Sensitive vs. Sensitized Skin

Over the years performing facials, I have found many people perceive their skin as sensitive and it’s an increasing concern, especially among women. The reality is there is a true sensitive skin type that is a genetic trait but also sensitized or reactive skin which is a skin condition and quite different. Often people see the slightest bit of redness or stinging and automatically assume they have sensitive skin. However, there is a good chance it's not actually sensitive skin, but sensitized skin which is totally treatable and preventable.

About Sensitive Skin

As I mentioned, true sensitive skin is caused by a genetic predisposition and is a skin type. So chances are if your parents have sensitive skin then you may as well. Someone born with sensitive skin may be prone to allergies, asthma and facial blushing. This skin type is considered to be more delicate in general, often lower in pigment (fair skin) but also a thinner epidermis which means the blood vessels are closer to the surface of the skin, hence the appearance of redness. The main reason why adverse skin reactions occur is a defect in the skin's protective outer layer called the epidermal lipid barrier. This barrier isn't as protective as it should be allowing irritants, bacteria, and allergens to penetrate the skin a lot easier. This barrier is also important when it comes to inflammatory skin conditions like rosacea, dermatitis, psoriasis, and eczema.

About Sensitized/Reactive Skin

Now sensitized or reactive skin, on the other hand, is a result of environment, lifestyle, harsh skin care products and what is going on inside the body. While many people with genetically sensitive skin are often fair skin individuals (think Northern European ancestry), reactive skin can be triggered in any skin color/type regardless of racial background. For example, many people in China consider themselves as sensitive, but it very well may be in fact the high levels of pollution in this region. Other factors include smoking, alcohol, poor diet, hormonal fluctuations and some medications like antibiotics and blood thinners. From my experience, I have found the biggest contributor to sensitized skin are topical skin care products, overly exfoliating and particular ingredients.

+ Harsh physical exfoliants - walnut shells, crushed nuts or pits of fruits, even coffee and ar can be too much for most skin types.

+ Acne products - Typical acne products contain benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid and often too many types of product that contain these ingredients all at once can result in sensitized skin. 

+ Simple alcohols - ethanol, denature, methanol, benzyl, isopropyl, and SD

+ Synthetic fragrance (The #1 cause of contact dermatitis)

+ Synthetic dyes and colorants

+ Sulfates - found in anything that suds such as cleansers, toothpaste, body wash etc.

+ Propylene glycol - found in moisturizers, baby products, toothpaste, shampoo and deodorant

+ AHA and retinoids - Now if your skin is already sensitized then sure these types of products can really irritate the skin. If used correctly on healthy skin they are very effective and not irritating at all. 

How do I know if I have sensitive skin or sensitized skin?

Symptoms of Sensitive Skin:

+ Red and/or dry patches, a dry skin type or chapped skin

+ Certain foods make you flush - alcohol, coffee or spicy foods.

+ Tight, itchy or burning skin

+ Tendency to sunburn easily

+ Easily irritated by soaps, laundry detergent, perfume etc.

Symptoms of Sensitized Skin:

+ Dehydration

+ Acne

+ Rashy appearance to skin, small bumps that aren't quite acne

+ Redness and broken capillaries

+ A "sunburn" sensation

+ Tightness after washing face

+ Weather or travel can trigger sensitized skin

How to treat sensitive skin

Luckily, there are tons of wonderful sensitive skin products on the market that have non-irritating ingredients. With sensitive skin, it's best to avoid products with synthetic fragrance or dyes, alcohol toners, propylene glycol or sulfates. 

When trying a new product, performing a test patch before you slather it all over your face or body is a great idea. For facial products apply a small amount of your new product behind your ear since it's similar skin to the face and hidden if you do have a reaction. For body products apply to your wrist or forearm.

How to treat sensitized skin

Thankfully, sensitized skin is totally treatable and preventable. Obviously, the first step is to take a look at your skin care products and lifestyle and eliminate those triggers.

When I have a client that has sensitized skin I do some investigating and more often than not I find out they are using tons of different products or too many active ingredients all at once. Pick one active product: retinoids, AHA, prescription acne products, benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid can be too much if used in combination for most skin types.

Another culprit, surprisingly beauty subscription boxes. I have such a love hate relationship with them. It's great to discover new products and get that pretty package at your door every month, but if your skin is sensitized switching and trying new things all the time won't be doing your skin any favors.

Take a skin care break! Stop using any mechanical skin brushes and I recommend using a sensitive skin cleanser, a simple moisturizer and in the day time a mineral SPF for 1-2 weeks giving your skin a break. That's it! You can then start adding in products and see how your skin feels. Sometimes less is more, let your skin heal itself!