Could Your Sensitive Skin Actually Be ~Sensitized~ Skin?

Bright red and burning skin might be cluing you into a bigger problem.

Checking Sensitized Skin
Photo: Vesna Andjic/Gety

What's your skin type? It seems like a simple question with a simple answer—you've either been blessed with normal skin, put up with an oily sheen 24/7, need to slather your dry face with heavy creams before bed, or have adverse reactions to the slightest change in your skin-care routine.

Turns out, more than 60 percent of women say their skin is sensitive, but most of them don't actually have chronic sensitive skin, says New York City dermatologist Michelle Henry, M.D. "Many women are experiencing what we call sensitized skin," she says. "That's when something in the environment changes the skin's normal function. The results are a stinging sensation, burning, and physical markers like redness."

Sound like your skin? Luckily, there are simple ways to get it back to normal.

What Causes Sensitized Skin and How Do You Treat It?

You’ve Overloaded On Skin-Care Products

Today's potent, multistep skin-care regimens are the leading cause of sensitized skin. "Many of my patients come in with inflamed skin and then pull out their huge bag of skin-care products," says dermatologist Dhaval Bhanusali, M.D. "They may have a complex routine with 10 to 15 steps that are based on Korean skin care, but a Korean regimen tends to be light and hydrating, unlike the acids and exfoliating products used in the U.S."

The most likely culprits are harsh cleansers that strip the skin (more on those to come) and acne or wrinkle fighters with high levels of benzoyl peroxide or alpha hydroxy acids. The combination of these active ingredients often leads to more breakouts, redness, and burning.

If your skin has become sensitized, dial down your routine to two steps: a gentle cleanser and a moisturizer, says Sandy Skotnicki, M.D., a dermatologist and the author of Beyond Soap. (Your morning moisturizer should include SPF 30.) When your flare-up heals, add in a retinol every other night to keep skin clear and promote collagen production, Dr. Bhanusali says. (Try Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Retinol Oil, Buy It, $28, Once you can tolerate that, start to use an antioxidant serum in the morning after you cleanse, like Kristina Holey + Marie Veronique C-Therapy Serum (Buy It, $90, Space out additional steps by a few weeks to see how the skin reacts, Dr. Bhanusali says.

Your Skin Barrier Is Weak

That squeaky-clean feeling? That means your skin has been overwashed. Harsh cleansers and scrubs weaken your skin's barrier, which can lead to an allergic reaction.

"When skin looks red or feels stingy, it's protesting against such abuse," Dr. Skotnicki says. The easiest way to steer clear of irritation is to keep your skin barrier strong, so it can respond to your environment. "Harsh cleansers can also disrupt our skin's pH, wiping out the healthy bacteria that live in our skin's microbiome, which protects us from germs that lead to infections," Dr. Henry says. Certain soaps can be especially alkaline, while products like at-home peels might be too acidic. "The pH of your skin is 5.5, and it performs best when kept near this number," says Alyssa Acuna, a product developer for Schmidt's.

Most products are formulated with a pH of 4 to 7.5, but certain treatments with acne-fighting ingredients like salicylic acid or alpha hydroxy acids are more acidic. This could be why some people don't tolerate them, says Iris Rubin, M.D., a dermatologist and the founder of Seen Hair Care. If your skin is sensitized, switch to a cleanser with a pH-balanced callout on the packaging, like Drunk Elephant Pekee Bar (Buy It, $28, or a moisturizer with ceramides, like Cerave AM Facial Moisturizing Lotion With Sunscreen (Buy It, $14, "Ceramides repair the lipid barrier, so skin can retain more moisture and stop irritants from penetrating," Rubin says.

You Have An Allergy

"You can develop a negative reaction to an ingredient in any product at any time," Dr. Rubin says. Dermatologists have connected skin irritation to shampoo, essential oils in a room diffuser, and detergents. Your dermatologist can do a patch test to determine the allergic reaction's cause.

One increasingly frequent allergy is to preservatives. Water-based formulas need preservatives to prevent harmful microorganisms. "But they are irritants, so they can cause a reaction," Dr. Henry says. Methylisothiazolinone and methylchloroisothiazolinone are the most common irritators. In response, Codex Beauty uses a plant-based preservative that works just as well without irritation. "Each ingredient in the formulation is edible," says Barbara Paldus, the brand's CEO. "And it's believed to be benign to the microbiome."

Healthy products and healthy skin—best of both worlds.

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