Sensitive skin is not a skin type but rather a symptom of a weakened skin barrier function. Skin behaves as sensitive (with dryness, tightness, itchiness, redness, frequent inflamed breakouts) when the balance in the upper layer of the skin is disturbed, and the skin struggles to protect itself from external “aggressors” (for example, irritating ingredients, pollutants, allergens, weather conditions) and from evaporating too much water.
There are multiple possible causes of sensitive skin. It makes sense to split them into “external” (relating to all things the skin comes in touch on the outside) and “internal” factors (genetic conditions and things that “touch” the skin from within the body like medicine or food).
Over-washing and over-exfoliating: washing the skin too frequently or with a harsh cleanser, using an exfoliating skincare product that is too strong or exfoliating too often.
Exposure to irritating ingredients in skincare, haircare or household cleaning products. Most frequent “offenders” include certain types of preservatives, fragrances (natural and synthetic), plant extracts and cleansing agents. Often, a combination, rather than a single ingredient, can lead to irritation (for example, a surfactant + a fragrance). Skincare actives (for example, retinoids, vitamin C, AHAs, hydroquinone, benzoyl peroxide and many others) can also be strong irritants. The more products come in contact with your skin, the more likely you are to get an irritant reaction.
Exposure to allergens. This factor is similar, but still quite different from the exposure to irritating ingredients. Irritant reactions are not “permanent”, in other words, the skin can get irritated by an ingredient at one time, but be absolutely fine with it on a next occasion. Allergic reactions, on the other hand, are there to stay once they have started to appear. The skin will react to the allergen every single exposure following the first reaction (the first reaction though can happen after years of exposure to the ingredients without any issues), and even the smallest quantity of the ingredient will cause trouble.
Dry air environment - for example, heated or air conditioned air inside home or office.
Exposure to extreme weather conditions - for example, wind, cold temperatures, direct sun.
A chronic medical skin condition such as atopic dermatitis, psoriasis, rosacea, and others.
Medication and medical treatments.
Exposure to allergens in food.
If you suspect that the cause of your skin sensitivity might be internal, or you are experiencing an allergic skin reaction, the best cause of action is to get a medical advice from a dermatologist as soon as you can.
Photo by Cameron Ahlvers