Sensitive Skin: A Complex Reality

Sensitive skin is a complex condition. Discover how to recognise sensitive skin symptoms, why skin c
Sensitive skin is a complex condition. Discover how to recognise sensitive skin symptoms, why skin can become sensitive, what causes it and the easy steps you can take to treat skin sensitivity.
Sensitive Skin: A Complex Reality
Sensitive Skin: A Complex Reality


Sensitive skin is characterised by an extreme reaction to factors that are normally well tolerated. Visible symptoms can include redness, prickling and itchiness along with dry patches and even blemishes. That’s because this skin type is particularly vulnerable and hyper-reactive to external aggressors both in the environment and from ingredients in skin products.

While sensitive skin can appear anywhere on the body, it is usually most prominent on the face as this is the area frequently exposed to environmental aggressors, especially the sun’s harmful rays. This can result in skin sensitive to touch. The face is also likely to be the recipient of the most skincare, including cleansers, moisturisers and make-up, all of which can exacerbate the condition.

It’s not high on anyone’s wish list of skin types as the condition can cause real discomfort and stress but it’s important to remember that everyone’s skin is different and there are also different levels of sensitivity. There is just one rule that must be followed in order to improve everyday comfort for delicate skin and that is to respect this fragility. So having an understanding of the causes of skin irritation on the face and adopting the correct protective and preventative skincare for sensitive skin, will help to lessen occurrences.


Sensitive skin shares many of the same symptoms as dehydrated and dry skin conditions and can be recognised by certain signs, with varying degrees of severity.

  • THE LOOK - Flaking, redness, rashes, swelling, scaling and roughness
  • THE FEEL -Tightness, burning sensations, heat, prickling and Itchiness


An extreme skin reaction

Healthy skin has a complex job to perform, the outermost layer acting as a protective barrier in the body, both protecting it from external aggressors - including sun, wind, pollution and extreme temperatures and also regulating fluids and oxygen. The outer layer of skin is called the stratum corneum and is made up of cells and lipids. A hydrolipid film composed of water, fatty acids and lipids safeguards the surface. To function properly as a protective layer the cells need to be lubricated with sebum, the body’s natural oil, which helps maintain elasticity and firmness. The lipids fill the spaces between the cells and act like cement regulating fluid loos and uptake and playing a key role in making the skin feel soft and look plump.

Sensitive skin occurs when the skin’s natural barrier function is compromised leading to excess trans epidermal water loss (TEWL) which enables free radicals to penetrate the skin and cause harm. This is especially pronounced in facial epidermis, which is thinner and more delicate than on other parts of the body. The epidermis on the face is typically 0.02mm thick whereas elsewhere on the body the average thickness is around 0.1mm. Once the skin’s balance is compromised moisture will be increasingly lost through the skin’s surface.


Sensitive skin is more common in women than men and can be an inherited trait. Skin sensitivity may also change depending on extrinsic and intrinsic circumstances. There is not one but several types of sensitive skin. Various factors, both isolated and combined, can explain the reasons behind this sensitivity. The causes may be:

  • Vascular. Linked to the fragility of blood vessel walls, under the influence of certain external factors like eating spices or drinking alcohol.
  • Environmental. The wind, dryness, the cold or pollution can lead to prickling or burning sensations. Excessive cold reduces the excretion of the skin’s natural oils while excessive heat causes sweating. When the sweat evaporates, it can dry out the skin. Even central heating can dry out the skin and make it more sensitive
  • Contact. Applying something that contains a poorly tolerated ingredient can trigger a skin reaction. This can be the case with hard water for example. Using the wrong products can trigger symptoms immediately or even hours or days later. The more ingredients a product contains, the more likely it is that skin will react to it.
  • Atopic. Skin that suffers from this type of eczema is predisposed to hyper-reactivity.
  • Lack of sleep – the skin repairs itself during the sleep so not getting enough can stress it.
  • Hormonal - changes during puberty, the menstrual cycle, pregnancy or the menopause can all affect skin’s resistance to irritants.
  • Stress – prolonged periods of stress, often accompanied by poor nutrition and reduced fluid intake are known to inhibit the natural functions of the skin meaning that it is unable to repair itself properly.
  • Dehydration – caused by continued exposure to the sun, exercise and not drinking enough fluids
  • Ageing skin – as skin ages the epidermis thins and lipid synthesis is reduced. Declining levels of hyuralonic acid, which hydrates the skin and coenzyme Q10 that energises cells to improve regeneration, can exacerbate sensitive skin
  • Young skin – Babies skin is around one fifth the thickness of adult skin meaning the barrier function is much less so it is highly sensitive to UV rays, chemicals and soaps.


Certain steps are essential to taking care of intolerant skin and skin sensitive to touch and bringing it everyday comfort. It’s essential to keep the skin hydrated to maximise the barrier function and reduce its sensitivity


  • Avoid using products with too many ingredients, especially alcohol, fragrance and some colourants.
  • Cleanse the skin gently using products that respect the physiological balance of the epidermis. Some cleansers strip the skin of its natural oils
  • Avoid chemical peels and exfoliators on already sensitised skin as these can further strip the hydrolipid film on the skin’s surface and leave it exposed to irritants.
  • A soothing toner as the first step to refresh the skin in the morning and to finish off your make-up.


A healthy lifestyle, including getting enough sleep, exercise and dietary changes can play a significant role in reducing skin sensitivity.

Introducing a diet low in sugar and rich in antioxidants such as vitamins A, C and E from fresh fruit and vegetables, can be a transformational skin treatment. Natural plant and fish oils will also help increase the moisture content in skin and keep it healthy. Drinking plenty of fluids, especially water, is essential.

For more information, don’t hesitate to contact your dermatologist.