Updated: August 08, 2012

While most women think they have sensitive skin, only 5 to 10 percent actually do, says L.A. dermatologist Ava Shamban, M.D. What the rest of us suffer from is "situational sensitivity" caused by hormonal changes, medications (like Accutane), or sun exposure. Regardless, the symptoms and treatments are the same. Here's what you need to know.

The basic facts

Skin that's sensitive is unable to defend itself against potential irritants, like preservatives in makeup and fragrance in lotion, because of a thinner-than-average epidermis (outer layer) that's easy to penetrate. The result: Irritants enter the skin, white blood cells rush to the site to fight off what they perceive to be an infection or virus, and you're left with redness and irritation.

What to look for

> A history of eczema

If you had it as a child, you're more likely to have skin that's easily irritated as an adult.

> Prickly heat

Sensitive skin doesn't necessarily look red- sometimes it just feels hot and itchy.

> Frequent flakiness

Even brief exposure to an irritant can cause sensitized skin to itch and peel. got sensitive skin?

> Harsh conditions

Situational sensitivity can occur when your complexion is exposed to excessive sun, heat, or wind; very hot water; or aggressive exfoliation.

Simple solutions

> Choose products with ceramides

These ingredients fill in cracks in the epidermis, making it harder for irritants to pass through. Try Elizabeth Arden Ceramide Ultra Gold Restorative Capsules ($68; elizabetharden.com).

> Patch-test everything

Before using a new product, dab it on the inside of your arm and wait 24 hours to see if you develop a bumpy rash, swelling, or redness.

> Minimize your exposure to parabens

These chemicals- often used as preservatives-are notorious offenders.

> Go fragrance-free

The additives used to create scents are common rash triggers, so opt for scent-free beauty products and detergents whenever possible.

EXPERT STRATEGY If your attempts at reducing sensitivity aren't working, visit a dermatologist to make sure you don't have an underlying condition, like seborrheic dermatitis, psoriasis, rosacea, or atopic dermatitis, all of which can make you more apt to react to cosmetics and lotions. The bottom line "There are many products you can use," says dermatologist Ava Shamban. "But first you must strengthen your skin''s outer layer so it's better able to tolerate whatever you put on it."

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