Sensitive skin is a common issue but not a medical diagnosis in itself. The term generally refers to skin that is more prone to inflammation or adverse reactions.
People with sensitive skin may have strong reactions to chemicals, dyes, and fragrances present in products that come into contact with the skin. They may also get rashes or irritation from clothing or friction.
In many cases, sensitive skin is a symptom of an underlying condition. Finding ways to avoid potential triggers and soothe irritated skin may help people with sensitive skin find relief and improve their quality of life
Treating sensitive skin typically involves finding and eliminating any triggers, as well as using home remedies or prescription medications to treat symptoms:
Depending on the cause of sensitive skin and the accompanying symptoms, doctors may prescribe a few different medications.
- Steroid creams: Both over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription-strength steroid creams, such as hydrocortisone, may help relieve inflammation and itchiness. People should not use them on the face.
- Analgesic creams: Numbing creams may help reduce itchiness, which could make the person less likely to scratch or irritate the area.
- Antihistamines: Taking an oral antihistamine, such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl), may help with some allergic reactions.
- Protective sunscreen: Broad-spectrum sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher may help protect sensitive skin from ultraviolet (UV) rays.
Home remedies and prevention
Some home remedies may also help treat or prevent sensitive skin symptoms:
Hypoallergenic moisturizers and lotions may reduce dryness without irritating sensitive skin. Some ingredients may work better, depending on the type of sensitivity.
For instance, the American Academy of Dermatology note that people with very dry skin may respond well to certain ingredients, such as urea or lactic acid.
Some simple oils, such as shea butter or coconut oil, may work well for others. It is always important to test the product on a small area of skin before applying it to the rest of the affected skin.
Oats may be especially helpful for people with sensitive skin. A study in the Journal of Drugs in Dermatology showed that applying colloidal oatmeal to the skin helped with symptoms such as rashes, dry skin, and eczema.
It is effective because it improves the skin’s barrier rather than just treating the symptoms. Applying a colloidal oatmeal paste to sensitive skin may help manage symptoms.
People with sensitive skin may also be able to minimize symptoms by:
- taking shorter showers and baths that last less than 10 minutes
- avoiding using very hot water for bathing and washing the hands
- avoiding harsh fragrances, detergents, or other chemicals
- using fragrance-free, hypoallergenic products, such as soaps, deodorant, and detergent
- avoiding harsh chemical cleaners
- patting rather than rubbing the body dry
- testing new products on a small area of skin before applying them to more extensive areas
Keeping a journal of the products that they use each day may also help a person identify any possible triggers of symptoms on their skin. If the person finds an offending product, they should stop using it and take it to their dermatologist to undergo testing for allergies.
In many cases, having sensitive skin is generally not a cause for serious concern, as it likely stems from a minor skin condition or other issues in the skin itself.
Sometimes, a person may have sensitive skin with no underlying health condition. In this case, their skin will become irritated more easily.
Many experience irritation after exposure to:
- heavy winds
- very cold temperatures
- very hot temperatures
Additionally, a person with sensitive skin may be more prone to reactions to skincare products, makeup, or certain types of clothing.
The symptoms of sensitive or reactive skin may appear in numerous ways, including:
- rashes or hives
- patches of redness
- breaking out
- stinging or burning sensations, with or without noticeable changes in the skin
Contact dermatitis refers to skin reactions that appear after touching something. The skin may become red, swollen, and itchy. In some cases, it may become very dry and crack, and blisters may even form.
Allergic dermatitis is a type of contact dermatitis. It occurs when the skin has an allergic reaction to a substance that comes into contact with it. Common causes of reactions include:
- nickel and jewelry made from metals containing nickel
- latex in gloves or other products
- dyes and coloring
- chemicals in hair, skin, or beauty products
- reactions to certain plants, such as poison ivy, poison oak, or stinging nettle
Symptoms may include:
- redness with or without swelling
- rashes or hives
- dry, flaky skin
- blisters or cracked, oozing skin
- dark, leathery patches of skin
Symptoms may clear up on their own if the person eliminates the offending product. Anyone having difficulty identifying products that cause symptoms should see a dermatologist.
A person with dry skin may also have sensitive skin. The skin tends to become more sensitive as it loses the protective moisture and fat that keep the skin from drying out.
Dry skin may be more likely to appear on areas that have exposure to the elements, such as the hands, face, and arms.
Taking steps to keep moisture in the skin may help keep it from drying out. Using moisturizing lotions and facial creams daily may help prevent symptoms.
Eczema, or atopic dermatitis, is a condition that generally causes dry, itchy patches of skin to appear, though symptoms vary from person to person.
People with rosacea may have red skin and visible blood vessels, typically in the face. In some people, the skin may develop a rash of small, pus filled bumps.
Photodermatoses is an abnormal reaction to sunlight within the skin itself. In people with this condition, the UV rays in sunlight may trigger the person’s sensitive immune system, causing a reaction in the skin.
A reaction to sunlight in someone with photodermatoses could cause a rash, blisters, or scaly patches to appear on exposed skin. The reaction gets worse the longer the sunlight touches the skin.
Skin that clothing, a hat, or even hair covers will likely not show symptoms.
While remedies may help soothe irritation and other symptoms of sensitive skin, the best way to find the source of the sensitivity is to see a dermatologist.
Dermatologists can test the skin and check for any potential allergies or underlying conditions. Knowing the cause of the symptoms often makes them easier to treat.
Although it is rare, it is also possible for a person to have a severe allergic reaction to skin care products and experience anaphylaxis. People should seek emergency medical attention for concerning symptoms, including:
- difficulty breathing, wheezing, or gasping for breath
- swelling in the face, tongue, or throat
- dizziness or fainting
Usually, having sensitive skin is not a sign of a serious skin condition. Some people are simply more sensitive to products that come into contact with the skin.
In many cases, avoiding harsh chemicals, perfumes, and other irritating ingredients in skin care products can help ease symptoms and keep them away. Modest home treatments may help soothe rashes or minimize the reactions that people have to these products.
Anyone experiencing persistent or worsening symptoms should see a doctor or dermatologist for testing. There may be an underlying condition or allergy causing the reaction. Doctors may also be able to recommend other treatments.