Skincare for Sensitive Skin: Causes, Ingredients to Avoid, and More

Close-up of a boy with irritated skin

Having sensitive skin is one of life’s most frustrating little cruelties, on par with having asymmetrical eyebrows or an allergy to cats. It makes trying skincare a nerve-wracking process as opposed to a fun hobby, as you keep trying to find the magic combination that’ll keep redness, stinging, and irritation at bay. 

In this post, we’ll cover everything you need to know about skincare for sensitive skin. 

We’ll discuss what it means to have sensitive skin, how to introduce new skincare products, which ingredients to avoid, and, most importantly, how to find the best skincare products for sensitive skin, from sunscreens and moisturizers to cleansers and serums. 

You’ll be surprised to learn that fun, exciting, and genuinely effective skincare isn’t totally off-limits just because your skin might be sensitive. In fact, once you figure out the basics of what makes your sensitive skin tick, you’ll be able to put together your own advanced skincare routine without any trouble. 

What is sensitive skin?

Sensitive skin is a catch-all term to describe highly reactive skin. It can be a chronic and innate condition or it can be a temporary issue when the skin is compromised in some way. It means that your skin flares up with redness or stinging easily, especially when faced with specific things that irritate it, like harsh detergents, certain scents, or even environmental factors. 

Sensitive skin can be oily or dry, and you can experience signs of sensitivity at any age. Dealing with it can be confusing, since, often as not, the suggested remedies can make things worse. 

Signs you have sensitive skin?

How can you know if you have sensitive skin? Usually, your skin will let you know pretty clearly. Each person’s flare-ups can look a little different, but the extreme reactivity to certain stimuli is the main signal of sensitivity. 

These are the common signs of sensitive skin, especially when you’re having a flareup: 

  • Redness, either all over the face or localized in specific areas.
  • Stinging or a “raw” feeling, especially after you’ve applied something to your skin.
  • Itchiness.
  • Hives or flat, red bumps.
  • Scaly flakiness that doesn’t go away even when you moisturize, often overlying red or thickened skin (whereas smaller flakes are often a sign of dryness or dead skin buildup).
  • Reactivity to specific triggers from food, skincare products, or environmental changes. 
In addition to having sensitive skin, your skin type is also impacted by how much oil your skin produces. Read our complete guide to identify your skin type in more detail. 

    What causes sensitive skin?

    Unlike other skin types that are likely innate, sensitive skin can have a lot of different causes. 

      • Skin conditions: Inflammatory skin conditions like rosacea, psoriasis, and eczema (a.k.a. atopic dermatitis) can all lead to skin that’s more sensitive than average. Acne can also be considered a sensitive skin condition since it leads to a lot of redness and inflammation.
      • External factors: Your skin can become temporarily more sensitive when its barrier is compromised by external factors like excessive sun exposure, dehydration, over-cleansing, or over-exfoliating. These disruptions to the skin barrier can lead to pain, redness, and stinging, and will also make the skin much more reactive, which can lead to a cycle where irritation continues to worsen.
      • Allergies: A sensitive or overactive immune system can make the skin flare up with inflammation when exposed to things that should otherwise be benign. This can include environmental allergies to things like dust or pollen, food allergies, as well as allergies to specific ingredients found in skincare (fragrances are a common culprit).
      • Thin skin: Thin skin is more fragile and susceptible to damage, and will often take longer to heal after experiencing trauma. Skin usually becomes thinner with age, but for some, it can also be genetic or the result of overusing steroid creams. 

      How to introduce new skincare safely

      When a flare-up hides behind every corner, it’s so important to introduce new products slowly and gradually. These are our key tips to reduce the chances of skin irritation when you introduce new skincare for sensitive skin. 

      Following these tips will help you learn to listen to your skin and recognize the early signs of irritation, for happier skin in the long term! 

      Patch test

      The best thing you can do for your skin is adopt a patch testing habit, which allows you to pre-emptively ensure that a product won’t irritate your skin. Patch testing is the diagnostic tool dermatologists use to identify allergies, but the term is a little less rigid when applied to testing skincare at home. 

      To patch test, apply a product to a small spot on your skin for a few days in a row. Follow the product’s specific instructions for frequency and duration. For example, if it’s a non-exfoliating cleanser, use it every day for a few days in a row, but make sure to wash it off. If it’s a moisturizer, apply it twice a day, and leave it on. 

      If your skin doesn’t have a negative reaction after 5 to 10 days, you can try adding it to your normal skincare routine. On the other hand, redness or stinging (especially from a simpler product like a cleanser or moisturizer) are a sign that it may not work for you. 

      Gradual introduction

      Patch testing is great, but it’s not totally foolproof. In cases of highly active skincare products (like retinoids or chemical exfoliants), your skin might react from overuse. It’s not that these products are totally harmful or inappropriate for your skin, but that overusing them can disrupt your skin barrier. 

      To find the sweet spot, you’ll want to introduce them into your routine slowly. Start with just once or twice a week. Week by week, increase the frequency until you find the sweet spot. If you experience irritation at any point, decrease frequency. You may find that your sensitive skin tolerates daily retinol just fine, but that you can’t use a chemical exfoliation more than once a week and that’s totally okay! A slow introduction lets you figure out exactly what works for your skin. 

      Ingredients to avoid

      Another way to keep sensitive skin happy is to avoid products that are likely to irritate your skin in the first place. Each person’s triggers will be a little different, but generally, these are the ones to watch out for. 

        • Fragrances and essential oils: The most common irritants in skincare today are fragrances, which include natural essential oils. Some brands even present themselves as fragrance-free while using essential oils in their products, so always scan the ingredient list. Look out for the words fragrance, parfum, and flower/leaf/peel oil, as well as for fragrance compounds at the end of the ingredient list, like linalool, limonene, hexyl cinnamal, or geraniol
        • Long ingredient lists: The longer the ingredient list, the harder it’ll be for you to spot irritants. Products with shorter ingredient lists are a better option since if you do experience any irritation, you’ll have an easier time pinpointing the culprit.
        • Dehydrating cleansers: Cleansers that make your skin feel “squeaky” or “tight” are definitely to be avoided, since that squeaky feeling is a sign that your skin is dehydrated. Over time, that can impact your skin barrier and lead to irritation. 
        • Soaps: Soaps, by definition, are cleansing products made when oils are mixed with lye, which is strongly alkaline. Because of that, all soaps have a very high pH, which can disrupt your skin’s acid mantle and lead to irritation. 
        • Scrubs and abrasive: Scrubs don’t exfoliate, they scratch! Avoid physical scrubs, watch cloths, and cleansing brushes since their abrasive quality can aggravate your skin. 
        • High percentages of actives: Active ingredients are ingredients that encourage skin cell renewal through exfoliating or stimulating. They include retinol, vitamin C, alpha hydroxy acids (AHA), salicylic acid, and other similar ingredients. While they’re not off-limits, you want to use products that contain sane quantities of them. Avoid products that advertise 20%-30% AHAs or vitamin C. Usually, 10% or under is ideal. 
        • Cooling products and menthol: Sometimes, products are advertised as “cooling” which sounds very appealing when your skin is sensitive. However, that cooling effect often comes courtesy of menthol which is also an irritant. Related ingredients to watch out for are menthyl lactate, peppermint oil, or menthone glycerin acetal.  
        • Your specific triggers: By paying attention to the ingredient lists in the products you use, you might be able to identify specific ingredients that don’t work for your skin. We already touched on the main ones, but for some people, a specific plant extract or preservative can be a major culprit.

        Best skincare products for sensitive skin

        When choosing skincare products for sensitive skin, it’s so important to start slow and keep it minimal. You might be tempted to try a lot of new products all at once, but we caution you to resist the urge. Keep it simple and gradual, only adding one new product at a time. 

        With that out of the way, here’s what to look for in the best products for sensitive skin. 

        Moisturizer for sensitive skin

        Moisturizers are essential when you have sensitive skin. Infusing the skin with moisture helps to keep the skin barrier strong, which is important for preventing irritation from external forces. 

        If you want to keep this step in your routine simple and affordable, a simple, fragrance-free drugstore moisturizer from a brand like Vanicream will absolutely do the job. Simple moisturizing ingredients like glycerin, dimethicone, and petrolatum are effective at keeping water trapped in the skin with minimal risk of irritation. When your skin is particularly dehydrated or compromised, you’ll want thicker balms where these ingredients make up a higher percentage of the formula, to layer on immediately after a shower or after using lighter lotions. 

        On the other hand, it’s also useful to look for ingredients that’ll promote barrier restoration in the long term, especially if your skin is thin, prone to dryness, and easily compromised. These ingredients are a little more advanced. They include niacinamide, ceramides, cholesterol, and squalane. You can find them in products like Krave’s Barrier Repair Serum or Stratia’s Liquid Gold. 

        Sunscreen for sensitive skin 

        Sunscreen is a mandatory step in every skincare routine. For those with sensitive skin, sunscreen is essential since the damage from sun exposure can be much more disruptive to your already easily-irritated skin. 

        That said, finding sunscreen can be difficult since some SPF filters can be irritating. Oxybenzone is considered particularly allergenic, so those with sensitive skin may want to avoid it outright. However, reactions can be very individual, so consider patch-testing any new sunscreen you pick up. 

        Some sources recommend looking for mineral sunscreens when you have sensitive skin. However, because of their thickness and white cast, they can be unpleasant to use. They often don’t offer a satisfactory level of UVA protection. Because of that, we think it’d be easier to attempt to find a non-irritating sunscreen with chemical filters or a blend of mineral and chemical filters rather than a mineral one. 

        Face wash for sensitive skin 

        Washing your face is one of the most irritating aspects of your skincare routine. If you have sensitive skin, you need to be very careful about how you choose and use your cleansers

        Overwashing or using an overly harsh formula can seriously disrupt your skin barrier and lead to flare-ups. 

        For daily use, choose gentle cleansers that rely on oily ingredients to cleanse away sunscreen and makeup. 
        That said, if your skin is oily, you might be able to find effective gel or foaming cleansers. Look for formulas advertised as having a low pH between 4.5 to 5.5 (i.e. slightly acidic), which is the ideal level for the skin.  Avoid formulas that mostly depend on a low molecular weight cleansing agent like sodium laureth sulfate. Instead, look for surfactant blends with ingredients like decyl glucoside, cocamidopropyl betaine, sodium cocoyl glutamate, and sodium lauroyl lactylate. 

        Ironically, a longer list of surfactants can actually correlate with a milder cleanser, since the chemicals bind together to become a larger cluster that’s less capable of penetrating the skin. 

        Skin-soothing products

        When you have sensitive skin, it can be helpful to keep products on hand that’ll help calm redness and active inflammation when they rear their ugly head. The best products for the job are usually mists or serums with ingredients known to have a soothing effect or the ability to reduce redness. 

        Some of these ingredients are very well documented, and even approved as drugs in the US, like colloidal oatmeal. Others are newer and therefore less well-researched, but still promising. That includes centella asiatica and niacinamide (which also has the benefit of restoring the skin barrier). 

        One thing to watch out for is formulas laden with a lot of different plant extracts and essential oils. While some of these ingredients may show anti-inflammatory effects in vitro, it doesn’t necessarily correlate with them being a sensitive skin-friendly option. More often than not, they can actually irritate, making things worse.  

        Active serums for sensitive skin 

        With fragile or easily compromised skin, introducing new serums can be a little scary. Use slightly too much, and you run the risk of making your skin very angry. That said, using actives is still worth considering, especially when your skin is in a more stable place. 

        Nothing beats a vitamin C serum when it comes to preserving your youth and powering up your sunscreen. If you spend a lot of time outdoors or live in a polluted city, it’s worth introducing into your routine. 

        If you’re hoping to see a real transformation, vitamin A is the way to go. Retinoids can go a long way in thickening the lower layers of your skin, making it less fragile over time. Unfortunately, potent retinoids like prescription retinoic acid can also cause an inflammatory reaction that we believe may actually slow results. 

        We’ve developed our Enzyme-Active Retinol Serum with retinaldehyde, which is simultaneously the most potent and effective cosmetic retinoid while also being incredibly gentle and unlikely to irritate. Equal clinical performance (at least in the case of wrinkle reduction), tons of irritation difference.

        Exfoliants for sensitive skin 

        Exfoliants help remove the top layers of rough, dead skin cells from the surface of the skin. They’re not always mandatory and are actually best avoided when your skin is especially sensitive. That said, if you notice flakiness and dead skin buildup, they can actually be very helpful, helping to remove those outer layers to smooth out the skin and increase its ability to take in moisturizer. 

        You’ll want to avoid physical scrubs, though. Those harsh abrasives are much likelier to cause trouble since they scratch the skin unevenly. Chemical exfoliants, on the other hand, can actually be a good choice when your skin isn’t experiencing any flare-ups. 

        Exfoliating acids like glycolic acid have been found to help thicken the lower layers of the epidermis, which can actually help make the skin more resistant to damage. If your skin is both sensitive and acne-prone, salicylic acid can be an excellent choice since it’s both pore-clarifying and soothing.  

        Finally, make sure to look for chemical exfoliants that are formulated to be gentle and that don’t contain ultra-high amounts of exfoliating acids. For example, our skin-renewing AHA Cleanser is made with reasonable 5% glycolic acid and 2% lactic acid. It also contains green tea and aloe vera, which help keep it mild and add a soothing touch.  

        Example routine for sensitive skin

        With so many product options and factors to consider, this example routine for sensitive skin should help you put everything in order. 

        • Splash your skin repeatedly with water. 
        • Apply a soothing serum or mist to calm your skin. 
        • If needed, apply a thin layer of moisturizer and let it sink in completely. 
        • Apply at least a ¼ teaspoon of sunscreen to the face and neck.  
        • Optionally, cleanse your skin with a gentle cleanser. 
        • Apply a treatment serum to address specific concerns. 
        • Apply a simple, soothing moisturizer free from fragrance.
        • Optionally, apply a rich occlusive cream if your skin is irritated or compromised. 

        Gentle but not boring 

        The old logic was that taking care of sensitive skin meant keeping things as boring as possible. Certainly, avoiding strong fragrances and over-the-top formulas is probably for the best. The key is to learn to keep your skin stable by learning what your triggers are and making sure to avoid them. 

        That way, by taking a slow and measured approach, you might find that your skin can handle and even thrive with exciting actives like retinaldehyde or lactic acid. Pairing these actives with soothing and restoring agents like centella asiatica, ceramides, and niacinamide can actually lead to skin that’s stronger than ever. Because gentle and soothing doesn’t have to mean boring!

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