Sensitive Skin

There is no standard definition for sensitive skin. A few years back a leading dermatologist reviewed a larger number of studies done on sensitive skin and the result was surprising. As much as 70% of the global population consider themselves to have sensitive skin. Some studies also show a difference between men and women where men experience significantly less sensitivity. The typical description of the experience is that the skin itches, burns or stings. It could also be that you “feel your skin” all the time, it may then be a sign of sensitivity. Other symptoms of sensitive skin are that the skin reacts to certain ingredients that may be found in cosmetic or skincare products. It can become flammable, scaly and irritated. Often a sensitive skin is also sensitive to the sun and worsens when it is cold outside.

The typical description of the experience of having sensitive skin is that the skin itches, burns or stings. It could also be that you “feel your skin” all the time, it may then be a sign of sensitivity. Other symptoms of sensitive skin are that the skin reacts to certain ingredients that may be found in cosmetic or skincare products. It can become flammable, scaly and irritated. Often a sensitive skin is also sensitive to the sun and worsens when it is cold outside. 

You could have sensitive skin if the skin:

  • Often feels tight and uncomfortable
  • Is sometimes sore or sensitive to touch
  • Needs extra hydration in winter
  • Flushes easily after a spicy meal or drinking alcohol
  • Has patches of redness that may or may not fade
  • Has areas of uneven texture, with dryness and flakiness
  • Reacts to some skincare products
  • Becomes itchy or develops a rash after contact with irritants
  • Can feel itchy after wearing coarse, synthetic fabrics
  • Turns red and dries out after a hot shower or bath

What causes it?
When you ask people with sensitive skin, what they think causes it, cosmetics and skincare products is by far the most common answer.

The list of causing factors (in order):

  • Cosmetic products
  • Wet air
  • Air conditioning
  • Temperature variation
  • Heat
  • Water
  • Pollution
  • Dry air
  • Cold
  • Wind
  • Sun
  • Emotion

TRPV1
The most common theory of sensitive skin is that it is caused by nerve endings in the top layer of skin becoming irritated which is connected to over expression of the sensory protein TRPV1. 

Gut-skin connection
There is a profound relationship between the gut and the skin and also for sensitive skin, this is a fact. For example, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is more frequent in sensitive skin and associated with increased severity.

Role of stress
There is a long-standing history of the idea that stress plays a substantial role in skin health. Moreover, there are clear evidences that the symptom of itch can be triggered by negative emotions, e.g. after watching a scary movie. Due to possible central sensitivity and interaction at different response levels, these factors might be equally relevant for the sensitive skin symptoms, at least during stressful periods or for people with high stress levels.  

Management of sensitive skin

Avoidance of triggers
Although there is no confirmatory study in the literature, it is probably indispensable to avoid the supposed triggering factors of sensitive skin. In one study we have reviewed, cosmetic was the main triggering factor of sensitive skin according to the patient-reported outcome. The presence of potentially irritating substances in the composition of cosmetics (alpha-hydroxy acids, propylene glycol, alcohol fragrances, preservatives, surfactants, and others) increases the possibility of the occurrence of symptoms. The main advice is to limit the use of cosmetics or to use products that contain little or no preservatives and surfactants, as well as no fragrances (1).

Can sensitive skin be healed?
While you can eliminate some of the causes of skin sensitivity, it can never be completely healed. However, with the right skincare regime, you can protect and prevent your skin from irritation, keeping it hydrated, smooth and glowing. 

Are women more prone to sensitive skin?
No. Sensitive skin can affect men as much as women. However, because women generally use more facial skincare products, they may be more likely to expose their skin to potential irritants.

Which products can I use if I have sensitive skin?
Use a daily skincare routine that is suitable for your skin type, formulated especially for sensitive skin. Look for products with relatively few ingredients. 

Cleanse every evening, moisturize twice a day and wear an SPF of 15+ with UVA protection. Always choose cosmetics that are suitable for sensitive skin and avoid chemically laden cleaning and laundry products, which can also irritate your skin.