Why Experts Struggle to Define Sensitive Skin

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Studies suggest that about 50% of Americans self-report having sensitive skin. Yet dermatologists and other experts find it hard to come up with one consensus definition for sensitive skin or one specific method of diagnosing it, so the term is often used to refer to a number of troublesome skin issues. But definition or not, this doesn’t minimize the discomfort experienced by those with sensitive skin. Let’s take a closer look at what the condition entails and why it is hard to narrow it down.

Sensitive skin characteristics are wide-ranging.

Sensitive skin is most likely to occur on the face, but it can also affect others areas of the body, such as the hands, scalp, or genital area. More women report sensitive skin than men, though a large number of men experience it as well. The incidence of sensitive skin increases with age, but some children suffer from it too. 

There are a number of sensations used to describe sensitive skin. Here are some of the most common:

  • Stinging
  • Burning
  • Itching
  • Redness
  • Rashes or bumps
  • Breakouts
  • Dryness
11 Ways to Cope With Sensitive Skin

Sensitive skin triggers differ from person to person.

Sensitive skin is sometimes also referred to as “reactive” skin since it is often triggered by an over-reaction to something. What triggers one person’s sensitive skin won’t necessarily trigger the next, though. Triggers may include:

  • Sun
  • Extreme heat or cold
  • Things applied to the skin like make-up or facial cleansers
  • Stress
  • Hormones

Some experts believe that most people don’t have inherently sensitive skin, but that something is done to cause it instead. For example, exfoliatating too often and the overuse of anti-aging products disrupts the normal skin barrier, and sensitive skin reactions are more easily triggered.

Sensitive skin symptoms can appear similar to other skin problems.

Another difficulty with defining sensitive skin is that many sensitive skin symptoms overlap with other skin conditions. For this reason, if you suffer from sensitive skin, it’s always a good idea to see your doctor to rule out any of the following skin disorders:

  • Eczema: This often starts in childhood and appears as reddened, dry, scaly and itchy patches of skin. Pus-filled blisters sometimes develop.
  • Rosacea: Rosacea causes redness over the cheeks and nasal area. Occasionally, small, pimple like bumps appear. Women over the age of 30 are most often affected.
  • Psoriasis: Similar to eczema, psoriasis also appears as thick, scaly red patches. With psoriasis, skin cells grow too rapidly, so affected areas are often raised and sometimes painful.
  • Contact dermatitis: This occurs after the skin comes in contact with an irritant, such as cosmetics, a detergent, or poison ivy. Skin may feel itchy or have a burning sensation. Rashes, bumps, or blisters may be seen.

As you can see, there can be many similarities in presentation. A dermatologist’s trained eye can differentiate between these conditions and prescribe the correct treatment.

Even if we can’t define sensitive skin, there are skin care tips that can help.

The American Academy of Dermatology has some great tips for taking care of your sensitive skin:

  • Don’t wash your face more than once a day. Too much washing can dry out sensitive skin.
  • Avoid exfoliation. This can make sensitive skin worse.
  • Be careful about what products you use. Avoid products with fragrances, soap, alcohol, and acids like glycolic or salicylic acids. Look for products that have few ingredients.
  • Moisturize.
  • Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen every day.

Sensitive skin can be troublesome, but the right products and skin care routine can help improve the look and health of your skin. Your dermatologist is a great source of information to help guide you down the right path.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2019 Jul 26
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