Skin sensitivities vary greatly from person to person, and the term "sensitive skin" is a general one that encompasses a variety of skin conditions (such as eczema and rosacea) on one end of the spectrum to mild and temporary irritation on the other. Not to mention, external and internal aggressors can slowly turn your skin more sensitive overtime—so even if you didn't have this skin type when you're younger, it can become more so with age. Finally, different areas of your body may have different sensitivity levels: Your hand and face, for example, may be more vulnerable while the rest is fairly resilient.
Signs of sensitive skin.
"It can sometimes be difficult to know if you have sensitive skin or not," explains Purvisha Patel, M.D., board-certified dermatologist. In simple terms, "Sensitive skin is characterized by skin that is not able to tolerate harsh conditions, chemicals, environments, or even diets," Patel explains, noting that it gets more complicated than that once you really start diving into sensitive skin.
In fact, the complexities of sensitive skin are so profound that there's really no scientific consensus2 on its true definition. The one throughline that ties it all together—and that all derms can agree on—is that those with sensitive skin have a compromised skin barrier. These 5 five signs will help you figure out if your skin may fall under this broad umbrella:
Cosmetic products (including skin care) make your skin inflamed and itchy.
Unsurprisingly, cosmetic products3 are one of the primary triggers for sensitive skin—and also one of the clearest indicators of this skin type. You'll know you have at least some degree of skin sensitivity if, after applying a skin care or makeup product, your complexion starts stinging, burning, itching, turning red, or just generally feeling uncomfortable.
One way to avoid this is to always perform a patch-test before investing your hope (and money) into a new skin care or cosmetics product. "You never know what your trigger is going to be, so you might have to experiment," says board-certified and holistic dermatologist Alan Dattner, M.D.
Your skin is often tight, irritated, or itchy after cleansing.
For sensitive skin types, using facial cleanser can make the complexion feel tight (as if it's being pulled) and uncomfortable, even itchy and irritated. In fact, board-certified dermatologist Lindsay Zubritsky, M.D. notes that one of the easiest ways to decipher your skin type is to see how it feels after cleansing. It's called the "barefaced method." All you need to do is wash your face with a gentle, mild cleanser and pat dry. Don't touch your skin for 30 minutes (no serums, moisturizer, or toners—hence, the barefaced method). After the half-hour is up, notice how your skin looks and feels: If your skin feels tight, especially when you smile or make other facial expressions, you likely have dry and sensitive skin.
If this is the case, you should not forgo cleansing altogether—rather, it's all about choosing the right type of cleanser. "Avoid alcohol-based astringents and foaming cleansers," Patel recommends. Additionally, those with sensitive skin should also steer clear of facial scrubs, which, "can create small microtears in the skin, [and thereby] cause more inflammation," Patel says.
Since the skin barrier in sensitive skin types is already compromised on some level, it's crucial the cleanser you choose doesn't cause further damage. In other words: You want a wash that rids your skin of dirt, buildup, pollutants, and excess oil without drying it out. Your best bet is to reach for an oil, gel, or cream-based cleanser—ideally one that's also free of parabens, sulfates, and strong acids, as these are also known triggers for sensitive skin. Additionally, you should find one that supports the barrier with biome-friendly products, fatty acids, lipids, and antioxidants.
Changes in the environment affect your skin.
Research has shown that skin sensitivities are often exacerbated by changes in our environment4—such as different climates (low versus high humidity, for example) or varying levels of air pollution. If you've ever experienced a redness flare-up while on vacation in a tropical climate (and we're not talking about sunburn) or broken out in a rash while visiting an area with higher levels of air pollution, you may have sensitive skin.
Though a change in environment or climate may be out of your control, what you can try to control is how your skin will react (using the below natural remedies is a good start).
Fragrances are not your friend.
Another well-known trigger for sensitive skin types: Added fragrances in cosmetics products. These are added into products for no other benefit than "for the experience or smell of the product," Patel explains, so sensitive skin types are better off without using products that contain added fragrance.
Changes in your diet show up on your skin.
"The skin and the gut are the two largest immune organs of the body," Patel explains, so "changing your diet changes your immune response [and the] sensitivity of your skin." Generally, some of the most common food triggers for sensitive skin are also those that provoke general inflammation5. These include refined sugar (and alcohol, which has high levels of sugar), processed and fried foods, saturated fat, gluten, dairy, and spicy foods.
You may breakout.
Sensitive skin and acne-prone skin are not mutually exclusive. In fact, for many people breakouts and flare-ups are their tell-tale sign of sensitivities. This is because acne is triggered by inflammation, and since sensitive skin is so often inflamed skin the two go hand-in-hand.
Unfortunately, this can create quite the issues for treating it. Many with acne-prone skin reach for harsh acids, potent actives, and astringent formulas—which is the exact opposite of what sensitive skin needs. If this is your skin type, be sure to help balance the skin with anti-inflammatory topics.
Natural remedies to help soothe sensitive skin.
Of course, if your sensitive skin is persistent and starting to affect your daily life, nothing can replace seeing a board-certified dermatologist who can help identify the root of the issue. For more severe cases of sensitive skin, this is essential—as topical sensitivities could actually signal a more serious underlying condition, such as eczema or rosacea.
As basic as it sounds, applying a cool compress "decreases blood flow to the area and helps soothe the skin," Patel says. If you don't have a designated cold compress, make your own; put ice cubes in a plastic bag, then wrap it in cloth and apply onto the area. Or use that bag of frozen peas in the freezer. Either way, apply your cold compress of choice onto the affected area for 15 minutes on, 15 minutes off, until the irritation subsides.
Homemade oat and milk tincture
"Some people find that cool milk mixed in oatmeal helps soothe the skin as well," Patel says. To make your own:
- Mix 4 spoons of oats into ¼ cup of milk
- Let it soak
- Apply it onto the affected area.
"Oatmeal is rich in vitamins, minerals, lipids, and antioxidants," says board-certified dermatologist Keira Barr, M.D. "The antioxidant properties come from the presence of different types of phenols including ferulic and caffeic acids. It is anti-inflammatory with itch-relieving benefits, which helps restore the skin barrier; it moisturizes the skin and reduces inflammation to soothe irritated and itchy skin due to any cause."
Although some things about coconut oil for your face are controversial, others are not, including its well-established antimicrobial6 powers, which protect and strengthen the skin barrier from outside invaders. Apply onto areas of irritated skin as needed. Use pure, unrefined coconut oil and always apply onto freshly cleansed skin for best results.
- Apply an even layer of raw or Manuka honey on damp skin.
- Leave on for 20 minutes, then rinse off with warm water.
- After rinsing, follow with a cream or oil to seal in the moisture.
As for a DIY mask, it can be as easy as applying a thin layer straight to a freshly washed face. For additional DIY masks, see our guide here.
Pre, pro, and postbiotics can help feed your skin microbiome. Since a compromised skin barrier comes in large part due to a damaged microbiome, helping diversify your good bacteria can help ease sensitive skin. "No new skin care product that comes to market can claim to benefit the skin without keeping the microbiome in mind, using ingredients that support a healthy microbiome and avoiding ingredients that disrupt or damage the microbiome," says board-certified dermatologist Whitney Bowe, M.D.
Taking care of sensitive skin is not easy—nor is identifying it, really. But pay attention to how your skin looks and feels throughout the day, as well as how it reacts to external and internal changes.
Rebecca Dancer is a beauty and lifestyle writer who obtained a print and digital journalism degree from the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. She’s worked at and contributed to various print and digital publications, including Byrdie, Allure, Brides, Teen Vogue, Beauty Independent, Shape, SELF, and Women's Wear Daily.