7 Factors That Can Aggravate Sensitive Skin

closeup of woman face with sensitive skin

Is your skin red, dry, or flaky? An estimated 40 percent of people believe they have sensitive skin.

Some people are born with sensitive skin, while others develop it later in life — as they age, experience certain health conditions (such as acne), or take certain medications (such as antibiotics). Health conditions and medications may cause sensitive skin through changes to the gut microbiome or via some other mechanism. It’s an area that needs more research.

Redness, irritation, and inflammation

Sensitive skin is a skin condition marked by redness, irritation, and inflammation, and is triggered by factors in the environment. It’s not the same as an allergy. Allergic reactions are caused by a hypersensitivity reaction of the immune system, while sensitive skin is more of an irritant-induced response to factors your skin is exposed to.

If you have sensitive skin, you may have a defect in the outer layer of skin called the stratum corneum, a layer that protects you from the outside environment. Breaks in this outer layer of a stratum corneum that’s too thin may allow irritants to gain better access to the deeper layers of your skin.

All skin reacts to external factors, but sensitive skin reacts more intensely and produces an inflammatory response that leads to redness, itching, flaking, and irritation. Regardless of the cause, certain factors can trigger or worsen dry skin. Let’s look at some of those.

Pollution

More pollutants are in the air than ever before, and that includes outdoors and indoors. Toxic chemicals in the air, water, and household products may aggravate sensitive skin and cause it to become red, irritated, and inflamed. Pollution might even affect the rate of aging by speeding up the production of free radicals by skin cells. That’s why it’s important to protect your skin as much as possible against environmental assaults, including sun exposure. Also, make sure you’re eating a diet rich in plant-based foods and spices with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity.

Certain types of clothing

Clothing, especially tight clothing, can aggravate sensitive skin. Your skin may be sensitive to a particular fabric or the chemicals used in processing it. Many people are allergic to or react to wool but there may also be other causes such as an allergy to dye or even the material the garment itself is made of. When you get a new piece of clothing, wash it before putting it on to remove any chemical treatments which would irritate your skin. If you find that you have an allergy, wash the garment separately, and then put it through a cold wash after every few times you wear it so that any dyes or chemicals don’t build up. Even natural fabrics can cause problems if they haven’t been washed enough times to remove all the natural oils. So washing in hot water will help remove these oils and make them less likely to cause a skin reaction.

Harsh detergents

Some people are sensitive to the preservatives and dyes found in some laundry detergents. These ingredients can cause rashes, hives, itching, and even wheezing or difficulty breathing in some people. Look for the words “hypoallergenic” on the label if you want a detergent free from dyes, perfumes, and other additives. Also, take note of any warnings about using the product on sensitive skin. If you have sensitive skin, it’s best to avoid fabric softener sheets added to laundry to enhance softness as they can also aggravate sensitive skin.

Hot water

Hot water and steam can inflame dry or sensitive skin. The safest way to bathe is to use lukewarm water. Harsh cleansers and soaps will further aggravate sensitive skin by stripping away natural oils that keep irritants out. Physical irritation, like scrubbing with an exfoliating pad or aggressively with a washcloth, can also worsen sensitive skin. Dial back the temperature of the water you bathe in, too, and avoid using soaps. A natural, unscented liquid cleanser is a better choice.

Skin care products

Several ingredients in anti-aging skincare products and acne preparations can trigger or worsen sensitive skin. These include retinoids and alpha-hydroxy acids. Even if you’ve been using a product for years, you can still develop sensitivity to one or more ingredients in that product. If you suddenly develop sensitive skin, always review the skincare products you’re using with the help of your aesthetician.

Cosmetics

One study found that lipstick powder, blush, and foundation comprise 11 percent of cosmetic skin sensitivity reactions. Ingredients in cosmetic products that can trigger sensitivity reactions include fragrances, preservatives, propylene glycol, lanolin, PABA, glycol, and emulsifiers. If you experience skin sensitivity around your eyes, take a closer look at your eye shadow, eyeliner, and mascara, too. They can contain ingredients that your skin reacts to.

Temperature change

Sun exposure worsens sensitive skin for some people, but air conditioning can too. Air conditioning removes moisture from the air, and that dries out your skin. It can also irritate sensitive skin and lead to redness, drying, and flaking. Cold, dry air in the winter can do the same thing. Turn off the air conditioner as much as possible during the spring and summer. In the winter, invest in a humidifier to keep the moisture level in your home higher.

The bottom line

You might want to consider natural products over synthetic ones — botanical ingredients tend to be milder than chemical ones. And look for brands that are less likely to contain irritating ingredients like alcohol and menthol. Invest in proven clinical skin care products instead of cheap drugstore options. Treat sensitive skin as gently as possible to help keep the redness and itching in check.

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References:

Cosmetic Dermatology: Principles and Practices. Leslie Baumann, MD. 2002.

“Sensitive skin – PubMed.” pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26805416/.

Berardesca E, Farage M, Maibach H. Sensitive skin: an overview. Int J Cosmet Sci. 2013 Feb;35(1):2-8. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2494.2012.00754.x. Epub 2012 Sep 21. PMID: 22928591.

“20 Common Questions About Sensitive Skin – WebMD.” .webmd.com/beauty/sensitive-skin-20-questions.

“Sensitive skin – PubMed.” pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26805416/.

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