How it works:

  • Share your skin goals and snap selfies

  • Your dermatology provider prescribes your formula

  • Apply nightly for happy, healthy skin

How it works:

  • Share your skin goals and snap selfies

  • Your dermatology provider prescribes your formula

  • Apply nightly for happy, healthy skin

Skincare for sensitive skin: everything you wanted to know

Go gentle on your skin by using the right products.

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Curology Team
Jul 25, 2022 · 5 min read

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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.
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Is your skin delicate? Or excessively dry or oily? You might have sensitive skin!

While navigating skincare for “sensitive skin” (a non-medical term often used to describe skin that negatively reacts to many topicals) is never easy, we’re here to help! Sensitive skin (sometimes called reactive skin), is a common condition many people experience. When the top layer of skin—where many nerve endings hang out—is hyperactive, sensitivity can be heightened. In addition, people with reactive skin may have a thinner outermost layer of skin, allowing for more penetration of some chemicals.¹ There are also a variety of skin conditions that can result in the perception of sensitive skin, including eczema(also known as atopic dermatitis), rosacea, and other forms of dermatitis.² Even hair removal can aggravate sensitive skin. Many factors can cause sensitive skin to react, and that's precisely why skincare for sensitive skin is so important.

How to know if you have sensitive skin

Unfortunately, there’s no simple “aha!” test to determine whether you have sensitive skin. As mentioned earlier, it’s a non-medical term that often describes skin that negatively reacts to many topicals. But there are plenty of symptoms that can suggest that your skin might be sensitive, like reactions to certain products or even the environment. Signs of sensitive skin are normally subjective (like burning or stinging), although objective signs (like redness) have been reported.³ 

Speaking of itchy skin, as tempting as it may be, try not to scratch if you can. Scratching can make itching worse and may even lead to open wounds, which are more susceptible to skin infections.

Products designed to work for sensitive skin

If you have sensitive skin, the good news is there’s a lot you can do to help minimize the symptoms associated with it. Caring for sensitive skin starts with choosing skincare products free of common irritants like alcohol and fragrances. Some of the best skincare products for sensitive skin include ingredients like petrolatum, aloe, glycerin, seed oils, and hyaluronic acid. Designed with sensitive skin in mind, these ingredients are generally gentle yet effective. Here are a few of our favorite cleansers, moisturizers, and serums that we recommend for sensitive skin: 

Cleansers and face washes

Moisturizers

Serums and toners

Remember, while every skincare routine is unique (because everyone’s skin is unique), your routine should always include sunscreen. If you have (or think you might have) sensitive skin, you might want to choose a physical sunscreen with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide with an SPF of 30 or higher. These ingredients act as physical barriers that deflect the sun’s UV rays. Chemical sunscreens work a bit differently and may cause skin irritation (more on that in a bit).

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Five ingredients to skip if you have sensitive skin

Understanding why skincare is important begins with knowing which ingredients work for your unique skin type and which you should watch out for. Many people do well with certain natural ingredients like shea butter and green tea. But no matter your skin type, our advice is to follow a simple skincare routine—the simpler, the better, we say.  

Generally speaking, sensitive, delicate skin doesn’t tend to mesh well with some types of ingredients: 

  • Fragrances. The FDA only requires fragrances and flavors to be listed as “fragrance” or “flavor.” The exact components of the fragrance and/or flavor don’t need to be listed.⁴ Fragrances can be natural, chemical, or a combination of both and may cause irritation. Choosing fragrance-free products can lend a big hand in keeping your sensitive skin happy.

  • Essential oils. Distilled from plants, essential oils are concentrated aromatic components of plants. Research has shown as many as 79 essential oils can cause allergies or allergic contact dermatitis.⁵ 

  • Chemical sunscreens. Chemical sunscreens work by absorbing UV rays before it penetrates the skin.⁶ While most people can tolerate them without issue, it’s helpful to know the difference between chemical and physical sunscreens to decide which is best for you. 

  • Harsh exfoliants. Chemical and physical exfoliators work by removing dead skin cells from the skin. Unfortunately, some can irritate sensitive skin. 

  • Alcohol denat (aka denatured alcohol). Dr. Tyler Maly, a board-certified dermatologist at Curology says, “To reduce the risk of dryness and irritation, regular exposure to products containing denatured alcohol should be avoided, particularly in individuals with sensitive skin.” 

When to seek the help of an expert

Most of the time, sensitive skin isn’t serious, and treating it is just a matter of learning—and steering clear of—what causes your skin to react. Remember, skincare is a journey, one in which knowledge is power. But, as always, if you’re experiencing symptoms that seem more severe or different than those we’ve mentioned here, it’s best to seek the advice of your medical provider. Some signs to watch for include: 

  • A skin eruption that doesn’t go away

  • An excessively painful rash

  • Discoloration that isn’t like anything else you have on your body

FAQs

How to know if you have sensitive skin?

There are plenty of symptoms that can suggest that your skin might be sensitive, like reactions to certain products or even the environment. Signs of sensitive skin are normally subjective (like burning or stinging), although objective signs (like redness) have been reported.

When to seek the help of an expert?

If you’re experiencing symptoms that seem more severe, it’s best to seek the advice of your medical provider. Some signs to watch for include: 

  • A skin eruption that doesn’t go away

  • An excessively painful rash

  • Discoloration that isn’t like anything else you have on your body

Customized skincare for sensitive skin

If you have sensitive skin, Curology can help you create a personalized skincare routine to address your skin concern. Curology is free to start—you’ll get a personalized skincare routine, a Custom Formula, plus any of our gentle, yet effective skincare products. That’s a full skincare routine designed by a licensed dermatology provider and sent straight to your door. 

Get your personalized skincare routine with Curology

Subject to consultation. 30-day trial. Just cover $4.95 in S&H.
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The best part? You’ll receive ongoing guidance from your dedicated dermatology providers, who can answer your skincare questions, share product recommendations, or update your Custom Formula. Sign up for a 30-day free trial—just pay $4.95 (plus tax) to cover shipping and handling on your first box. 

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

  1. Berardesca E., et al. Sensitive Skin: An Overview. International journal of cosmetic science. (2012, September 21).

  2. Dyall-Smith, D. Sensitive Skin. Dermatologist. (2009).

  3. Berardesca E., et al. Sensitive Skin: An Overview. Ibid.

  4. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Fragrances in Cosmetics. (n.d.).

  5. Sarkic A., et al. Essential Oils and Their Single Compounds in Cosmetics: A Critical Review. Cosmetics. (January 2018). 

  6. American Academy of Dermatology. Sunscreen FAQs. (n.d.).

*Subject to consultation. Subscription is required. Results may vary.

• • •
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.
Our policy on product links:Empowering you with knowledge is our top priority. Our reviews of other brands’ products in this post are not paid endorsements—but they do meet our medically fact-checked standards for ingredients (at the time of publication).
Curology Team Avatar

Curology Team

Meredith Hartle, DO

Meredith Hartle, DO

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