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How to Care for Sensitive Skin (According to the Experts)

A woman applies a serum, another woman holds up sheet masks, and a third woman applies moisturizer.
Selfless by Hyram/Mediheal/La Roche-Posay

Of all the different types a person can have, sensitive skin is probably the most difficult to take care of. If your complexion is prone to sensitivity, you’ve likely experienced adverse reactions to certain products. But it doesn’t have to be that way; we asked the experts for some advice on how to avoid irritating sensitive skin.

Caring for sensitive skin doesn’t have to be a trial by fire that results in, well, your face feeling like it’s on fire! We spoke with Dr. Hadley King, dermatologist, and Karina Sulzer, esthetician and founder/CEO of Skin Gym, Skin Camp, Youth Haus, and PaintLab, about the best things you can do for your sensitive skin.

How Do You Know If You Have Sensitive Skin?

Two tubes of moisturizer sit together, and moisturizer is dispensed on top of a tube.
Dr. Jart+

Like the rest of our bodies, our skin changes over time. Sometimes, these changes might be due to internal factors, but others might be external. For example, intense weather (like extreme cold), hormonal changes, and stress, can all lead to skin irritation.

However, that doesn’t necessarily mean you have sensitive skin.

“The best way to determine if you have sensitive skin,” Sulzer said, “is to keep track of the way your face reacts to certain factors over time.”

Notice how your skin responds to products. Some people are simply sensitive to certain strong ingredients, like retinol or benzoyl peroxide.

If, however, you notice any of the following, you might have sensitive skin:

  • Your skin is often red, dry, or irritated
  • Any topical products you apply sting
  • Your skin tends to react negatively to any product you use on it, including makeup

Dr. Jart Ceramidin Cream

Ceramides help sensitive skin stay moisturized.

What Causes Someone to Have Sensitive Skin?

A woman applies moisturizer.
La Roche-Posay

There are two main reasons you might experience sensitive skin. First, it could be genetic. King and Sulzer agree that those who have experienced sensitive skin in the past, or those who have eczema or rosacea, likely have chronic sensitivity.

“Sensitivity is a skin type, just like dry or combination,” Sulzer said, “which our parents pass down to us, whether we like it or not. Many people are born with sensitive skin and can keep the symptoms under control with the proper maintenance.”

The second reason your skin might be sensitive is more transitory. If you’ve only recently experienced any signs of sensitive skin, or only for brief periods, it’s likely due to a new skin care product or recent procedure. It could even be your age or the weather, especially if you’ve moved to a new climate.

“Certain individuals have developed sensitive skin over time due to natural moisture loss or breakdown of the skin’s protective barrier,” Sulzer said. “This is caused by things like aging, humid environments, overusing skin care products, too much tanning . . . the list goes on and on.”

Despite the reason for your skin sensitivity, though, the good news is, it’s treatable!

La Roche-Posay Toleriane Double Repair Face Moisturizer

Avoiding fragrances and other irritants can help soothe sensitive skin.

What Should You Avoid?

A woman applies serum, and a bottle of serum sits over water.
Slefless by Hyram

Barring any underlying condition, like eczema or rosacea, the treatment for both genetic and temporary sensitive skin is the same, and it starts with your routine.

“Stop using any potentially irritating ingredients,” King said, “like hydroxy acids, retinoids, or harsh detergents. Use a moisturizer that hydrates, supports the skin barrier, and locks in moisture to help the skin heal.”

Sulzer agreed, and added alcohol, fragrances, sulfates, and chemicals like avobenzone and octinoxate (both of which are found in sunscreens) to the “avoid” list. Exfoliating less can also prevent further irritation.

Selfless by Hyram Mandelic Acid & Rice Bran Gentle Exfoliating Serum

Those with sensitive skin might be able to handle this gentle exfoliant.

Now, this doesn’t mean you can’t ever use alpha-hydroxy acids, acne treatments, or retinol. Some people with sensitive skin can still tolerate certain formulas.

The key, however, is to incorporate anything new slowly, and build up your usage over time. Monitor your skin for any signs of trouble and, if they emerge, discontinue using the newest product and/or pare down your routine again.

Which Ingredients Are Best for Sensitive Skin?

A woman holds up sheet masks, and a tube of moisturizer is squeezed.
Mediheal/CosRX

After you simplify your skin care routine, you’ll want to pay closer attention to the ingredients in your products. King said moisturizers are key, and there are three key factors to look for when you choose one:

  • Humectants: Like hyaluronic acid and glycerin, these are low-molecular-weight ingredients that can bind water to your skin. This means it will draw in more moisture and stay hydrated.
  • Emollients: These include squalane and ceramides, which help repair your skin’s moisture barrier, as well as smooth and soften your skin.
  • Occlusives: These include petrolatum and beeswax. They form a barrier over your skin to seal in moisture and prevent water loss.

COSRX Balancium Comfort Ceramide Cream

Includes glycerin, ceramides, and beeswax.

You might also want to switch out your cleanser. Look for a gentle formula that won’t strip your skin of its natural oils. Also, make sure it doesn’t contain any potentially irritating ingredients, like salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide. King recommended Dove’s Beauty Bar and Body Wash.

Sulzer recommended hyaluronic acid and peptides for keeping your skin moisturized. The latter are amino acids, and they can do everything from locking in hydration to strengthening the skin barrier. Sulzer also said it’s a good idea to throw in a sheet mask every now and then for a quick boost of hydration.

MEDIHEAL Sheet Mask Heroes

Combine self-care and skin care.

Can Changing Your Diet Help?

Someone shopping for seasonal produce.
IrenaV

Skin care products are what most people turn to for help with sensitive skin. However, King and Sulzer also recommend making some dietary changes, as well.

“To support the skin barrier,” King said, “you need to be consuming sufficient amounts of healthy fats, which can be obtained from avocados, nuts, etcetera. Or, consider a supplement with omega-3s.”

A supplement will ensure that you get your omega-3 fatty acids if changing your diet isn’t possible.

Kori Krill Oil Omega-3 600mg,

Will Help support your skin barrier.

Warning: You should always check with your physician before taking any supplements.

When it comes to diet changes, Sulzer had some more general advice.

“It may seem obvious, but less processed sugars and oily foods will do wonders for sensitive skin,” Sulzer said. “Stick to a diet of vitamin-rich vegetables, like broccoli and asparagus, and antioxidant-packed fruits, like berries, and you may notice that your skin is significantly less ‘stingey’ and irritated.”


Whether you’ve always had sensitive skin, or you’ve just started to notice some symptoms, there are some easy ways to soothe and protect it. If you follow the advice from our experts and make a few simple changes to your skin care routine, you can say goodbye forever to all that stinging, redness, and irritation.

Shea Simmons Shea Simmons
Shea Simmons is the Assignments Editor at LifeSavvy. Previously, she worked as a freelance writer with a focus on beauty and lifestyle content. Her work has appeared in Bustle, Allure, and Hello Giggles. Read Full Bio »
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