What You Need to Know About Sensitive Skin

Janell M. Hickman
Naeem Khan bbt F13 008


Unfortunately, winter’s icy chill can result in much more than a few snow days. From dry, flaky skin to adverse reactions to skincare products (blame cabin fever for product wanderlust), one thing is for certain—sensitive skin is no joke. But how can you determine whether you are simply having an “off” day with your skin or something more serious has arisen? We’ve rounded up a few key factors in knowing how to handle sensitive skin with care. Our expert panel of dermatologists and skincare experts offer up some gentle advice below!

Know How To Define It
“[The term] sensitive skin refers to the increased reactivity of the skin to products or conditions that, to most other people, do not produce a reaction,” shares dermatologist and founder of VMV Hypoallergenics, Vermén M. Verallo-Rowell, MD. “It can be due to primary – often inherited conditions such as atopic dermatitis or secondary due to environmental conditions or from chemicals found in food and cosmetics,”  she explains.

MORE: Beauty Treatments That Irritate Sensitive Skin

 Find Your Triggers
“The most common sensitivities when it comes to skincare are commonly harsh surfactants like sodium lauryl sulfate and synthetic parabens like butylene glycol, methylparaben and Methylisothiazolinone,” explains founder of her eponymous Skincare line, Tata Harper, who works with some of the biggest names in Hollywood. “It’s a mouthful to say, but if you start to look at your ingredient labels you will see it often. Our skin is naturally a little acidic to protect it from bacteria, but when we use harsh synthetic chemicals and over-use acids we can damage that barrier causing adverse reactions.”

Determine Possible Allergens
“Common allergens are nickel (found in jewelry, snaps and buttons on clothing), neomycin (a topical antibiotic found in Neosporin), formaldehyde (used as a preservative in many skin care products) and fragrances (used in many products as well as perfumes),” says Dr. Meghan O’Brien, Consulting Dermatologist for Physicians Formula. “[Allergens] are not hereditary since an allergy develops after exposure. Allergies can develop even later in life to a product that has been used for a long time,” she warns.

Proceed with Caution
“[When trying new products] first, apply a small amount of the product to the inner arm,” suggests Karyn Trumbach, Director of Education and former formulator for Aubrey Organics, Inc. “Check in 24 hours for any redness or itching. If no reaction is noted, then try a small amount on your neck and in 24 hours check again for a possible reaction.”

Find The Right Products
“Those with sensitive skin should look for products with mild ingredients that won’t irritate skin and should avoid heavy fragrances,” shares dermatologist, Dr. Ellen Marmur. “For daily skin cleansing, I recommend Dove Sensitive Skin Unscented Beauty Bar or Body Wash which is hypoallergenic and noncomedogenic and includes ultra-mild cleansing ingredients such as glycinate.”

Dry Skin and Eczema Are Not Interchangeable
“[Dry skin is often a result of ] atopic dermatitis which is like asthma of the skin ; or secondary to winter weather low humidity and dry heat indoors,” shares Dr. Verallo-Rowell. “Add to those conditions – psoriasis which may appear in late teens, or skip the young and appear in the 40’s. Eczema means increased bubbles or water in the epidermis so that it swells up, raises up, becomes watery, oozes and then dries up and becomes crusty.”

Rosacea Affects All Skin Tones
“There’s a perception that rosacea doesn’t affect people with skin of color, but it can happen to all complexions,” explains Harper. “Often with darker skin types it’s actually misdiagnosed or undiagnosed because the redness isn’t as obvious. The symptoms across complexions are the same— patches of chronically red or inflamed skin, usually on the cheeks or forehead, often accompanied by papules or small breakouts.”

MORE: A Former Power Ranger Teaches Us About Sensitive Skin

Sensitive Skin Isn’t Seasonal
“All seasons have challenges for sensitive skin,” says Dr. Marmur. “The summer sun, salt water, chlorine, and sunscreens are harsh on sensitive skin. The winter drop in barometer and lack of humidity are horrible for sensitive skin. Spring has loads of pollen and triggers sensitive skin. The fall is likely the kindest season.”

Pin Point The Cause of Reactions
“First, [ask yourself] have you added something new to your skin care regimen? Have you eaten anything new or changed detergents? Usually, its something new [that causes a reaction],” shares Trumbach. “However, people do develop allergies over time to things they are constantly exposed to—the process of elimination is the only way to pinpoint the cause of an this kind of allergy. Stop using all topically applied products and then patch test them in a small amount on the inner arm. If you develop itching or redness, you have found the culprit.”

Beware of the Term “Hypoallergenic”
“[By definition] hypoallergenic means that the product does not contain some common allergens to reduce the incidence of allergic reactions, “ explains Dr. O’Brien. “There are not specific regulations that have to be adhered to in order for a product to have this designation.”

Read The Fine Print
“The first step is to be able to read all of the ingredients on the label. The longer and harder to pronounce ingredients are almost always synthetic chemicals that can cause irritations,” advises Harper. “A big one to look for is anything ending in –cone, all silicones and dimethicone are occlusive ingredients that are commonly used in skin care and make up but have also been proven to cause rashes in the skin. Avoid synthetic dyes and colors, which usually have numbers in the name, like D&C Green No. 6, and are usually derived from coal tar.” Bottom line? “Embrace ingredients that you can understand– ingredients from plants and flowers and high-quality oils like rose hip and jojoba,” says Harper.

MORE: 7 Ingredients People With Sensitive Skin Should Avoid