Finding products that work on sensitive skin is kind of like trying to get through a laser grid security system without setting off alarms like robbers do in action movies: It’s difficult. So it helps to get expert advice on navigating skin care for sensitive skin.
If you have sensitive skin, it means you’re more likely to experience adverse reactions to certain products, ingredients, and even weather conditions. “Your protective skin barrier may be weaker, and therefore makes it less resistant and more susceptible to irritation, rashes, and dehydration,” says Dr. Ava Shamban, MD, a board-certified dermatologist based in Los Angeles, CA. These skin types are also more prone to conditions like eczema, rosacea, and contact dermatitis, she adds.
Even though roughly 60% of people believe they have sensitive skin, it can still be tricky to know if your complexion fits that category. So how can you tell? “[Sensitive] skin tends to get red, itchy, or to peel when exposed to changes in environments or chemicals it’s exposed to,” says Dr. Purvisha Patel, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Visha Skincare.
Basically, this skin type is temperamental. But the key to keeping it in tip-top shape lies in your regimen: “Sometimes it’s just a matter of getting on the right skin care routine,” says Shani Darden, a celebrity facialist and founder of her eponymous skin care line. For expert tips on doing this, here are the five golden rules of treating sensitive skin.
We only include products that have been independently selected by Bustle's editorial team. However, we may receive a portion of sales if you purchase a product through a link in this article.
1. Start Simple
With sensitive skin, less is more. “Keep it simple — don’t overdo it with 10 or more steps,” says Shamban. The less products you’re using, the less ingredients your skin is exposed to, which means there’s less risk of irritation. Your best bet? Only use skin care essentials: a cleanser, moisturizer, and sunscreen (with perhaps a toner or serum added in if you like).
Once you experience an adverse reaction to a product, toss it, says Shamban. And if you’re trying something new, she suggests doing a patch test — apply a small amount on your wrist to make sure you don’t have any irritation. “It’s very important to introduce products into your routine slowly,” adds Darden. This way, she explains, you’ll have a better chance at pinpointing anything that causes a reaction.
2. Read Labels
Although sensitive skin levels can vary, these skin types are more prone to be irritated by harsh ingredients. That said, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to avoid all active skin boosters: “It may just mean you can use these ingredients — just not as often as others,” says Darden of ingredients like retinol, vitamin C, and alpha hydroxy-acids. It’s important to check the ingredient list of products you’re using so you can avoid common irritants, and that you’re getting soothing, calming ingredients instead.
Soothing ingredients like colloidal oatmeal, algae, rose hip oil, squalane, green tea extract, and bakuchiol are all sensitive skin-friendly. For cleansing, Patel suggests washing your face with “very mild, neutral cleansers,” and points to Cetaphil as a safe option. “This ensures your skin doesn’t get red or inflamed when washing,” she says. Patel also says to avoid foaming cleansers as they can be drying to the skin. As long as you’re using a gentle face wash that fits these criteria, Shamban recommends cleansing twice a day.
You don’t need to use a toner, but if you do, look for one that’s gentle, hydrating, and balancing for your skin’s pH level. Hyaluronic acid, rose water, aloe vera, and chamomile extract are all great ingredients to look for. For your moisturizer, Patel says to look for occlusive formulas, aka those that work as a barrier to keep hydration in your skin. “These help repair the tiny cracks in the skin and repair the barrier,” she says. Apply this twice a day.
According to Patel, you should avoid any skin care products that contain alcohol (it can be drying) or common irritants. “Common ingredients that cause reactions are propylene glycol, parabens, imizadolidinyl urea, phenoxyethanol, fragrances, and formaldehyde,” she tells Bustle. Also, it helps to always opt for fragrance-free products, since fragrance can be a “major aggressor” for sensitive skin, says Patel.
3. Exfoliate Carefully
Even sensitive skin types should exfoliate. But, rather than face scrubs and strong acids, Shamban recommends using light poly hydroxy-acids (PHAs) or fruit acids just two to three times a week. You could also use alpha hydroxy-acids — like glycolic and lactic — but Patel says to avoid formulas with higher concentrations. “These are meant to make the skin peel and exfoliate, and can make sensitive skin react,” she tells Bustle.
4. Boost Your Barrier
What you do use should support your skin’s barrier, aka its protective outer layer. “Products should strengthen the skin barrier, which fortifies your skin’s exposure to the outside [elements],” says Patel. To do this, look for amino acids, niacinamide, ceramides, peptides, and fatty acids (like avocado or kiwi seed oils), all of which you can find in products like serums and moisturizers.
5. Wear SPF
Everyone should be diligent about sun protection, but Shamban says sensitive skin types are “super sun-sensitive,” — which calls for daily SPF (which you should reapply when exposed to sunlight). Her tip? Look for broad-spectrum mineral-based sunscreens versus chemical-based as they are more easily tolerated on irritable complexions.
Fan, L. (2018). Analysis of sensitive skin barrier function: basic indicators and sebum composition. Int J Cosmet Sci. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29215741/
Dr. Ava Shamban, MD, a board-certified dermatologist based in Los Angeles, CA
Shani Darden, a celebrity facialist