Do You Have Sensitive or Sensitized Skin? Here's How to Tell the Difference
One is a skin type and the other is a skin reaction.
I hate to break it to you, but the "sensitive skin" condition you think you might have could actually just be sensitized skin. While yes, they both sound the same, the causes and treatments are different, and it's important to figure out which concern you're dealing with so that you can treat it accordingly.
I know it may be hard, but if you've been dealing with dry, flaky, red skin constantly or intermittently, it's probably time to address your exfoliation addiction and rebuild your skin barrier, stat. Below, you'll find out whether you have sensitive or sensitized skin, how to tell the difference, and how to treat each.
What is sensitive skin and what is sensitized skin, and why do people confuse the two?
Sensitive skin is a skin type, whereas sensitized skin is a reactive condition. "People confuse the two because they sound alike, but more importantly, they can display similar symptoms," explains Shereene Idriss, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist in New York City. "The biggest difference is that sensitive skin is a lifelong condition, usually dictated by genetics, and those who are prone usually have underlying conditions such as asthma and seasonal allergies. Sensitized skin is skin that has become sensitive over time to certain triggers, either external or internal—such as certain cosmetic ingredients, like fragrance or nickel, [or] even digested foods."
According to Caroline Robinson, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist in Chicago, everyone's skin responds differently to the environment and products based on a complicated set of factors such as genetic tendencies, climate, sun, diet, and more.
"Sensitive skin is skin that tends to be more reactive to these factors, as it can become irritated, red, itchy, or sting in response," she says. "Sensitized skin does not have a specific definition, but it can be used to describe skin that behaves similarly to sensitive skin types with the cause being related to skin behaviors (such as over-exfoliating or harsh procedures) that could make any skin type experience sensitivity." It's important to remember that sensitive skin can also be a sign of skin conditions such as eczema, contact dermatitis, rosacea, or other conditions. Dr. Robinson advises to seek out a board-certified dermatologist if you have skin symptoms that are persistent over time.
What are some signs that you have sensitive skin or sensitized skin?
Deciphering between sensitive and sensitized skin can be tricky, since the symptoms for both can appear to be the same. Both sensitive skin and sensitized skin can show signs of "redness (including blotchiness and overactive capillaries), a compromised skin barrier, dehydration (the lack of water will make your skin appear dull and uneven) and itching, potentially including small bumps and a rash-like appearance," explains Sofia Rhalimi, the lead esthetician at Skoah Boston. "Outside of getting a professional opinion, the big tell is whether the symptoms are chronic or if they only appear intermittently. If the latter, it is probably sensitized skin."
Dr. Idriss supports this claim, stating that sensitive and sensitized skin unfortunately present somewhat similarly, as skin can appear red, inflamed, itchy, irritated or even bumpy. "Sensitive skin tends to react with a waxing and waning course over time, whereas sensitized skin tends to flare up more aggressively when exposed to its trigger," she says.
What can cause sensitized skin?
Unfortunately, there are multiple factors that can contribute to sensitized skin. "Everything and anything can, over time, turn into the culprit that causes your skin to become sensitized," explains Dr. Idriss. "From fragrances in cosmetic products to nickel in even gold jewelry to the dye in your clothing—all of these can become triggers. I don't say this statement to alarm you but rather reassuringly in that it's a vast number of unknowns that your skin may (or may not) one day react to, so don't stress out over it." If you are prone to sensitivities and have sensitive skin, Dr. Idriss says to play it safe and that less is always more.
Other factors can come into play when trying to control sensitized skin, including the weather. "Environmental factors, like weather and temperature (extreme hot or cold), can also trigger issues for some," says Rhalimi. "For others, it can be hormonal issues. Also, certain conditions like rosacea, eczema, or psoriasis can be the culprit."
Overdoing it with exfoliation and acids could be playing a part in your sensitized skin, too. "Skincare products that are not skin type appropriate are another factor [that contribute to sensitized skin] that I see in my office routinely," explains Dr. Robinson.
What are the best ways to treat sensitive skin?
If you do think you have sensitive skin, it might be time to revamp your skincare routine to gentler, more hydrating products for everyday use. "Mastering cleansing and moisturizing is key for sensitive skin, and that is because the skin barrier may need more support in these skin types," says Dr. Robinson. "Most sensitive skin types should steer towards a creamier cleanser that does not remove natural oils from the skin and a thick, fragrance-free moisturizer with ceramides, cholesterol, and/or fatty acids. If sensitivity is due to an underlying skin condition, it's best to speak to your board-certified dermatologist."
Strengthening your skin barrier will also help decrease your chances of developing a skin allergy to any particular product, according to Dr. Idriss. "Moisturize regularly with creams loaded with humectants like glycerin and even colloidal oatmeal, which can help tremendously," she says. "Also, anti-inflammatory ingredients, such as arnica, can help keep things calm and steady."
What are the best ways to treat sensitized skin?
Whether it's a product, tool, or a procedure, it's important to eliminate the culprit that is causing sensitivity in your skin. "A visit to your local dermatologist or allergist to get patch-tested is essential," says Dr. Idriss. "Once you pinpoint your culprits, treating sensitized skin becomes much, much more manageable by simply avoiding that trigger."
In terms of skin care for sensitized skin, Rhalimi is all about giving your skin time to heal. "When you are experiencing an issue, keep your skincare routine basic. Cut out exfoliation or anything abrasive and avoid anything with an acid, including retinols," she says. "Increase your water intake to support cell health and avoid occlusives, which are greasy oils that block water from evaporating but can actually make the skin more dehydrated." Rhalimi suggests looking for products and/or a facial that are calming, cooling, and hydrating. And, of course, always make sure you're wearing your sunscreen daily.