How to Determine and Treat Sensitive Skin


by Rachel Ramirez

Image courtesy of Marin /

Image courtesy of Marin /

You buy a new facial cleanser or moisturizer, excited to try it out since you read about it online or a friend has recommended it to you. But once you use it, the product gives you a bad reaction: redness, bumps, irritation or even a burning sensation. Right away you diagnose yourself as having sensitive skin and next look for only hypoallergenic or allergy-tested products, but your search turns into a long and detailed (or even expensive) one. But do you really have sensitive skin, or was it just an unfortunate reaction? Luckily, most people do not have sensitive skin, even when they think they do. Truly sensitive skin usually has these characteristics:

  • Flushed areas of the face (especially the cheeks)
  • Visibly broken capillaries
  • Easily reacts to any or most products when applied, such as turning red and blotchy or a feeling of heat or burning

The best way to determine sensitive skin is to visit a dermatologist, who looks for the following when diagnosing sensitive skin:

  • Skin reactions such as pustules, bumps or erosions
  • Very dry skin which does not properly protect nerve endings
  • A tendency towards blushing and flushing

Keep in mind that no two skin cases are alike. Some dermatologists may have to conclude several factors before fully diagnosing sensitive skin since there are various factors that can cause sensitivity.

Image courtesy of imagery majestic /

Image courtesy of imagery majestic /

When shopping for skincare products, look for products that have little to no fragrance added or are listed as “fragrance-free”, since fragrance is the number one cause for an allergic reaction. Avoid alcohol-based products, alpha-hydroxy acids (glycolic acids), anti-bacterial or deodorant soaps and rentinols/retinoids/Retin A, since anything in the retinol family can cause the skin to become thinner. Surprisingly, avoid natural and organic products; while logically they sound gentler for the skin, they can cause irritation or reactions because of the use of fragrances or active plant or botanical compounds. Instead, consider more clinical or dermatologist-based brands, since they usually contain ingredients that the body will recognize, such as peptides or Vitamins A, C or E. Keep in mind that the terms “hypo-allergenic” and “allergy tested” mean less likely to irritate skin and are not a guarantee to protect sensitive skin. There are few federal standards or rules that skincare companies must comply with when labeling for sensitive skin, and the FDA regulates the manufacture and marketing of products but not ingredients or what is added.

When it comes to selecting clothing or applying facial/ body products, keep in mind that along with added fragrances, there are three other compounds that cause sensitivity:

  • Nickel
  • Quaternium 15
  • Balsam of Peru

To avoid “confusing” sensitive skin, avoid using multiple products from multiple brands so you can pinpoint the cause of reaction. When shopping in department or specialty stores that offer testers, avoid applying any product directly on to the face, especially an eye cream. Instead, apply product behind the ear, since the skin in this area matches the skin on the face.

Rachel Ramirez has written for Modern Latina since 2006, in addition to and recently started her own blog, Found! Where to find hard-to-find beauty.  Many of her articles reflect her interest and specialty in skin, beauty, and nutrition.  Rachel received her Bachelor’s degree in Nutrition from San Jose State University and currently is a skincare expert with Sephora.