Is Your Skin Sensitive or Sensitized? Here’s How To Know and How To Deal: a blog around skin sensitivity and how you can improve your skin routine.
If you have sensitive skin, it’s not just about the ingredients in your products that can play a part in aggravating your skin. It’s also about your skin care routine. Washing with the wrong cleanser, using too many products, not using enough sunscreen, and even cleansing too often can all leave your skin red, raw, and inflamed. And while there are certain tried-and-true ingredients that derms recommend avoiding if you have sensitive skin—think retinol, vitamin C, alpha hydroxy acids, benzoyl peroxide—it’s also important to look at the big picture of your routine.
Sensitive vs. sensitized
“Sensitive skin is a genetic condition from birth,” explains dermatologist Caren Campbell, M.D., of New York’s Westlake Dermatology & Cosmetic Surgery. “It’s usually caused by thin skin and the inability to make protective ceramides on the surface of the epidermis.” That makes for a barrier that’s more easily irritated by things like pollution or changes in
There’s a good chance you’ve heard the term “sensitive skin” before. Maybe your skin gets red and blotchy when you wash it or use certain products. Maybe your face feels hot and stingy when you apply moisturizer. Or maybe you have a hard time tolerating any products at all, and when you do, they leave your skin dry, flaky, and irritated.
It could be that your skin is sensitive.
Or it could be that your skin is sensitized.
Wait…what’s the difference? And how can you tell? Well, while they might seem like similar skin problems—and in fact, both types of skin can react with redness and irritation—they are actually very different.
If you’re born with sensitive skin, it means that the barrier has never been fully formed to begin with. For whatever reason (genetics, environmental factors), there are fewer lipids (the fats that help hold moisture in) than normal in the barrier and so less moisture is retained in the stratum corneum (the top layer of dead skin cells). This makes the barrier weaker and more prone to losing water from within. The result is skin that feels tight and uncomfortable—
Sensitivity is a common problem in the skin and it can affect any individual at any time. And, as we age, our skin becomes more sensitive.
There are two types of sensitivity: Skin Sensitivity and Skin Sensitization.
Skin Sensitivity is when your skin has become dry, irritated and inflamed because of an external aggressor (like harsh weather or products). In this case, your skin’s natural moisture barrier has been compromised, leaving your skin vulnerable to dehydration, irritation, redness and inflammation.
Skin sensitization is when your skin has become sensitized by a product you’ve used over a period of time (most commonly an acidic product) causing slight damage to the lipids in your natural moisture barrier. With continued use of this product, you will notice your skin becoming redder, flakier and itchier.
The good news is that both are temporary conditions and with the right treatment regimen, you will have healthy-looking skin once again.
Here’s how to tell if you have Sensitive Skin or Sensitized Skin:
The world of skin care can be a little overwhelming. With so many products and ingredients, it’s easy to get confused about the best way to take care of your skin. Especially when you have sensitive skin.
The first mistake people make is assuming that having sensitive skin means your face is just easily irritated. This isn’t true. When we talk about sensitive skin, we’re talking about two different things: sensitivity and sensitized skin.
In my practice, I see many patients who have been told they have sensitive skin, but in fact their skin is sensitized from over-exfoliation and overuse of active ingredients like retinol or glycolic acid. Many products are formulated for all skin types, but if you have certain sensitivities, you should look for products with soothing actives such as colloidal oatmeal or feverfew extract. These ingredients have anti-inflammatory properties that can help tame redness or itching caused by sensitized skin.
There is a lot of confusion when it comes to skin sensitivity. It’s hard to know what is causing your skin issues and even more difficult to find products that are going to help. For example, if you have rosacea, eczema or dermatitis, you may be looking for products that say “hypoallergenic” because you think your skin is allergic. However, the truth is that most people who experience these symptoms have “sensitized” skin rather than “sensitive” skin.
Sensitive skin is genetic and something you are born with. It’s not caused by environmental factors and can usually be managed with simple emollients. Sensitized skin, on the other hand, can happen to anyone at any time. It can be caused by a host of different factors – sun damage, pollution, stress and lifestyle habits (think diet and sleep) – which leads to the disruption of the skin barrier function (the protective layer on top of the skin). When this happens, your skin loses water leading to a whole host of sensitivities including irritation, redness and inflammation.
If you’re prone to redness, dryness, flakiness, or breakouts, you might be tempted to conclude that your skin is sensitive. Not so fast! That’s the easy answer; the right answer is more complicated.
As we’ve been saying all along: There’s a difference between sensitive skin and sensitized skin. Even if you have a predisposition to one of the above (redness, dryness, flakiness, or breakouts), your skin may not actually be sensitive—it could just be sensitized.
So what’s the difference?
Sensitive skin is like having an older car that runs fine but needs extra care and maintenance; it exhibits redness, irritation, and inflammation when exposed to certain ingredients or when certain products are used too often or incorrectly. Sensitized skin is like having a new car with an alarm system; it reacts to anything that disrupts its delicate balance with redness, irritation, and inflammation.
Sensitive skin isn’t a skin type, it’s a condition. And conditions can be temporary, like when your skin is sensitized by a new product or lifestyle change.
Sensitive skin is not caused by one single thing. It’s how your skin reacts to any number of things that cause inflammation, redness, and irritation.
Sensitized skin, on the other hand, is caused by one or more specific things that your skin has reacted to negatively. In other words, you know what causes it because your skin tells you!
When I recommend products in our online store or here in this blog, I always keep in mind that many people have sensitive or sensitized skin and choose ingredients that will be least likely to cause irritation.
I’m not saying there are no irritants at all in our products; most of the essential oils we use are known to be mildly irritating to some people (especially those with known sensitivities) so these are almost never included in our facial products.