What Causes Sensitive Skin and How Can I Care for It?

Medically reviewed by Cynthia Cobb, DNP, APRN on January 17, 2018Written by Corinne O’Keefe Osborn on January 17, 2018

Is this cause for concern?

Sensitive skin isn’t a disease that a doctor can diagnose you with. It’s usually a symptom of another condition. You may not even know you have sensitive skin until you have a bad reaction to a cosmetic product, like soap, moisturizer, or makeup.

Conditions that cause sensitive skin are rarely serious. You can usually keep your symptoms under control with a few simple changes to your skin care routine.

Keep reading to learn more about what may be causing your sensitive skin, other symptoms to watch for, and products that should be safe for you to use.

What causes sensitive skin?

1. Dry skin

Skin becomes dry when it loses too much water and oil.

This can cause your skin to:

  • itch
  • scale or flake
  • peel
  • feel rough to the touch
  • crack and bleed
  • appear red or ashy-looking

Dry skin can happen anywhere on your body, but it’s particularly common on the:

  • hands
  • feet
  • arms
  • lower legs

What you can do

You can treat dry skin by returning moisture to the affected areas. Applying a moisturizing cream or ointment two to three times per day will help restore moisture and prevent your skin from drying out in the future. Try using a fragrance-free moisturizer designed for people with sensitive skin.

Products you can use

If you have dry skin, your skin care routine should focus on retaining moisture.

To cleanse:

To moisturize:

2. Eczema

Eczema (atopic dermatitis) affects your skin’s ability to protect you from irritants, like germs in the air or chemicals in your laundry detergent. This can make you extra sensitive to products that don’t bother other people, like soaps and cosmetics.

The symptoms of eczema vary widely from person to person. You could notice any of the following:

  • dryness
  • itchiness
  • small bumps that may leak fluid and crust over
  • red to brownish-gray patches of skin
  • raw, swollen skin
  • thick, cracked, or scaly skin

What you can do

Sometimes over-the-counter (OTC) anti-itch creams and moisturizers are enough to ease symptoms. If your symptoms are severe, see your healthcare provider.

Products you can use

If you have eczema, it’s important to choose sensitive products that won’t irritate your skin:

3. Irritant contact dermatitis

Irritant contact dermatitis is a red, itchy rash that develops when the protective layer of your skin is damaged by something it touches.

In most cases, a rash will only develop on the area that directly touches the irritant.

Symptoms include:

  • red rash
  • itchiness
  • dry, cracked, scaly skin
  • bumps and blisters, which may ooze fluid and crust over
  • swelling
  • burning
  • tenderness

What you can do

Contact dermatitis usually clears up on its own within a few weeks. The most important thing you can do is figure out what triggered the reaction so that you can avoid it in the future.

Products you can use

You’ll want to control the itching while your skin heals. Scratching the area will only make it more inflamed.

  • Steroid creams. An OTC hydrocortisone cream can help reduce inflammation and eliminate itch. Try Cortizone 10.
  • Numbing creams. Some anti-itch creams contain a topical numbing agent that relieves itchiness and burning. Try Sarna’s original formula with camphor and menthol.
  • Soothing bath. A cool oatmeal bath can sooth blistered, burning skin. Try Aveeno Soothing Bath Treatment, or make your own by grinding oatmeal into a fine powder.

4. Allergic contact dermatitis

Allergic contact dermatitis is a less common form of contact dermatitis. It occurs when you have an allergic reaction to a specific substance.

Symptoms include:

  • redness
  • itchiness
  • blisters and bumps, sometimes containing fluid
  • burning
  • swelling
  • tenderness

Common allergens include:

  • soaps
  • lotions
  • plants
  • jewelry
  • fragrances
  • cosmetics
  • nickel (in jewelry)

What you can do

Treatment with an OTC antihistamine should help ease itching and inflammation. Try to identify the cause of your allergic reaction so you can avoid it in the future.

Products you can use

Products that can help you both treat and prevent allergic contact dermatosis include:

Oral antihistamines. An oral antihistamine is the best way to stop an allergic reaction because it helps control the excess histamine in your blood. Try OTC diphenhydramine (Benadryl) tablets.

Topical antihistamines. Antihistamines are also available as creams, ointments, and sprays. They may help relieve itching and reduce inflammation caused by poison ivy or other contact allergens. Try Benadryl’s Anti-Itch Cream.

Gentle dish soaps and detergents. Some people have allergic reactions to dish soap and laundry detergent. Thankfully, there are gentle, fragrance-free options available. Check out Seventh Generation Free & Clear unscented dish soap and Tide Free & Gentle laundry detergent.

Clear nail polish. Applying a coat of clear nail polish to the inside of your rings and bracelets can help prevent an allergic reaction to nickel.

5. Rosacea

Rosacea is a common skin disease that affects the face. Early signs include blushing or flushing more easily than other people.

Rosacea causes extreme sensitivity. Some products may cause immediate burning and stinging.

Other symptoms include:

  • redness of the face, ears, chest, or back
  • a sunburned look
  • small bumps and pimples
  • visible blood vessels

What you can do

Long-term maintenance of rosacea usually involves prescription creams, so talk to your doctor about your symptoms.

Products you can use

A rosacea-friendly skin routine might include:

  • Medications that reduce redness. There are some prescription drugs available that can effectively reduce facial redness. For example, the topical gel brimonidine (Mirvaso) works by constricting blood vessels.
  • Makeup primers. Green foundation primers work to counteract (color correct) the redness in your skin. Apply to clean skin before putting on your makeup. Try Smashbox Photo Finish Color Correcting Foundation Primer.
  • Moisturizers. Moisture and oils help protect skin from irritation. Avoid moisturizers with fragrances and use something that combats redness, like Eucerin Sensitive Skin Redness Relief Soothing Night Cream.

6. Contact urticaria (hives)

Contact urticaria are hives caused by direct contact with an irritating substance. The reaction from contact urticaria is immediate.

Symptoms include:

  • welts
  • itching
  • burning
  • tingling
  • redness
  • swelling

Hives can be triggered by skin contact with things like:

  • plants
  • fragrances
  • raw foods
  • ingredients in common bath and beauty products

What you can do

If you have contact urticaria, your symptoms should clear up on their own within 24 hours. Treatment focuses on easing symptoms until the rash runs its course.

Products you can use

Common treatments for hives include:

  • Oral antihistamines. Antihistamines help fight the excess histamine in your bloodstream. OTC antihistamines, like diphenhydramine (Benadryl) tablets, can be taken as soon as you notice symptoms.
  • Steroid creams. An OTC steroid cream containing hydrocortisone (Cortizone 10) can reduce inflammation and sooth itching.
  • Pain relievers. OTC pain relievers, like ibuprofen (Advil) and naproxen (Aleve), can reduce swelling and discomfort.

7. Physical urticaria

Physical urticaria are hives that are caused by exposure to heat, cold, chemicals, plants, or exercise.

Symptoms include:

  • small hives
  • hives that are white, pink, or red in the center
  • hives surrounded by a red ring of skin
  • itching
  • swelling

What you can do

This condition will probably go away on its own, but an oral antihistamine may help it clear up faster.

Products you can use

Focus on preventing physical urticaria by avoiding irritating conditions:

  • Oral antihistamines. OTC antihistamines, like diphenhydramine (Benadryl) tablets, can be taken as soon as you notice hives.
  • Wear gloves. Always wear gloves when you go outside in the cold, handle chemicals, or tend a fire. Hand warmers (Hot Hands) can help when you spend a winter day outside.
  • Keep warm. Many people get cold-related physical urticaria when they step out of the shower or swimming pool. Keep a large towel and warm bathrobe nearby, even in the summer. In the winter, try an extra-warm hooded winter robe.

8. Photodermatoses

Photodermatoses is an abnormal skin reaction to sunlight. The ultraviolet (UV) rays in sunlight can trigger your immune system, causing you to develop a rash, blisters, or scaly patches of skin.

Photodermatoses can be hard to recognize. It could be photodermatoses if:

  • the rash only appears on parts of the body exposed to sun
  • clear lines distinguish skin that was covered from skin that was not (similar to tan lines)
  • the condition gets worse in the spring and summer
  • skin covered by hair is unaffected
  • skin covered by shadows, such as your eyelids or under your chin, is spared

What you can do

Tell your healthcare provider if you think you might be overly sensitive to sunlight. It could be caused by a medication that you’re taking — even an OTC drug or supplement.

Products you can use

If sunlight is irritating your skin, your healthcare provider may recommend:

  • Sunscreen. Protect your skin with a broad spectrum sunscreen that’s SPF 30 or higher, like Neutrogena’s SPF 60+ Sensitive Skin Sunscreen.
  • UPF clothing. UPF clothing helps protect your skin from harmful UV rays. UPF is the clothing equivalent of SPF, so look for a high number, ideally UPF 40+. Try this line of clothing by Coolibar.
  • Aloe vera. Aloe vera is a natural gel that helps sooth sunburned skin. Try an organic, fragrance-free aloe vera gel, like Amara Organics Cold Pressed Aloe.

9. Cutaneous mastocytosis

Cutaneous mastocytosis (CM) is a condition in which too many mast cells accumulate in the skin. Mast cells are part of your immune system, so when they sense a threat, they release chemicals that cause swelling.

Other symptoms include:

  • small tan or red spots on the body
  • spots on the arms, legs, neck, or stomach
  • spots are completely flat (not raised)

These symptoms usually won’t appear until they’re triggered by an irritating substance, like a fragrance or lotion.

Other CM triggers include:

  • temperature changes
  • certain medications
  • scratching
  • emotional stress

What you can do

Treatment for most cases of CM involves OTC antihistamines and steroid creams. People with severe symptoms can undergo a type of radiation treatment called PUVA therapy.

Products you can use

If you have CM spots, you’ll want to treat them, potentially cover them up, and prevent them from coming back:

  • Treatments. OTC treatments include oral antihistamines, like diphenhydramine (Benadryl) tablets, and topical steroids, like hydrocortisone creams (Cortizone 10).
  • Cover-ups. A natural, tinted beauty balm can help cover spots, restore moisture, and protect the skin from UV rays. Try Burt’s Bees BB Cream.
  • Prevention. Prevent CM from being triggered by using fragrance-free products designed for sensitive skin, such as Cetaphil’s Gentle Skin Cleanser and CeraVe Moisturizing Lotion with protecting ceramides.

10. Aquagenic pruritus

Aquagenic pruritus is a very rare condition in which any water that touches the skin causes itchiness.

Aquagenic pruritus doesn’t cause any visible signs, like a rash or blisters. Instead, you’ll experience itchiness immediately after touching water. This can for last anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours.

What you can do

Aquagenic pruritus can be difficult to treat. If you think you have this condition, talk to your doctor. They’ll be your best resource for information and can advise you on next steps.

Products you can use

Some products can be used in place of water, such as:

General tips for sensitive skin

When you have sensitive skin, it can feel like everything is irritating. But with a few lifestyle changes, you may see significant improvement.

Here are a few tips that can help anyone with sensitive skin:

  • take short 5 to 10 minute showers with warm — not hot — water
  • avoid harsh astringents and exfoliants
  • use a gentle, fragrance-free soap
  • use essential oils instead of perfumes
  • use a gentle, fragrance-free laundry detergent
  • try using organic cleaning supplies
  • always use a shaving cream or gel
  • gently pat yourself dry after a shower (instead of rubbing) and apply moisturizer right away
  • test new products on a discreet area of skin at least one day before trying a full-application

When to see your doctor

There are a lot of different conditions that can cause skin sensitivity. Some require more serious and diligent treatment than others. If you suspect your skin condition involves an allergic response, you should consider making an appointment with an allergist.

Although it’s rare, allergic reactions can cause a life-threatening condition known as anaphylaxis. Seek immediate medication attention if you begin experiencing:

  • difficulty breathing
  • trouble swallowing
  • swelling in the mouth, throat, or face

Most people with sensitive skin can treat their condition at home. This typically involves identifying the product or substance that’s irritating your skin and finding a way to avoid it.

If your symptoms don’t improve, make an appointment with a dermatologist. Your dermatologist can get you started on a gentle skin care routine that will keep your skin looking and feeling good.

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