It’s difficult to say which part of having sensitive skin is most challenging to deal with: the bad reactions or the fact that those reactions can be so totally unpredictable. Making matters even more complicated is the fact that “sensitive skin” is kind of a nebulous term—and many people who think they have sensitive skin may really be overusing irritating products.
But, in general, people who tend to have allergic or irritant dermatitis reactions—stinging, burning, redness, dryness, etc.—to makeup or skin-care products as well as those who have skin conditions like rosacea, psoriasis, or eczema are considered to have sensitive skin. And, although there’s no way to guarantee that you’ll completely avoid these types of reactions, there are ways to make them less likely and to help your skin function at its healthiest in the meantime.
Below are a few tried-and-true strategies for keeping your sensitive skin happy—straight from dermatologists.
1. Use as few products at a time as possible, with as few ingredients as possible.
“Generally speaking, when dealing with sensitive skin I follow the principle that less is more,” Shilpi Khetarpal, M.D., dermatologist at Cleveland Clinic, tells SELF, “meaning products with less ingredients are better for those with sensitive skin.”
Fewer products and fewer ingredients means fewer chances to react to something in your skin-care routine. And, as SELF explained previously, the basics of a skin-care routine are actually pretty simple; as long as you’ve got a gentle cleanser, moisturizer, and sunscreen, you’re hitting the minimum.
“I’ve actually struggled with sensitive skin my whole life,” Noelani Gonzalez, M.D., director of cosmetic dermatology at Mount Sinai West, tells SELF. “I avoid any harsh ingredients in cleansers and topical creams, which means just using gentle cleansers with minimal ingredients in them, like Cetaphil Gentle Cleanser or Neutrogena Gentle Cleanser.”
2. Avoid the temptation to over-wash or over-exfoliate your face.
“The skin does a surprisingly good job of staying clean naturally without the need for harsh cleansers, exfoliation, and scrubbing,” Jamie B. MacKelfresh, M.D., associate professor in the department of dermatology at Emory University School of Medicine, tells SELF. In fact, your skin naturally makes lipids and proteins that form a protective barrier.
“Over-washing can wash all of these important lipids and proteins down the drain,” she says. “Washing just once a day with plain water or water and a gentle, fragrance-free cleanser is enough.”
Similarly, it’s especially important for those with sensitive skin to avoid over-exfoliating, Suzan Obagi, M.D., director of the UPMC Cosmetic Surgery & Skin Health Center, tells SELF. “Doing so thins the protective barrier of the skin, thus allowing irritating chemicals to penetrate the skin more easily,” she explains. For most people, exfoliating just once or twice a week with a gentle chemical exfoliant is plenty.
3. Take the time to patch test new products.
“If you have sensitive skin, always test a small amount of the new product on the inside of your arm overnight,” Shari Lipner, M.D., dermatologist at Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian, tells SELF. “If you have no reaction in the morning, then it is safe to apply it to your face.”
This type of test—a patch test—can be done informally at home (on your inner arm or a small area of your face) or formally in a dermatologist’s office to figure out which ingredients you’re likely to be sensitive to. “If there’s a new product I want to try—especially if it has a retinoid or any other type of exfoliant—I’ll always do a test spot first and increase its use gradually so as to give my skin some time to cope and adjust to it,” Dr. Gonzalez says.
“If I’m unsure how my skin will react to a certain product, I do a ‘use test’ where I apply a small amount of the product along the jawline,” Dr. Khetarpal explains. “If my skin does not react after 24 hours, I feel comfortable applying it to my entire face.” One bonus of this method is that it will also help you figure out if the product is comedogenic on your skin or not.
4. Identify your triggers—and read the ingredients list.
“I think the best way to manage sensitive skin is to identify and avoid those ingredients that trigger your sensitivity,” Dr. Obagi says. “Sometimes it is easy to identify the culpable ingredients, while other times you have to undergo skin patch testing to some of the most common sensitizing ingredients to help identify the problem ingredient.”
A few of the most common irritants include fragrances, dyes, and preservatives such as parabens, Binh Ngo, M.D., clinical associate professor of dermatology (clinician educator), Keck School of Medicine of USC, tells SELF. Basically, “anything that smells good is [more likely to be] bad for your skin.”
“I look for products that are fragrance free, hypoallergenic, and without dyes and parabens,” Dr. Khetarpal says. Labels like these, as well as product lines “that are ‘free and clear’ of allergens and contain bare-bones ingredients” are generally a good place to start when looking for sensitive skin-care products.
5. After a bad reaction, take several big steps back.
Unfortunately, even if you’re careful about what you put on your face, you can still have a reaction. If that happens, it’s important to really treat your skin gently until it heals.
“Cut down to using only one product at a time for at least a week to figure out which one is actually causing a reaction to your skin,” Nada Elbuluk, M.D. clinical assistant professor of dermatology (clinician educator), Keck School of Medicine of USC, tells SELF. After that, you can start adding back one product at a time, giving each one a week before adding the next one.
If you’re not sure what product or ingredient caused the reaction, you may want to check with a board-certified dermatologist for guidance and possibly some in-office patch testing.
6. Introduce new products to your routine slowly.
Some of the most effective skin-care products we have—retinoids, namely—are also some of the most irritating. So, if you’re going to try using one, it’s crucial to introduce it to your routine in the right way.
Luckily, there are a few strategies you can use to make the adjustment period easier, Emily Newsom, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, tells SELF. First off, limit your use of the new product to just a few nights a week at first (no more than three). If you can tolerate that for a few weeks, then you can slowly increase the frequency to every other night or all the way up to every night.
You can also try mixing the retinoid with moisturizer to dilute it a little and make it less irritating, Dr. Newsom says, and you should definitely layer on the moisturizer when you start to feel the irritating effects kick in. Finally, make sure to avoid the most sensitive areas of the face, such as the area around the nose, mouth, and eyelids.
“If after that you still don’t tolerate them, then try an alpha-hydroxy-acid (AHA) like glycolic acid or lactic acid instead of a retinoid,” Dr. Newsom says. These ingredients can still improve your skin with gentle exfoliation, but they’re not as irritating as retinoids.
7. Keep showers short and efficient.
Sensitive skin doesn’t only exist on your face—and if you have sensitive skin or a skin condition elsewhere on your body, it’s important to treat it gently.
“During bathing, I recommend limiting soap to a single fragrance-free bar soap that should only be used in the armpits, groin, and buttocks, as these are the only areas with the odor-producing sweat glands (apocrine glands),” Jules Lipoff, M.D., an assistant professor of Clinical Dermatology in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. “Though it makes us feel psychologically cleaner to use soap all over, it has little hygienic benefit, and in people with sensitive skin, it can dry the skin out and cause problems.”
He also recommends keeping your shower time short—under 10 minutes if you can—and to use only warm (not hot) water. Avoid using washcloths or loofahs as well, as these can also irritate the skin. Right after you shower, you can apply an occlusive moisturizer to seal in the moisture from your shower.
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