If you head to a facial appointment, your esthetician is bound to ask you what your skin type is. You might say sensitive — in fact, the majority of American women would — but are you giving your skin pro the right answer? Skin that is reactive isn’t necessarily sensitive: It could just be sensitized. Though these two descriptors may sound interchangeable, the two are quite different from each other, and many people actually have the latter. Furthermore, you could be unintentionally harming your skin by not providing it with the proper regimen. To help you understand the difference between having sensitive skin and having skin that’s become sensitized — and to optimize your routine for happier, healthier skin — we’ve consulted with a board-certified dermatologist who laid it all out in simple language.
What It Means to Have Sensitive Skin
The most important thing to understand about having sensitive skin is that it is a skin type, and skin types don’t change. “Having this skin type has a lot to do with genetics — it’s something you are born with and that you continue to deal with throughout your life,” explains Debra Jaliman, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in NYC and assistant clinical professor of dermatology at the Mount Sinai® School of Medicine. “People with sensitive skin react to external factors, such as weather and scents.”
These external factors can cause a sensitive complexion to get irritated, inflamed, and even sore. Because sensitive skin reacts so strongly to external factors, it can also be prone to acne, breakouts, or rashes. Don’t be surprised if testing a new skincare formula goes sideways quickly — this skin type needs careful attention and care.
The Best Skincare Approach For Sensitive Skin
While you can’t change your skin type, Dr. Jaliman notes that you can treat your skin in a way that will promote a healthy complexion and an improved skin barrier, which will go a long way to reduce sensitivity. This generally means avoiding ingredients in skincare products that may trigger a reaction.
The biggest culprits are ones that you may already know to steer clear of, such as fragrances, dyes, color additives, essential oils, and alcohol. Powerful skincare products — especially scrubs and chemical peels — are out, too. There are also certain comedogenic (acne-causing) ingredients that can result in breakouts, such as sodium lauryl sulfate, wheat germ oil, and coconut oil. Avoiding all these ingredients in products can go a long way towards avoiding unnecessary irritation.
Once you’ve gotten your skin’s reactions in check, add deep hydration back into the skin barrier with ceramides. These are lipids that naturally occur in the skin and help your complexion retain moisture. We’re fond of slathering on CeraVe® Moisturizing Cream ($14) post-shower — it combines skin-loving ceramides with niacinamide, a B vitamin that also helps prevent dehydration.
What It Means to Have Sensitized Skin
“Sensitive” is a skin type, while “sensitized” is not. That’s because sensitized skin isn’t something that you’re born with, but a temporary condition you may experience based on lifestyle factors that irritate your skin. “It’s more easily explained as how your skin reacts to certain factors you expose it to,” says Dr. Jaliman. For example, air pollution can contribute to sensitized skin, especially if you live in a large city with poor air quality, like New York or Mumbai.
Other factors that may cause your skin to become sensitized include smoke, wind, and excessive sun exposure (so be sure to plan your vacations very strategically!). Stress, be it emotional or physical, can also take a toll on your complexion. Some foods or beverages — such as dairy, nuts, or alcohol — have even been known to irritate skin. (Learn more about how dairy affected one writer’s skin here.)
Another common reason why people experience sensitized skin is from improper usage of skincare products. In this context, sensitization happens when you’ve irritated your skin so badly that the barrier becomes compromised. The result: redness, flaking, dehydration, itchiness, and even burning. Over-exfoliating your skin, using too many abrasive products, or mixing products that shouldn’t be combined (like potentially irritating retinol and alpha hydroxy acids) can all lead to sensitized skin. All that said, it’s important to follow label instructions for product usage and to make sure you’re not overusing strong formulas, or combining ingredients that you shouldn’t.
Retinol shouldn't be used by women who are pregnant, considering getting pregnant, or nursing. Please consult with your doctor before use.
The Best Skincare Approach For Sensitized Skin
Because sensitized skin is a condition and not a skin type, you can get your complexion back to a healthy level — as long as you put in the work. Goal number one is to treat your skin with TLC to nurse it back to health. This means doing your best to avoid the triggers we outlined above, including pollution, sun exposure, stress, smoking, and alcohol consumption. It also means taking a step back from your current regimen and re-evaluating what products you should cease using. With careful attention, you should be able to rehab your skin to its pre-sensitized state reasonably quickly (for reference, it took us a week to recover from a bout of over-exfoliation).
The one similarity that sensitive and sensitized skin have is that repairing your skin’s lipid barrier becomes a top priority. As we previously mentioned, ceramides are an ingredient that can help, as are niacinamide, squalane, and fatty acids. Paula’s Choice® Water-Infusing Electrolyte Moisturizer ($35) contains all four of these ingredients, plus features a lightweight, airy texture that won’t weigh down skin.
Above all, though, both sensitive and sensitized skin require you to be mindful of your lifestyle and your routine. Are your products working for or against you? Are you avoiding environmental irritants? If you’re not sure of the answers to these questions — or if you ever feel that your sensitive or sensitized skin is out of control — it’s important to work with a dermatologist. They can help you manage your complexion and come up with a customized, non-reactionary routine that will leave your skin nourished and glowing — not red and irritated.