The term “sensitive skin” describes a collection of symptoms that affect more women than men. Sensitive skin is common and is characterized by complaints of burning, flushing rashes and/or pimples. It has also been described as skin that is less supple and less hydrated than normal skin or prone to developing redness (erythmeatous) and small, dilated blood vessels (telangiectasias). A number of factors play a role in sensitive skin, including underlying skin conditions such as eczema, and rosacea, which can result in sensitivity to humidity, temperature and cosmetics. Three main mechanisms believed to predispose a person to sensitive skin are: reduced skin barrier function hyper-reactivity to irritants, and hyperalgesic neuronal responses to stimulus

Common features associated with sensitive skin:

  • Burning
  • Itching
  • Flushing
  • Rashes
  • Pimples

Acute hypersensitive reactions can result from exposure to chemicals used in shampoos, shower products and makeup. These types of products contain fragrances, preservatives called parabens, and surfactants which are used to make products foam, or not foam. Weather, as well as physical contact of razors, or household cleaning products may also trigger reactions. Some people have underlying conditions which predispose them to sensitivity such as eczema and rosacea. Barrier function, hyper-reactivity, and hyperalgesia are three mechanisms thought to contribute to hypersensitivity reactions.

Barrier Function: The outermost layer of your skin, (stratum corneum or SC) , provides several important functions, including a barrier to help your skin retain moisture. The barrier in people with sensitive skin tends to be fragile, in comparison with people who do not have sensitive skin. This fragility means that the barrier can be easily damaged, which in turn causes moisture loss and exposure to environmental irritants such as chemicals used in personal care products.

Hyperactivity: In addition to having a compromised skin barrier, studies show that people with sensitive skin suffer from an exaggerated response to external stimuli. If a product is applied to the skin and causes irritation, it can, through various cellular interactions, create an inflammatory response. The severity of this response will depend on the properties of the irritant and the particular sensitivities of each person.

Hyperalgesia: Cutaneous neurogenic inflammation is believed to be an underlying mechanism involved in a greater-than-normal sensitivity to pain in people with sensitive skin. It has to do with the way in which the cutaneous immune system and the peripheral nervous system interact. An imbalance between these two systems can result in dysfunction and an inflammatory response. Recently, the human thermoreceptor hTRPV1 was found to play a key role in neurogenic inflammation.


Take great care when choosing skin-care products. Avoid soaps, especially bar soaps, as they will cause dry skin and may damage the skin barrier. Instead, opt for mild soap-free cleansers, preferably in liquid form. These cleansers will gently remove dirt, excess oil, bacteria and cosmetics without damaging the skin barrier. Hot water can actually dry out the skin further. Moisturizers can restore and maintain the skin’s natural moisture levels. Look for moisturizers specially designed for sensitive skin that are free of fragrance, dye or other allergens that may irritate the skin. Frequent application of moisturizing creams can help soothe dry and itchy spots. If you are experiencing severe itching, do not scratch the affected area, as it can lead to scarring, increased pigmentation (darkening of the skin), thickening of the skin, and infection. Instead, gently pat the skin, or apply a damp compress for relief.

Overall, the best course of action to reduce or prevent skin reactions is to identify and subsequently avoid the specific factors causing the reaction. Be sure to choose cleansers and moisturizers for sensitive skin, and sunscreens that are free of fragrance and dye. If you do come into contact with an allergen, avoid scratching, and don’t use any harsh soaps or detergents that may dry the skin. If you’re unsure of what’s causing the irritation, an allergist can help you find out the source, and how to effectively treat it.

Cleansers: Make a point of choosing mild, soap-free and fragrance-free cleansing products. To maintain healthy-looking skin, choose a mild cleanser that’s formulated for your skin type. Many advanced formulations of cleansers offer more than basic cleaning – they contain additional beneficial ingredients, such as vitamins, exfoliants, amino peptides and moisturizing agents that can help nourish and rejuvenate your complexion. Mechanical cleansers such as brushes, loofahs, and cleansing grains should also be avoided. Liquid cleansers may also react with sensitive skin due to their additional surfactants. Two non-irritant cleansers are Aquanil, and Cetaphil lotions. Many hard-milled soaps also tend to work well for sensitive skin. Finally, most synthetic detergents are well tolerated by those with sensitive skin, as their pH levels are balanced well for the skin.

Moisturizers: Moisturizers can restore and maintain the skin’s natural moisture levels. Look for moisturizers specially designed for sensitive skin that are free of fragrance, dye or other allergens that may irritate the skin. Frequent application of moisturizing creams can help soothe dry and itchy spots. Moisturizers also help protect the skin from weather conditions that can dry out the skin. When choosing a moisturizer, look for products that contain more soothing, anti-inflammatory ingredients such as aloe and chamomile extract.

Sun protection: Too much sun exposure can cause considerable harm to those with sensitive skin. Here are some precautions you should take before heading out into the sun.

Limit sun exposure: Reducing your time in the sun is perhaps the easiest way to avoid damage to your skin caused by Ultra violet (UV) rays. When outdoors, set a time limit and seek shade when necessary. Also keep in mind that UV radiation is the strongest between the hours of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Use sunscreen: The daily use of a sunscreen can help keep your skin protected from UV rays. Look for sunscreens that contain the following ingredients: Benzophenone, Oxybenzone, Avobenzone, Titanium Dioxide and Zinc Oxide. Make sure your sunscreen offers protection against both UVA and UVB rays. These will be simply labeled “broad spectrum”. Make sure to apply generously and frequently.

Cover and protect: Wrap-around sunglasses, wide-brimmed hats and clothing that covers your arms and legs, can offer extra protection against the sun’s harmful UV rays.