The Ultimate Sensitive Skin Survival Guide
- What Is Sensitive Skin?
- How to tell if you have sensitive skin?
- Take The Skin Type Quiz
- What Causes Sensitive Skin?
- How to care for sensitive skin
- Understanding Ingredients
- What is the best skin care routine for sensitive skin?
- Sensitive skin vs dermatitis
What Is Sensitive Skin?
Sensitive skin is a term that can be tricky to pin down. Unlike most medical conditions, which have signs and symptoms that can be observed and measured objectively, sensitive skin refers to a collection of subjective sensory effects. In other words, things people feel rather than physical signs of damage or irritation.
The International Forum for the Study of Itch (IFSI), an international association of doctors, researchers and scientists, put together a working group to come up with a definition for sensitive skin. After five rounds of voting, this is what they settled on:
“Sensitive skin is a syndrome defined by the occurrence of unpleasant sensations (stinging, burning, pain, pruritus, and tingling sensations) in response to stimuli that normally should not provoke such sensations.”
Based on an analysis of surveys from around the world, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) estimates that between 60–70% of women and 50–60% of men report having some degree of skin sensitivity.
Naturally, these numbers vary depending on the population being surveyed but the fact is a lot of people identify as having at least some skin sensitivity issues.
Luckily for them (and you) this article will discuss everything you need to know in order to survive and thrive despite your finicky skin!
How to tell if you have sensitive skin?
It can sometimes be difficult to distinguish between sensitive and simply dehydrated or dry skin. This is because sensitive skin often presents as dry, flaky and tight. Also, if you're prone to sensitivity, dryness will likely be one of the main triggers.
Here are some common signs and symptoms of sensitive skin syndrome:
- Burning or stinging sensations after using certain skincare products or coming into contact with irritants
- Redness or inflammation (this can also be caused by dry skin)
- Your skin is easily irritated and sensitive to touch
- Regular itchiness or discomfort
- Prone to rashes, hives or other skin eruptions
- Visible blood vessels on the surface of the skin (thinner skin is often more sensitive)
Find out your skin type in under 3 minutes! The better you know your skin, the better you can care for it!
What Causes Sensitive Skin?
Prevention is always better than cure. This is just as true for sensitive skin as for any other condition, syndrome, disease or illness. Understanding the triggers, which can vary drastically from one person to the next, is the single best way to avoid flare-ups and the accompanying pain, itchiness and other forms of discomfort that come with them.
Common causes of sensitive skin flare-ups
- Excessive sun exposure
- Lack of sleep
- Hot water
- Weather, including extremely hot and humid conditions or dry winter air
- Dehydrated or excessively dry skin
- Soap (especially when it has lots of additives)
- Beauty and personal care products that are not designed for sensitive skin
- Hand sanitizers (even those made with plant-derived alcohol or alcohol-free alternatives)
- Solvents such as ethanol, acetone and paint thinners
- Laundry detergents
- Artificial preservatives and fragrances
- Undiluted essential oils
- Certain metals commonly found in the environment and used in jewelry, including copper, nickel, chromium, cobalt and zinc
- Rubber, latex, and other adhesives
- Foods that cause allergies or intolerances, especially dairy, eggs, nuts, soy, and wheat
- Anything that can damage the skin's barrier, strip its natural oils or kill helpful bacteria
Dealing with flare-ups
You may already have a pretty good idea of what your specific triggers are, or perhaps you’re struggling to figure out which of the above factors (or more likely which combination of them) are causing your sensitive skin symptoms.
While it is often impossible to completely avoid all of them, minimizing your exposure to triggers as much as possible is the best way to avoid irritation and discomfort.
Either way, if they persist or flare up often, it’s advisable that you visit a board-certified dermatologist to get help figuring out the underlying causes and how to address them.
In some cases, hyper-sensitive or easily irritated skin can be a sign of an underlying health condition - making it especially important that you get evaluated.
How to care for sensitive skin
Aside from avoiding things, there are plenty of ways that you can be proactive about caring for sensitive skin:
1. Adapt your skincare routine to your skin
Designing a more gentle, minimalistic skincare routine that suits your particular needs is key. Stick to products specifically designed for sensitive skin Incorporate the powerful yet gentle compounds provided to us by mother nature wherever possible.
Think like a scientist. Test methodically and record your results so that you can go back and compare when necessary. Don't change too much at once and, unless they cause bad reactions immediately, give new products a couple of weeks before deciding if they are right for you.
Pro tip: Use the patch test before incorporating a new product into your routine. Apply it to your inner arm every day and if you don't notice any irritation it's likely safe to use on the most sensitive spots. If you want to be extra careful, do the same on your neck to make absolutely sure a product won't irritate your sensitive facial skin.
2. Make healthy lifestyle choices
It might be easier said than done but reducing your stress levels, eating well, exercising regularly and getting enough sleep will make a world of difference. Better yet, these things will have a multiplier effect on improving your health and mental well-being in general.
Pro tip: Meditating daily (or as often as possible) is one of the most powerful methods for improving mental and physical health. There are plenty of ways to meditate and even as little as 5-10 minutes a day of simple mindfulness meditation will likely make a huge difference.
3. Think pH
Maintaining your skin's pH within an optimal natural range (4.7-5.75) is one of the best ways to avoid skin sensitivity, irritation and dryness. When it's too alkaline (above pH 5.75), it's more likely to become dry, flaky and red. When it becomes too acidic (below pH 4.7), inflammatory conditions like eczema, psoriasis and acne are more likely to flare up.
Pro tip: soapberries are naturally around 5.5 pH, making them a perfect natural substitute for everything from soap and shampoo to laundry detergent and surface cleaners.
4. Moisturize regularly
Relieving dry skin is one of the best ways to reduce skin sensitivity. Make sure to moisturize regularly with gentle products. Use dedicated facial moisturizers on your face if possible and look out for non-greasy body butters and lotions.
Pro tip: Consider using a slightly heavier moisturizer at night before bed to give your skin some extra hydration while you sleep.
5. Be sun smart
Sun exposure (and more specifically exposure to UV rays) can worsen skin sensitivity. First priority is to protect yourself with clothes that cover as much skin as possible. When that's not possible or desirable, using a broad-spectrum, sunscreen that protects against both UVA and UVB rays sunscreen is vital (yes, even on cloudy or rainy days!)
Pro tip: Dark clothes are more effective than light ones at reflecting the sun's rays.
6. Pat (don’t rub) your skin dry
Gently patting your skin dry with a soft towel instead of rubbing it vigorously can prevent irritation and stop you from damaging the skin barrier.
Pro tip: Using your hairdryer on the cool setting is another great way to gently dry yourself, especially when it comes to hard to reach areas such as inside your ears or between your toes.
One of the biggest challenges when it comes to sensitive skin care is deciphering product labels.
Fortunately, once you begin to understand the broader categories of chemicals used in personal care and cosmetic products, it becomes much easier to distinguish between gentle ingredients and harmful chemicals.
Ingredients to avoid
- Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) - An extremely common surfactant that bonds with other common soap ingredients, resulting in carcinogenic nitrosamines. Not be confused with the gentle Sodium Lauryl Sulfoacetate.
- 1,4 Dioxane - A probable human carcinogen that easily penetrates the skin and has also been linked to organ toxicity.
- Parabens - Propylparaben, butylparaben, and methylparaben are the most common forms but any ingredient ending in ‘paraben’, as well as parahydroxybenzoate, fall into this category.
- Triclosan - Even in low concentrations this chemical has been linked with changes in thyroid hormone concentrations and disruption of the endocrine system. It is also classified as a skin, eye, and lung irritant.
- Ureas & Other Formaldehyde Releasers - These days it is uncommon to see the highly toxic chemical formaldehyde directly added to formulations. On the other hand, formaldehyde-releasing preservatives are still widely used. Look out for names such as quaternium-15, DMDM hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea, diazolidinyl urea, polyoxymethylene urea, sodium hydroxymethylglycinate, bronopol and glyoxal.
- Artificial Fragrance - The majority of artificial fragrances are petroleum-based and known to be detrimental to human health. Look out for terms including the clause ‘phthalate’, as well as the known endocrine disruptors and carcinogens benzophenone and styrene.
- Ethanolamines - The most common compound in this category is diethanolamine (DEA). Also look out for monoethanolamine (MEA) and triethanolamine TEA. Ethanolamines can increase your risk of exposure to carcinogenic nitrosamines and cause organ toxicity, as well as causing environmental damage.
It’s important to note at this point that even if you (or your family members) don’t identify as having sensitive skin the above ingredients should be avoided at all costs.
While they’re all but certain to irritate sensitive skin and enflame skin conditions, most are also probable or possible carcinogens and endocrine or hormone disruptors.
Did you know?
- The formulas of artificial fragrances are protected by intellectual property laws. What this means in practice is that product ingredient lists will usually just contain fragrance names without listing the (often harmful) ingredients that they are made with. Worse yet, many dermatologists single out artificial fragrances as one of the most common causes of skin sensitivity.
- Products labeled 'hypoallergenic' are not necessarily safer for sensitive skin. There are no federal standards governing the use of the term. In other words, it can mean whatever a particular company wants it to.
- California's Proposition 65 list is one of the most comprehensive lists of harmful chemicals around. If you're unsure about an ingredient or find contradictory information in a Google search, you can check it using the Prop 65 website.
Why natural ingredients are the safest way to go
Personally, we strongly believe that the easiest way to avoid flare-ups and manage symptoms is to stick with natural ingredients and derivatives.
While there are certainly exceptions to this rule (such as in the case of undiluted essential oils or food allergies), it’s likely the safest catch-all option for most people.
Some of the best natural ingredients for treating flare-ups, or better yet, avoiding them entirely include:
- Aloe vera
- Vitamins (A, B3, B5, B7, C, E and others)
- Colloidal oatmeal
- Shea butter
- Cacao or cocoa butter
- Activated charcoal
- Coconut oil
- Witch hazel
- Many more - mother nature has a very large toolkit!
What is the best skin care routine for sensitive skin?
Everybody (and their skin) is different, meaning there really isn't a best skin care routine for sensitive skin or any other skin type.
That said, I can certainly make some recommendations about where to start. At Tree to Tub, we specialize in caring for the most sensitive skin types with soothing, calming botanicals.
In fact, the company was built on the foundations of my journey to overcome skin irritation caused by soap and other personal care products like shampoo, conditioner and lotion (including many supposedly 'natural' ones).
Of course, it goes without saying that you should always choose products that are free from the types of harmful chemicals mentioned earlier in this article.
1. Choose a body wash or soap that doesn't strip the skin of its natural oils and supports a healthy microbiome. This is why we love soapberries so much and use them as the hero ingredient in so many of our products!
2. Use a gentle exfoliator twice a week to remove impurities and dead skin. If you have especially oily skin, you might want to consider exfoliating 3-4 times a week.
3. Hydrate your skin regularly with a moisture-boosting lotion. Using a good body butter a few times a week is also a great idea, especially if you have extra-dry skin. It's especially important to moisturize after exfoliating and being exposed to the sun (even if you're using sunscreen, which you absolutely should be).
1. As with your body care products, you should choose a shampoo that doesn't strip the hair of all its natural oils. Once again, soapberry is amazing in this regard. If you want fuller looking hair, we suggest cycling your regular shampoo with one that contains ingredients such as biotin, (vegan) collagen and caffeine Washing your hair every day isn't advisable. 2-4 times a week is the sweet spot for most people.
1. Start with a gentle cleanser containing calming, soothing botanicals like chamomile, aloe vera, soapberry, etc.
2. Apply a layer of toner to remove trace impurities, balance the pH level of your skin and prep for other products.
3. Use a serum or concentrate containing active ingredients that target your specific skin concerns, such as wrinkles, dryness or dullness.
The best time for facial care is in the evening. The reason for this is twofold:
- You want to remove all the dirt and grime that has built up over the day.
- Many serums, night creams and other face products contain powerful ingredients like retinol that are reactive to sunlight and thus should only be applied at night.
If you feel like your skin really benefits from morning and evening care, it's fine to cleanse, apply toner and moisturize at the start of the day as well.
Sensitive skin vs dermatitis
Dermatitis, also known as eczema, is a skin condition characterized by inflammation, itching and redness. It’s important to note that sensitive skin and dermatitis are not the same thing - although they can present with similar symptoms.
As discussed earlier, the term sensitive skin tends to be used more broadly and is defined primarily by the presence of subjective symptoms of heightened skin sensitivity.
With dermatitis, there is always visible skin irritation caused by anything from an allergic reaction to environmental factors or immune system issues.
Types of dermatitis
Irritant contact dermatitis
Irritant contact dermatitis is caused by skin contact with irritants such as harsh soaps or solvents. It usually presents with redness, inflammation and itching.
While sensitive skin and other forms of dermatitis usually persist over time, irritant contact dermatitis tends to be temporary and can be caused by exposure to anything from poison ivy to harsh chemicals.
If your symptoms persist for more than 24 hours or you experience nausea, vomiting, lightheadedness of any other extreme symptoms you should seek emergency medical attention.
Allergic contact dermatitis
Allergic contact dermatitis is a type of reactive skin condition caused by an allergic reaction to a specific substance or allergen, such as latex or certain skincare ingredients.
Atopic dermatitis is an internal and generally chronic inflammatory condition that tends to have genetic roots and is also linked to allergies and asthma.
Seborrheic dermatitis is characterized by scaly skin with red, flaky patches on the scalp and face (typically along the eyebrows, nose, and hairline). It can also occur in other areas that have a lot of oil-producing glands, such as the chest or back. It is often linked to an overgrowth of a type of yeast that naturally occurs on the skin.
Photoallergic contact dermatitis
Photoallergic contact dermatitis is a rare type of skin allergy that is triggered when after contact with certain allergens (usually skincare ingredients or medications) and later exposure to ultraviolet light from the sun or even a tanning bed.
Caring for sensitive skin can be challenging but it's far from impossible. Making the right lifestyle choices and finding products that work for your skin will drastically reduce or even end sensitivity issues.
The most important things to remember:
- Figure out your triggers and plan accordingly.
- Understand product labels, avoid harsh chemicals and harness the healing power of mother nature.
- Create the perfect skin care routine for your unique skin by gently tweaking it until you hit the sweet spot.