Do You Really Have Sensitive Skin?


Portrait of radiant girl with glowing skin

Sensitive skin is the new gluten allergy — everyone thinks they have it. But what you think might be sensitive skin could actually be the work of something else, such as a reaction to a super-potent product or dry skin in dire need of some TLC. Winter’s cold, windy days will only add to the confusion, so now’s the time to get to the bottom of your so-called sensitive skin. Here, how to figure out what exactly is going on — and what you should do about it.

If your skin is itchy and red, and applying products can be painful…

It’s the real deal: You actually do have sensitive skin. First, the good news: It’s not you — it’s your genes. “Genetics can throw off the natural oil chemistry of skin, leaving it overly dry and prone to irritation and inflammation,” says NYC dermatologist Dennis Gross, M.D. The bad news? There’s no cure. You just have to take care of it the best you can.

Stick with mild cleansers and products, suggests Gross, and avoid ingredients such as benzoyl peroxide and alcohol, which strip the skin. Keep an eye out for ingredients like bisabolol (derived from chamomile extract), cucumber extracts, and tea extracts, all of which soothe inflamed skin.

If your skin tends to flush red or pink easily, but there’s no real reason…

You have sensitized skin. Never heard of it? It’s a new phenomenon caused by a several culprits. “Harsh products like benzoyl peroxide or environmental factors such as free radicals — or even the wind — can make skin more prone to irritation,” explains Gross. These external aggressors simply break down your skin’s defenses so that things that wouldn’t otherwise irritate your skin now will.

The solution: First, slow down on both over-washing and over-scrubbing skin, both of which can compromise skin’s protective barrier. Then, step up protection with ceramides, which help regulate the healthy functioning of the skin barrier.

If your skin has been looking ruddy and irritated for a while, and you’ve noticed bumps or even breakouts…

You probably have dry skin that’s only gotten worse. Dry skin alone is one thing, but dry skin plus other factors requires extra attention. Blame weather conditions (hello, winter), pollution, and even tap water. “The heavy metals — like lead, zinc, magnesium, copper, and iron — that are present in our drinking water convert the skin’s oils into a waxy, gland-blocking substance, resulting in acne, blackheads, stretched out pores, redness and irritation,” says Gross.  You’ll get all the exfoliation benefits without incurring extra damage — and it even contains colloidal oatmeal to soothe on contact. Gross also recommends looking for products with moisture-magnet hyaluronic acid as well as chelating agents (check the ingredient list for tetrasodium EDTA, the most common one). They’re molecules that bind to heavy metals, removing them from your skin.

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