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Sensitive Skin, Decoded

Get to the bottom of your sensitive skin, and learn how to treat it.

Whether they experience stinging, rashes, itching or flaking, half of American women find they have sensitive skin.

“It’s not a medical term,” says New York City dermatologist Francesca Fusco, M.D. “All it means is your skin is easily irritated—whether it’s after applying cream, taking a hot shower or shaving.” It can become red or swollen, break out in pimples or a rash—or just feel tight, tingly and uncomfortable.

Different Types of Sensitive Skin
According to Dr. Leslie Baumann, CEO of the Baumann Cosmetic and Research Institute in Miami, and author of "The Skin Type Solution," sensitive skin falls into four categories: acne, rosacea, burning and stinging, and contact dermatitis. All have one thing in common: inflammation.

GALLERY: The Best Products for Sensitive Skin

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Sensitive Skin, Decoded

Acne
A combination of sebum, dead skin cells and bacteria clog pores causing inflammation: papules, pustules, nodules and cysts. Learn more about the causes and treatment of acne here.

Rosacea
This skin condition generally affects people over the age of 30 and is more common for women. Symptoms include a red rash on cheeks, forehead, nose and chin, facial swelling (particularly the nose), visible blood vessels, as well as bumps and pimples. While genetics, bacteria, sun exposure and vascular instability are all suspected factors, the exact cause is unknown. 

Burning and Stinging
“Stingers,” as Dr. Baumann refers to patients who feel an uncomfortable or painful sensation when they apply certain beauty products that others can easily tolerate, often show no visible signs of irritation. While the causes are unclear and there are no products that desensitize skin, Dr. Baumann believes that this type of irritation may have to do with neural sensitivity.

The best treatment is to read the label before you buy makeup, skincare, nail polish or shampoo and avoid common triggers like lactic, glycolic, benzoic and alpha hydroxy acids, vitamin C, formaldehyde, propylene glycol, sodium lauryl sulfate, mineral oil, preservatives and fragrances.

Contact Dermatitis:

Irritant contact dermatitis
Skin becomes red, itchy, chafed or swollen when certain chemicals or conditions damage the skin faster than it can repair itself. Some people are sensitive to sweat, extreme heat or cold, high or low humidity, or even sunlight. Others react to household products like detergents or bleach. Friction, for example from shaving or scrubbing, can also inflame sensitive skin.

Allergic contact dermatitis
When your skin comes into contact with an ingredient to which you’re allergic, your immune system responds by releasing histamines, which in turn causes the dermis to get inflamed. While anything from ragweed to nickel can cause a rash, the most common allergens in cosmetics are preservatives and fragrance followed by colors and formaldehyde, notes Dr. Baumann. Organic enthusiasts take note: Essential oils like chamomile and calendula, as well as other botanical ingredients found in natural beauty products can also cause allergic reactions.

Tips for sensitive skin:

  • Look for products that are labeled “hypoallergenic” and “fragrance-free”.
  • Wash your face with a mild, soap-free (non-sudsing) cleanser.
  • Use an alcohol-free toner or skip toner altogether.
  • Avoid ingredients like lactic, glycolic, benzoic and alpha hydroxy acids, vitamin C, formaldehyde, propylene glycol, sodium lauryl sulfate, mineral oil, preservatives and fragrances.
  • Wear sunscreen made with physical blockers like titanium or zinc oxide, which are less irritating than chemical blockers (common chemical sunscreens are avobenzone, octinoxate and mexoryl). Learn how to shop for sunscreen here.
  • Switch to fragrance-free laundry detergent and wear rubber gloves when you clean.

Whether they experience stinging, rashes, itching or flaking, half of American women find they have sensitive skin.

“It’s not a medical term,” says New York City dermatologist Francesca Fusco, M.D. “All it means is your skin is easily irritated—whether it’s after applying cream, taking a hot shower or shaving.” It can become red or swollen, break out in pimples or a rash—or just feel tight, tingly and uncomfortable.

Different Types of Sensitive Skin
According to Dr. Leslie Baumann, CEO of the Baumann Cosmetic and Research Institute in Miami, and author of "The Skin Type Solution," sensitive skin falls into four categories: acne, rosacea, burning and stinging, and contact dermatitis. All have one thing in common: inflammation.

GALLERY: The Best Products for Sensitive Skin

Thinkstock
Sensitive Skin, Decoded

Acne
A combination of sebum, dead skin cells and bacteria clog pores causing inflammation: papules, pustules, nodules and cysts. Learn more about the causes and treatment of acne here.

Rosacea
This skin condition generally affects people over the age of 30 and is more common for women. Symptoms include a red rash on cheeks, forehead, nose and chin, facial swelling (particularly the nose), visible blood vessels, as well as bumps and pimples. While genetics, bacteria, sun exposure and vascular instability are all suspected factors, the exact cause is unknown. 

Burning and Stinging
“Stingers,” as Dr. Baumann refers to patients who feel an uncomfortable or painful sensation when they apply certain beauty products that others can easily tolerate, often show no visible signs of irritation. While the causes are unclear and there are no products that desensitize skin, Dr. Baumann believes that this type of irritation may have to do with neural sensitivity.

The best treatment is to read the label before you buy makeup, skincare, nail polish or shampoo and avoid common triggers like lactic, glycolic, benzoic and alpha hydroxy acids, vitamin C, formaldehyde, propylene glycol, sodium lauryl sulfate, mineral oil, preservatives and fragrances.

Contact Dermatitis:

Irritant contact dermatitis
Skin becomes red, itchy, chafed or swollen when certain chemicals or conditions damage the skin faster than it can repair itself. Some people are sensitive to sweat, extreme heat or cold, high or low humidity, or even sunlight. Others react to household products like detergents or bleach. Friction, for example from shaving or scrubbing, can also inflame sensitive skin.

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