With about half the population claiming some sort of skin sensitivity, those seeking relief from irritation naturally look not just for a treatment but for the root cause of discomfort. Sensitive skin can include a range of symptoms that you feel—such as burning or itching—and signs that you can see—including redness and peeling. When skin acts up, it’s best to listen and try to find the real reason behind your symptoms.
1. Wrong Regimen
What may seem like a mysterious condition could simply be a sign that you need to change your skin care routine. You may be washing your face too much or using the wrong products, ending up with uncomfortable, dry and irritated skin. Sodium laureth sulfate in cleansers with ammonium or sodium can break down the skin’s protective barrier. Layering too many powerful ingredients on your skin, such as multiple treatments with salicylic acid or alpha-hydroxy acids, can also provoke a reaction.
2. Contact Dermatitis
If you’re periodically getting a bout of redness or itching, your skin could be trying to tell you something about your environment. Contact dermatitis can arise from an array of products, ranging from shampoo to the adhesive on a bandage. Any of these can cause an itchy rash that may even blister. You can also develop a rash from food allergies, or a reaction to certain materials like latex—which were latent until you came into contact with them. People with eczema get red, irritated dry skin, which may be passed down in families. But why some people have skin allergies and others don’t isn’t always apparent; the cause of chronic hives, for example, is unknown.
3. Dry Skin
Sensitive skin could simply be a case of a parched epidermis. You may need to up the moisture to turn down redness and irritation. Even if you’ve added moisturizing products, it’s sometimes small factors in your routine that make the difference. This includes using warm water instead of steaming hot; not over-cleansing; patting skin dry instead of rubbing at it; and applying moisturizer right after you’ve cleansed. Dry, sensitive skin often shows up seasonally, with cold winter days leading to irritation. If dry skin gets beyond your control, see a dermatologist.
4. Skin Conditions
Sometimes sensitive skin is a sign of an underlying condition, and sensitivity may not be the only symptom. Rosacea, for example, causes sensitive skin as well as flushing and acne-like bumps. Aquagenic pruritus, in which the skin itches after contact with water, can be hereditary or traced back to a number of conditions, including hepatitis C. Sensitive skin from sunlight indicates a condition called photodermatosis. Some medications have skin symptoms as a side effect, or you may have a medical condition that affects the skin, such as thyroid disease. Your doctor can help find the reason for unexplained skin sensitivity through tests that may include patch testing or a skin biopsy.
This article has been reviewed by board-certified dermatologist Dr. Emmy Graber.