The ultimate guide to caring for sensitive skin

Tips to save a temperamental complexion

InStyle Contributor / July 24 2017

While the symptoms are all too common, sensitive skin can be tricky to treat. We consulted the experts for advice on how to care for a complexion crisis.

Assess the situation 

Type the most common skin complaints into Dr Google (think redness, dryness, itching) and chances are you’ll be “diagnosed” with skin sensitivity. A trip to the dermatologist for a thorough analysis may even confirm the fact, but what exactly
 does it mean? Typically, the broad term refers to a complexion that suffers from
 “an impaired barrier function that overreacts to common irritants such as soap, acids, benzoyl peroxide and topical retinoids, such as vitamin A compounds”, says specialist dermatologist Dr Ritu Gupta from Platinum Dermatology Skin Specialists.

In addition, sensitivity also covers specific concerns like atopic dermatitis and allergic contact dermatitis, adds dermatologist and founder of DNA Renewal, Dr Ron Moy. But here’s where accurate diagnosis gets tricky: Dr Moy explains there’s no way to define if your skin is sensitive until you actually develop a reaction, which can present as red or flaking skin, breakouts, bumps and more. “Patch tests can be used to determine allergies – by applying 20 of the most common allergic substances on a patient’s back for 24 to 48 hours – however it doesn’t really help determine sensitivity like dryness or atopic dermatitis, where skin can be sensitive to a variety of different [substances],” he says.

The good news is that with a greater awareness of what goes into beauty products comes a better understanding of what does and doesn’t work for individual skins, and this knowledge will help determine the external factors that might be making you react.

“Sensitive skin is skin with impaired barrier function that overreacts to common irritants such as soaps, acids, peroxide and topical retinoid.”
Dr Ritu Gupta
Platinum Dermatology Skin Specialists

Irritants, allergens and additives

While there is a spectrum of ingredients that cause sensitivity, Dr Moy explains that artificial fragrances and preservatives are the most common components to avoid as they can lead to flare-ups that result in skin-related stress. With that in mind, Ultraceuticals Global Brand Educator, Tracey Beeby explains that synthetic dyes, mineral oils and various sulfates may also need to be added to your banned list as they too can inhibit and irritate the skin’s barrier. So, which products and ingredients should you look for? Dr Moy says that while sensitive skin types often rush to purchase formulations labelled as hypo-allergenic, they don’t always help – unfortunately, as there is little regulation regarding use of the term, the majority of these products are not what they claim to be. The same can be said for “natural” or certified organic skin care buys; while generally considered a smart choice for sensitivity sufferers, Dr Moy recommends paying close attention to their specific composition. “The bottom line is that we see as many natural or organic ingredients causing reactions as chemical ingredients,” he says. For example, vitamins B, C and E can have adverse effects, and the most commonly found natural acids – like salicylic or lactic – are known to irritate and strip the skin. Equally as important as what goes into your skin care, try to avoid switching up your daily regimen too often, says Endota Spa’s Education Coordinator, Cara Doncovio: “With the advice of a skin therapist, you should modify your regimen seasonally to combat changes in temperature. However, if you change your products too frequently it can result in overstimulation, and also not allow your skin to adapt to the products you are currently using.”

“Look for products that don’t contain ingredients such as acids, benzoyl peroxide and topical retinoids; and avoid soaps or cleansers containing sodium laurel sulphate.”
Cara Doncovio
Endota Spa
Education Coordinator

Sleep more, stress less

According to Dr Moy, mindful diet and lifestyle choices can play a significant
 role in maintaining a healthy complexion: “Sensitive skin types need to consider the best ways to build up a defence system, and to consider [the] body’s natural DNA repair process.” He explains that because skin goes into rest and repair mode while you sleep, not getting enough shut-eye will actually hinder your skin’s ability to heal and protect itself. Stress can also place additional pressure on those prone to skin sensitivity. “It increases cortisol levels that can add to further sensitivity by affecting the skin’s barrier, causing breakouts,” says Beeby. “Hyperpigmentation may even be exacerbated.” In addition to these internal causes, external environmental factors can also have a significant impact, from 
a change in weather to pollution and air conditioning, Doncovio points out.
 Skin can also “react to heat, so avoid hot showers and only use warm – not hot –water when washing your face”, she adds.

“Stress increases cortisol levels that an add to further sensitivity by affecting the skin’s barrier, causing breakouts.”
Tracey Beeby
Global Brand Educator

The concern: Dryness 

The issue: It’s important to understand the difference between dry and dehydrated skin, both of which require individual treatment and have a different cause. “Dehydrated skin lacks moisture but still may produce oil, whereas dry skin is 
skin that is oil-dry,” says Beeby.
 A dry complexion can feel tight all the time – even after applying moisturiser – and flaky patches may crop up.

How to treat it: Turn to nourishing products that contain humectant or emollient ingredients, says Dr Moy, which work to trap and retain moisture in your dermis: “They will form a barrier to prevent water from being lost in the skin.” Beeby adds that dry, sensitive skin needs to be repaired using biomimetic ingredients; that is, those that mimic the skin’s natural processes. “This
 ensures true therapeutic moisturising properties – all of the essential components of the skin’s cells – are replaced in order
 to correct [any concerns] with the epidermis,” she says. Also, up your H2O intake to hydrate from within.

Steer clear: Dry skin can react quickly to astringent products, so skip toner and avoid preservatives like parabens and formaldehydes in moisturisers, says Dr Moy.

Products to try: Sukin Hydrating Facial Masque; Endota Spa Organics Hydrate Me Mist; Ultraceuticals Ultra B2 Hydrating Serum

The concern: Breakouts

The issue: “Most skin suffering with acne or breakouts tends to be sensitive,” says Beeby. Unfortunately, this means it can be tricky to care for, as the majority of anti-acne products available include ingredients that may inflame sensitive skin.

How to treat it: It’s most important that you don’t over-wash or exfoliate your skin, and that you try to keep your regimen simple, says Dr Gupta. Aim to use treatment products that are gentle and enriched with antioxidants that work to repair your skin, and opt for a lightweight moisturiser as opposed to anything heavy or thick. Depending on the severity of your breakouts, it’s also wise to make an appointment with a dermatologist, who may prescribe medication as a fast-acting and safe alternative to using over-the-counter products.

Steer clear: While they might leave your skin feeling like it’s had a thorough clean, avoid cleansing brushes and toners unless recommended by a skin specialist— use of these products can often lead to increased oil production and confuse your skin further.

Products to try: Skyn Iceland Glacial Face Wash; Avène Cleanance Mat Mattifying Emulsion; Murad InstaMatte Oil-Control Mask

The concern: Allergies

The cause: Sensitive skin sufferers will quickly notice any adverse reactions to skin care – from tightness to bumps and redness, there are a few common warning signs when using products that aren’t suited to you. “The most common ingredients that can cause skin to react are those that heavily moisturise, causing blocked pores and therefore increasing the bacteria in the skin,” explains Dr Moy.

How to treat it: Take a closer look 
at what’s in your skin care to determine 
the culprit. It could be a combination of ingredients, but “if the cause is unknown, care must be taken in order to ensure the skin’s barrier is healthy and well protected”, recommends Beeby.

Steer clear: Avoid any known irritants, but Beeby also suggests you stay away from harsh surfactants in cleansers as well as petroleum-based ingredients.

Products to try: Trilogy Very
 Gentle Cleansing Cream; Dermalogica UltraCalming Barrier Repair; Origins Mega-Mushroom Skin Relief Eye Serum

The concern: Rosacea

The cause: An inherited condition, rosacea presents itself as broken blood vessels “that are too sensitive and overreact to common triggers, such as caffeine and red wine”, says Dr Gupta. “It can also be caused by an overreaction to demodex mites, which live on our skin as part of our normal flora.”

How to treat it: “Rosacea is best treated with anti-inflammatory medicines or topical antibiotics,” says Dr Moy. However, your diet can play a significant role –he recommends eating foods that reduce histamine levels, upping your intake of vegetables, and steaming, poaching or pan-frying any proteins. From a skin care perspective, try a gentle cleanser to remove bacteria and excess oil, which will soothe the skin. “To decrease irritation, use your fingertips instead of abrasive washcloths,” says Dr Moy. In addition, use a mild moisturiser that will prevent itching and burning, and always apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen, as sun exposure can lead to rosacea flare-ups.

Steer clear: Avoid witch hazel, fragrance, peppermint and eucalyptus oil, plus toners with excess alcohol or chemicals.

Products to try: Rationale Beautiful Skin Luminizing Superfluid SPF50; A’kin Cleansing Micellar Water; Darphin Intral Redness Relief Recovery Cream 

Need some advice on dealing with redness-prone skin? Read up on how to manage redness.

For more skin care tips from InStyle, head over to

Do you have sensitive skin? What are your go-to products?

Main image credit: Philip Le Masurier

Hayley has contributed to a range of online and print titles including InStyle and Gritty Pretty