6 Things Women With Sensitive Skin Should Know

Most important: Which products to use (and which to avoid).

If it seems as though there are more face creams out there than ever before, you’re not imagining things. The global skincare market is booming, and it's expected to reach over $183 billion dollars by 2025 (opens in new tab) (yes, that’s a crapload of moisturizer).

While skincare is poised to become a bigger shopping category for a lot of people, those with sensitive complexions might need a bit more help understanding their skin—even scientists admit that it can be complex (opens in new tab).

We reached out to a dermatologist for key advice pertaining to your delicate skin type, with the goal of boosting your confidence the next time you’re buying new products. Here are 6 things you should know.

Pain and discomfort are the biggest clues, along with “an increased response when you apply topical products," says dermatologist Vivian Shi, an assistant professor at the University of Arizona. “The most common symptoms are burning, stinging, itching, and redness,” she adds.

Dr. Shi says that the most common triggers are harsh ingredients in cosmetics and skin conditions that leave the complexion in a more vulnerable state. “If you have eczema, there’s an intrinsic weakness in the skin’s natural protective barrier, so irritants and allergens enter more easily to cause sensitivity. Rosacea-prone skin [is more susceptible] to flushing, stinging, and burning as well,” she explains.

Other factors that can compromise your skin’s barrier function (the protective outermost layer of the epidermis) include sun exposure, pollution, and stress.

What's the one major thing you should do if you have sensitive skin? It's simple: "Moisturize, moisturize, moisturize! It helps to replenish [hydration], seal in small cracks to make the skin supple and smooth, and also prevents irritants and allergens from entering," says Dr. Shi. So, slather away.

If you're sensitive but want to experiment with new products, being cautious is a good thing. To avoid upsetting fragile skin, stick with gentle, fragrance-free formulas that are designed for sensitive skin and will replenish much-needed moisture. Opt for rich, creamy cleansers (they won’t strip like sudsy soaps) and nourishing face lotions and creams for day and night.

We’re into Burt’s Bees Sensitive Skin line (opens in new tab), which contains soothing rice extract and aloe, plus cotton extract, which helps fight off irritants.

As for what to avoid, Dr. Shi recommends steering clear of ingredients that can cause contact dermatitis or excessive dryness, like fragrance, sodium lauryl sulfate (also known as SLS), synthetic dyes, formaldehyde, and preservatives like parabens.

“Also, watch out for over-the-counter acne products with benzoyl peroxide, which can cause irritation, and things that contain a lot of alcohol. Most products will have some, but if you put an item on your finger and it evaporates quickly, that means it’s a very alcohol-based product,” says Dr. Shi.

An irritant reaction to a product will show up within 30 minutes to an hour, but an allergic reaction takes longer. That's why, in a perfect world, sensitive folks would take the time to do the patch test that Dr. Shi recommends.

“When you buy new skincare, don't immediately put it onto your complexion. Apply it on your inner arm or inner thigh for two days, wait one week to see if you have a reaction, then move forward with the most precious part of your body, which is your face,” says Dr. Shi. Better safe than bumpy.

“The most common demographic for sensitive skin syndrome is women in their 40s and 50s,” says Dr. Shi. “One theory about this is that you’ve had 10 to 20 years to develop a reaction. You've been exposed to all these chemicals and the more prior exposure you've had to certain ingredients, the higher the risk of being allergic to them,” she explains.

No matter what your age, if you notice sensitive skin symptoms have started popping up, consider going to a dermatologist. “Get an evaluation and make sure there is no other skin disease or condition that may be causing symptoms, such as atopic dermatitis or rosacea,” says Dr. Shi.

Baze Mpinja

Baze Mpinja has been working as a writer and editor for national print magazines, digital media outlets, and global beauty brands for nearly 15 years. A few of her other passions: books, bars and Brooklyn.