There is often confusion between sensitive vs sensitized skin with many people attributing their dry and itchy skin to a genetic skin type rather than a treatable skin condition. If you’re sitting there thinking to yourself ‘why is my skin so sensitive all of a sudden?’ it’s likely that you are experiencing sensitized skin rather than sensitive skin. So what’s the difference between sensitive vs sensitized skin?
Sensitive vs Sensitized Skin
Sensitive vs sensitized skin basically comes down to nature vs nurture – one is a genetic skin type that has likely been passed down to you by your parents, the other is a result of your environment and the products that you use on your skin.
What Is Sensitive Skin?
Sensitive skin is one of the five basic skin types, which also include normal skin, oily skin, combination skin, and dry skin. Generally speaking, most people only fall into one of these skin types, although your skin type may change over time – for example, skin tends to get drier as we age.
Sensitive skin is genetically inherited and is often associated with certain skin conditions such as atopic dermatitis, rosacea, and psoriasis. It may also be associated with allergies and asthma.
If you have sensitive skin, you will tend to experience frequent itching, burning, stinging, and tight sensations. Your skin may also be very reactive to skincare products and ingredients that are not usually considered to be irritants .
The reactivity of sensitive skin is largely due to the skin’s protective barrier, officially known as the stratum corneum (SC).
The SC has a bricks-and-mortar like structure where the skin cells are the bricks that are held together by a glue-like mixture of lipids. This creates a barrier that prevents water from escaping the skin and prevents irritants, allergens, and environmental pollutants from entering the skin.
Those with sensitive skin have an impaired skin barrier function and lower levels of the lipid ceramide than is usually seen in normal skin. However, this reduced barrier function seems to only be present on facial skin when compared with other body sites .
An impaired barrier function means that irritants, allergens, and environmental pollutants are able to penetrate the skin with more ease.
In addition, other theories suggest that certain receptors within the skin, that are responsible for producing sensations such as pain, itching, and burning are more sensitive to stimulation in individuals with sensitive skin .
Sensitized skin may mimic the sensitive skin type but it is actually down to your environment, lifestyle, and use of harsh skincare products. With the latter being one of the most common reasons for sensitized skin.
For example, many cleansers contain ingredients called ‘surfactants’ that are excellent at removing oil and dirt from the skin. However, some of these surfactants are so good at removing oil that they can strip the skin of its natural oils and lipids.
A number of antibacterial acne treatments can also reduce oil production which helps provide dramatic short-term effects in acne but can also disrupt the skins barrier function by reducing the levels of fatty acids which are an essential component of the skins natural lipids. This can dehydrate skin and cause it to overproduce oil in order to compensate which, in turn, can cause acne flare-ups.
Other active skincare ingredients such as hydroxy acids (AHAs & BHAs) and retinoids help to increase skin cell turnover and offer a wide variety of skin benefits, including reducing fine lines, wrinkles, acne, and pigmentation.
However, retinoids are renowned for causing irritation when you first start using them which can leave skin looking red and flaky, as well as feeling sore to the touch.
AHAs and BHAs can also cause skin irritation if used too frequently and will make already sensitized skin worse.
Sensitized skin can also be caused by pollution, certain medication, hormonal fluctuations, and even changes in the weather!
Why Is My Skin So Sensitive All Of A Sudden?
If your skin is suddenly sensitive then it is highly likely down to the skincare products that you are using rather than your genetic skin type changing. In other words, your skin is sensitized due to damage to its protective barrier.
The good news is that sensitized skin is fairly easy to treat and prevent, but you may have to take a little break from your favorite skincare products or at least adjust the way that you use them.
How to Treat and Prevent Sensitized Skin
- Temporarily stop or reduce the frequency of active ingredients – If you’re currently using retinoids, AHA, BHA, or acne products, you may need to temporarily stop using them in order to provide a little TLC for your skin’s barrier and allow it time to recover.
- Use a moisturizer that contains ceramides – sensitized skin is usually caused by a loss of the natural lipids, such as ceramides, that help form your skin’s protective barrier. Replacing these lipids can strengthen this barrier and increase skin hydration.
- Switch to a gentler cleanser – If your skin feels tight after cleansing, it may be that your cleanser is just too darn effective! While most people can handle cleansers containing surfactants if they use a barrier-repairing moisturizer (such as a ceramide-containing one) afterward, others are better suited to gentler alternatives such as creams or balms.
- Start retinoid treatment slowly – if your skin is not sensitized but you’re worried that it might be once you start a retinoid treatment, begin by using the lowest concentration once a week. Retinoids offer excellent benefits for the skin but require your skin to build a tolerance to them first. Start by using the retinoid one evening a week for two weeks, then two evenings a week for two weeks, and continue to build up gradually. The biggest mistake people make with retinoids is to overuse them at the start which often results in flaking, peeling, irritation, and acne flare-ups.
- Reduce the use of active ingredients – While it is perfectly fine to combine multiple active ingredients into a skincare routine, if you’re experiencing sensitive skin you will need to take a step back. Sometimes this means stopping all active ingredients before reintroducing them slowly. You can also alternate the nights that you use active ingredients. For example, if you want to use retinoids and AHA (which, by the way, is an awesome combination) you may wish to avoid using them on the same day, to begin with.
- Wear Sunscreen – Not only is it the best thing you can do for your skin, but nothing screams sensitized skin like sunburn!
How to Treat Sensitive Skin
Sensitive skin is a little trickier to treat as there is such a wide variety of skincare products and ingredients that can cause issues. It may be worth having professional patch testing performed to find out which specific ingredients your skin reacts to. However, patch testing isn’t particularly representative of how most skincare products are used and ingredients are normally applied to the back or other hidden areas of the body.
You can, however, perform your own patch test by applying a product to a small area of your face (preferably somewhere slightly hidden like the corner of your jaw or behind your ear). It can take up to five days for a reaction to occur and you should apply the product as you plan to use it (e.g. twice a day for five days). Obviously, if your skin becomes irritated before the five days are up you can write that product off as unsuitable for your skin.
Summary – Why Is My Skin So Sensitive All Of A Sudden?
If you find that your skin is suddenly sensitive, don’t worry! Your genetic skin type has not changed but it is highly likely that the skincare products you are using have damaged your skins protective barrier and, luckily, this is fixable!
The best thing you can do is to give your skin a break for a couple of weeks by reducing the amount of products you are using and instead focusing on the basics: a gentle cleanser, a barrier-repairing moisturizer, and sunscreen.
- Primavera, G. & Beradesca, E. (2005). ‘Sensitive skin: Mechanisms and diagnosis’, Int J Cosmet Sci., 27(1), 1 – 10. Available at: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18492176/
- Cho, H., Chung, B., Lee, H. et al. (2012). ‘Quantative study of stratum corneum ceramides contents in patients with sensitive skin’, J Dermatol., 39(3), 295-300. Available at: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22035317/
- Richters, R., Falcone, D., Uzunbajakava, N. et al. (2017). ‘Sensitive skin: assessment of the skin barrier using confocal raman microspectroscopy’, Skin Pharmacol Physiol., 30, 1-12. Available at: https://www.karger.com/Article/FullText/452152#ref27