A burning or stinging sensation, redness or dryness after applying a given product does not necessarily mean that you have “sensitive skin.” This is a common misconception that has many people believing that they have a sensitive skin condition that they may or may not actually have. The reaction may be due to the nature of the ingredients or other external factors. So, what’s the difference between sensitive skin and skin sensitivity?
Sensitive skin is believed to be a genetic condition that causes a type of defect in the outer layer of the skin, which is usually the protective barrier for the body. With this natural barrier weakened, the skin is more sensitive to outside allergens and irritants and is more likely to lose moisture (dryness). Individuals with sensitive skin usually have symptoms from a young age and are prone to blushing, allergies or asthma.
While the results may be similar to true sensitive skin, skin sensitivity is largely determined by other skin conditions (such as eczema or acne), environmental factors (such as temperature and weather), allergic reactions, or specific ingredients. Topical medications and certain ingredients commonly make skin more sensitive for everyone, but with proper care the reactions can be minimized or the skin will become accustomed to it. Retinol, a popular ingredient in anti-aging products and topical acne medications, is known to cause dryness and irritation. This is why dermatologists recommend using a small amount, keeping skin moisturized, and not applying it before sun exposure. If you have a reaction to retinol, you do not necessarily have sensitive skin but rather sensitivity to a specific ingredient.
Caring for the skin
For true sensitive skin, it is best to look for products containing few ingredients and that do not contain common irritants such as alcohol (can be drying) and fragrance and to keep skin moisturized to help support the skin’s barrier layer. Do a patch test for any new product.
For skin sensitivity, try to pinpoint what is leading to the sensitivity and then take measures to protect against that specific issue. For example, if the cold weather and wind has been making your skin sensitive, try a thicker lotion or cream as your moisturizer. If a topical medication is the issue, you may need to use less or apply it less often. These products frequently recommend a starting baseline application (i.e. once per day) and then adjusting the frequency depending on your skin’s tolerance (such as increasing to twice daily if well tolerated or decreasing to every other day if skin becomes too sensitive). With medications, always ask your dermatologist if you are concerned. With retinol, one recommendation is to apply it after your moisturizer if your skin was reacting to it; less of the ingredient will get to your skin.