Sensitive Skin: Dos and Don’ts

You probably know it if you have sensitive skin — whether it involves a reaction to a certain product, or your skin gets red and inflamed in the cold or heat, there’s often a defining moment that leads to the discovery. Currently, there’s no clinical definition for the condition, and the verdict remains out on how it’s diagnosed. “Sensitivity can involve anything from stinging, burning, and itching sensations,” says Dr. Kelli Baender, “especially when you’re exposed to certain external ingredients or environmental conditions.”

But if you have sensitive skin, you’re in good company. Up to 70% of women and 60% of men report having at least some degree of skin sensitivity. Here are some things you can do (and just as importantly, what to avoid) to care for your sensitive skin.


Use gentle products.

Steer clear of any harsh ingredients, unless otherwise advised by a dermatologist. Some common sources of irritation for people with sensitive skin include fragrances, retinoids, ethanol (alcohol), and propylene glycol. Over time, you may be able to pinpoint other ingredients that trigger a reaction in your skin, including in your makeup or shaving products. One safe bet for avoiding irritation is to stick with formulas that are designed specifically for sensitive skin.

Find a good sunscreen.

Even though certain products may irritate your skin, you’ll still need to apply sunblock. Protecting your skin against UV exposure is important not only for reducing your risk of skin cancer and controlling the signs of aging, but also for avoiding irritation caused by the sun’s harsh rays. Mineral-based formulas offer physical protection, which tend to be better tolerated by people with sensitive skin compared to chemical barriers.

Be gentle.

If your skin is sensitive, be sure to avoid harsh scrubbing and exfoliators. There are gentle exfoliators available which can help to clear clogged pores without damaging skin, such as products with 1% BHA, a gentle, low-dose chemical that won’t irritate skin the way a scrub might.


Overdo your skin care routine.

Most people only need a few simple steps in their skin care routines. The more products you introduce, the greater the risk for irritation becomes. Start with cleansing and moisturizing each morning and evening, and add in any additional products or steps based on your specific skin concerns and the plan recommended by your dermatologist.

Wear irritating fabrics.

Clothing with rough fibers like nylon and wool can be especially irritating if you have sensitive skin. At best, these fabrics can feel prickly against your skin; at worst, wool can even cause allergic reactions if you’re sensitive to it. You might also want to steer clear of clothing with intricate stitching or embellishments that rub directly against your skin.

Forget to patch test.

Any time you’re trying out a new product, test it on a small patch of skin before applying it to a widespread area. From hair dye to makeup, there’s always a risk that a new product could contain an ingredient that causes irritation.

Conduct a patch test by applying a product in an area where it won’t be immediately washed away, such as your inner arm. Leave it on for as long as you would normally, before washing it off. Repeat the process for seven to 10 days, monitoring for signs of irritation. Be aware that certain ingredients like retinol can cause temporary irritation even in people who don’t have sensitive skin, but these reactions should diminish quickly instead of lingering or worsening. Immediately wash off anything that causes prolonged irritation, and bring it to your dermatologist’s attention. 

Skin care is not a one-size-fits-all endeavor, and people with sensitivity can especially benefit from customized attention. If you’re seeking ways to keep your sensitive skin looking and feeling its best, turn to Olansky Dermatology & Aesthetics. Our dermatologists provide comprehensive services including medical dermatology and aesthetic treatments to address every skin concern. Schedule an appointment at one of our locations online or by calling (404) 355-5484.