather. Talk to a dermatology provider if you feel skin discomfort and cannot determine the cause.

What ingredients should I look for in skincare products for sensitive skin?

Give your skin what it needs with products that don’t contain potentially irritating ingredients. Some ingredients that may help soothe and moisturize sensitive skin include aloe vera, niacinamide, oatmeal, calendula, and jojoba oil.

Is it safe to use home remedies for sensitive skin?

Home remedies for dry skin like oatmeal baths and aloe vera can be helpful for sensitive skin but choose gentle, non-irritating ingredients. For example, colloidal oatmeal’s effectiveness lies in its ability to treat allergic responses to common components and be calming and mild.²⁵ Use the Cream Moisturizer from Curology, which has soothing ingredients like aloe vera.

Can stress affect sensitive skin?

Various common skin conditions could appear in the context of psychological stress.²⁶ When you’re under stress, your body releases substances that lead to inflammation and skin irritation. Furthermore, your skin may be more challenging to repair if your stress is ongoing. Since sensitive skin and anxiety are frequently associated, learn effective stress management strategies to help avoid flare-ups and maintain the health of your skin.

How can I prevent sensitive skin from flaring up during the winter months?

Keeping your skin safe from irritants is the first step towards avoiding skin sensitivity. Protect your skin with a moisturizer that helps restore the skin barrier, preserves the integrity of the skin, and maintains hydration, like Curology's Cream Moisturizer. You can also use the new Barrier Balm to help protect your skin.

• • •

P.S. We did the homework, so you don't have to:

  1. Farage, M.A. The Prevalence of Sensitive Skin. Frontiers in Medicine (Lausanne). (2019, May 17).

  2. Saiwaeo, S., et al. Human skin type classification using image processing and deep learning approaches. Heliyon. (2023, October 23).

  3. Misery, L., et al. Definition of Sensitive Skin: An Expert Position Paper from the Special Interest Group on Sensitive Skin of the International Forum for the Study of Itch. Acta Dermato Venereologica. (2017, January 4).

  4. Misery, L., et al. Pathophysiology and management of sensitive skin: position paper from the special interest group on sensitive skin of the International Forum for the Study of Itch (IFSI). Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology. (2019, October 28).

  5. Farage, M.A. The Prevalence of Sensitive Skin. Frontiers in Medicine (Lausanne). Ibid.

  6. Wang, X., et al. Gender‐Related Characterization of Sensitive Skin in Normal Young Chinese. Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology. (2019, August 28).

  7. Duarte, I., et al. Sensitive skin: review of an ascending concept. Anais Brasileiros de Dermatologia. (July-August 2017).

  8. Magnano, M., et al. Contact allergens and irritants in household washing and cleaning products. Contact Dermatitis. (2009, December 9).

  9. Mukhopadhyay, P. Cleansers and their role in various dermatological disorder. Indian Journal of Dermatology. (January-February 2011).

  10. Balato, N., et al. Effects of climate changes on skin diseases. Expert Review of Anti-infective Therapy. (2014, January 3).

  11. Duarte, I., et al. Sensitive skin: review of an ascending concept. Anais Brasileiros de Dermatologia. Ibid.

  12. Wu, Y., et al. ARTICLE: Compromised Skin Barrier and Sensitive Skin in Diverse Populations. Journal of Drugs in Dermatology. (2021, April 1).

  13. Wu, Y., et al. ARTICLE: Compromised Skin Barrier and Sensitive Skin in Diverse Populations. Journal of Drugs in Dermatology. Ibid.

  14. Wollenberg, A. and Giménez‐Arnau, A. Sensitive skin: A relevant syndrome, be aware. Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology. (2022, March 21).

  15. Wollenberg, A. and Giménez‐Arnau, A. Sensitive skin: A relevant syndrome, be aware. Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology. Ibid.

  16. Ananthapadmanabhan, K.P., et al. Cleansing without compromise: the impact of cleansers on the skin barrier and the technology of mild cleansing. Dermatologic Therapy. (2004, January 21).

  17. Spada, F., et al. Use of formulations for sensitive skin improves the visible signs of aging, including wrinkle size and elasticity. Clinical, Cosmetic and Investigational Dermatology (2019, June 6).

  18. Lopes, D.M. and McMahon, S.B. Ultraviolet Radiation on the Skin: A Painful Experience? CNS Neuroscience & Therapeutics. (2015, August 30).

  19. Smijs, T.G. and Pavel, S. Titanium dioxide and zinc oxide nanoparticles in sunscreens: focus on their safety and effectiveness. Nanotechnology, Science and Applications. (2011, October 13).

  20. Ma, X., et al. Skin irritation potential of cosmetic preservatives: An exposure-relevant study. Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology. (2020, June 3).

  21. van Amerongen, C.C.A., et al. Skin exposure to scented products used in daily life and fragrance contact allergy in the European general population ‐ The EDEN Fragrance Study. Contact Dermatitis. (2021, March 2).

  22. Ma, X., et al. Skin irritation potential of cosmetic preservatives: An exposure‐relevant study. Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology. Ibid.

  23. Li, H., et al. Effects of oral intake fruit or fruit extract on skin aging in healthy adults: a systematic review and Meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Front Nutr. (2023, August 4).

  24. Berardesca, E., et al. Sensitive skin: an overview. International Journal of Cosmetic Science, (2012, September 21).

  25. Sobhan, M., et al. The Efficacy of Colloidal Oatmeal Cream 1% as Add-on Therapy in the Management of Chronic Irritant Hand Eczema: A Double-Blind Study. Clinical, Cosmetic and Investigational Dermatology. (2020, March 25).

  26. Bin Saif, G.A., et al. Association of psychological stress with skin symptoms among medical students. Saudi Medical Journal. (January 2018).

Elise Griffin is a certified physician assistant at Curology. She received her Master of Medical Science in physician assistant studies from Nova Southeastern University in Jacksonville, FL.

**Cancel anytime. Subject to consultation. Results may vary. Restrictions apply. See website for full details and important safety information.

• • •
Our thoughts on sun protection: *Sunscreen is only one part of UV protection—cute sun hats and shades are also recommended.
Our medical review process:We’re here to tell you what we know. That’s why our information is evidence-based and fact-checked by medical experts. Still, everyone’s skin is unique—the best way to get advice is to talk to your healthcare provider.
Curology Team Avatar

Curology Team

Elise Griffin, Physician Assistant Curology

Elise Griffin, PA-C

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