Sensitive skin: causes, symptoms and treatment

What is sensitive skin?
Sensitive skin is a condition of subjective hyper-reactivity 2. Affected people often experience unpleasant skin sensations in reaction to different factors (such as weather, clothing, personal care products and stress).

How does it feel?
People with sensitive skin usually report the following symptoms 2:
- Burning
- Itching
- Stinging
- Tightness
- Erythema (redness of the skin)
- Dryness
- Rash
Interestingly, in half of the cases, signs of skin irritation are not visible 6.

What are the triggering factors?
According to a survey of 400 women with sensitive skin 7, the main factors causing unpleasant skin sensations are:

- Cold (66%)
- Stress (61%)
- Sun exposure (51%)
- Soaps (42%)
- Wind (42%)
- Water from swimming pools (40%)
- Water from shower (29%)
- Cosmetics (28%)
- Clothes (28%)
- Pollution (18%) 

Is your skin sensitive?
Diagnosis of skin sensitivity is rather difficult even for a qualified dermatologist. However, you can use the following list for preliminary evaluation. If you recognize any two of the signs, your skin might be sensitive. But remember, the final conclusion should be made by your physician.

1. You often experience allergies to cosmetic products
2. Your skin blushes easily
3. Your skin is very dry
4. Exposure to the sun even for a short time triggers itching or stinging sensations
5. You have acne
6. You have chronic skin diseases – psoriasis, rosacea or eczema
7. Your skin can't tolerate the water from swimming pool – it starts itching soon after swimming
8. Mosquito bites take a long time to heal
9. Slight scratching or finger pressure leave a long-lasting pink mark on your skin
10. Stress is literally appearing on your face – the skin becomes easily irritated when you are anxious or upset

Why skin is sensitive?
Our skin is composed of epidermis (outer layer) and dermis (inner layer). People with sensitive skin have thinner the outermost layer of epidermis. It means that it is easier for chemicals to go through the skin 1. Scientists also showed that allergic predisposition and skin sensitivity might be related 6, 8.

Interesting statistics:

  • Sensitive skin has been more commonly reported by women (50-61%) than by men (30-44%) 6;
  • The number of affected people increases constantly over time (especially among men) 4.


How to take care of sensitive skin?
Sensitive skin is a complex condition often accompanied by other skin diseases such as acne or contact dermatitis. Thus, there is no unified approach for treatment. However, few general recommendations can be given:

1. Use a mild facial cleanser without aggressive surfactants such as sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), ammonium lauryl sulfate (ASL) and sodium laureth sulfate (SLES).
2. Choose a moisturizer with antioxidants 2, 5 to maintain the natural skin barrier, improve skin hydration 3 and minimize inflammatory reactions 2.
3. Avoid products containing alcohol.
4. Avoid products containing highly allergenic substances (fragrances, some preservatives etc.). You can find a list of the most common allergens here.
5. Get rid of old cosmetics. First, because they might have become contaminated by microorganisms over time. Secondly, because some ingredients might have decomposed. For example, some preservatives slowly release formaldehyde – a known carcinogen and skin sensitizer (more about formaldehyde-releasing preservatives is here).

Always test a new cosmetic product before using it: apply some of it on the skin at the bend of the elbow and leave it overnight. If there is no irritation, apply a small amount on the skin behind the ear and leave it for 24-48 hours. Avoid getting the test-area wet while taking shower.

This article is based on reviewing multiple studies published in peer-reviewed scientific journals.


  1. Berardesca E, Cespa M, Farinelli N, Rabbiosi G, Maibach H. (1991) In vivo transcutaneous penetration of nicotinates and sensitive skin. Contact Dermatitis. Jul;25(1):35-8.
  2. Berardesca E, Farage M, Maibach H. (2012) Sensitive skin: an overview. Int J Cosmet Sci. 2013 Feb;35(1):2-8. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2494.2012.00754.x. Epub 2012 Sep 21. Review.
  3. Cheong WK (2009) Gentle cleansing and moisturizing for patients with atopic dermatitis and sensitive skin. Am J Clin Dermatol.;10 Suppl 1:13-7. doi: 10.2165/0128071-200910001-00003.
  4. Farage MA (2009) How do perceptions of sensitive skin differ at different anatomical sites? An epidemiological study. Clin Exp Dermatol. 2009 Dec;34(8):e521-30. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2230.2009.03487.x. Epub 2009 Aug 28.
  5. Isoda K, Seki T, Inoue Y, Umeda K, Nishizaka T, Tanabe H, Takagi Y, Ishida K, Mizutani H. (2014) Efficacy of the combined use of a facial cleanser and moisturizers for the care of mild acne patients with sensitive skin. J Dermatol. 2014 Dec 6. doi: 10.1111/1346-8138.12720. [Epub ahead of print]
  6. Richters R, Falcone D, Uzunbajakava N, Verkruysse W, van Erp P, van de Kerkhof P. (2014) What Is Sensitive Skin? A Systematic Literature Review of Objective Measurements. Skin Pharmacol Physiol. 2014 Oct 14;28(2):75-83. [Epub ahead of print]
  7. Saint-Martory C, Roguedas-Contios AM, Sibaud V, Degouy A, Schmitt AM, Misery L. (2008). Sensitive skin is not limited to the face. Br J Dermatol. 2008 Jan;158(1):130-3. Epub 2007 Nov 6.
  8. Willis CM, Shaw S, De Lacharrière O, Baverel M, Reiche L, Jourdain R, Bastien P, Wilkinson JD. (2001) Sensitive skin: an epidemiological study. Br J Dermatol. 2001 Aug;145(2):258-63.


Sunny's picture

I have sensitive skin. Is making my own cosmetics a good solution for me?

Natalia's picture

Homemade cosmetics might be a good choice for you, but if and only if all ingredients are properly chosen and the formulation is optimized for your skin. You need to avoid highly allergenic substances (e.g. fragrances). If you often have contact dermatitis to cosmetics, it is necessary to visit a dermatologist and find out what ingredient(s) you are allergic to. Besides, you should ALWAYS test a self-made product on a small area of the skin before using it. I also recommend to use homemade cosmetics within a month after preparation even if you added a strong preservative. Good luck!