When we experience redness, itching, or other irritation, we often just assume we have sensitive skin. But that actually may not be the case. What we think is sensitive skin might just be skin that has become sensitized. So what’s the difference between sensitive and sensitized skin, and why does it matter?
It’s helpful to know a little bit about what we commonly call sensitive skin. Studies show that 60 to 70 percent of women and 50 to 60 percent of men report having “sensitive” skin. That is, we report having persistent feelings of itching, burning, stinging, tightness, and/or dryness. But do half of us really have sensitive skin? Probably not, and here’s why.
Sensitive skin is in our genes—you can think of it as a skin type. If our skin is genetically sensitive, the stratum corneum (a fancy name for its outer layer) is not as effective in doing its important job of locking in moisture and blocking out allergens and other environmental irritants. This sensitive skin type is prone to irritation and will often experience chronic inflammatory skin conditions such as eczema, rosacea, and psoriasis.
Sensitized skin is a skin condition, not a permanent, genetically-determined skin type. But the symptoms are often similar and sensitized skin can affect any of us at any time.
Oftentimes, external factors are to blame. Anyone can experience sensitized skin as a result of lifestyle, pollution, and other environmental stressors—everything from chronic stress, smoking, alcohol and poor diet, to too much time in a hot bath or shower.
The wrong skin care routine can also be a big contributor to sensitized skin. Using products that don’t suit your skin can cause irritation, regardless of your skin type.
What’s irritating you
- Bar soaps: Many bar soaps are filled with skin-stripping sulfates. They can also have a high pH that can compromise our skin’s protective acid mantle.
- Alcohol: Recent studies have shown that alcohol not only dries out our skin, but also ages and compromises it in numerous other ways, including disrupting our skin’s vital microbiome. So avoid products with SD alcohol, denatured alcohol, and isopropyl alcohol whenever possible.
- Fragrance: Added fragrances are often a cocktail of sensitizing substances that can irritate and damage our skin. Worse, because they are considered “trade secrets,” many companies do not even list a fragrance’s complete ingredient list. Natural is also not a free pass, as many essential fragrance oils can also sensitize and irritate our skin.
- Physical exfoliants: Products with harsh abrasives also punish our skin. Physical abrasives such as aluminum oxide crystals, walnut shells (hello, St.Ives!), fruit pits, or pumice can create micro-tears in our skin. But remember, it’s not just ingredients! Even your wash cloth can be too harsh for your thin, facial skin. And a scrub mitt or favorite loofah can also leave the skin on your body sensitized.
- Chemical exfoliants: Alpha and Beta Hydroxy Acids are often touted as gentler on the skin than physical exfoliants. But we’ve heard countless stories of users new to these ingredients seeing quick results and then going overboard. Always easy into it, and always start with a low concentration of active ingredients used at a lower frequency—NOT every night. We don’t care what the box says. Otherwise, it’s easy to go from skin that’s healthy to skin that’s raw and irritated.
What to Do
Whether our skin is sensitive or just sensitized, certain steps can help our skin heal and recover its healthy glow. As always, drink plenty of water, eat a healthy diet, and stay consistent with exercise and other stress-reducing activities. When it comes to skin care there are a few best practices:
First, when washing your face, limit long, hot showers or ice-cold rinses—lukewarm is the ideal. Try to avoid products with fragrances, and seek out mild, nourishing ingredients. If you’re exfoliating, limit the use of abrasive ingredients and get to know chemical exfoliants. Make sure to only use them a couple times a week, depending on the strength and your skin’s tolerance.
Finally, since dryness can play a key role in sensitizing our skin, moisturizing is always a vital step in our daily skincare routine. During the day, choose a physical sunscreen that contains ingredients such as titanium dioxide and/or zinc oxide, which is the kindest for sensitized skin. These ingredients are not only easier on the skin but also better for your body and the planet.
Ready, set, soothe
Whether you’re dealing with sensitive or sensitized skin, avoiding ingredients that will strip or dry out your skin and choosing ones that will nourish and protect is critical. The list of ingredients that fall into either camp is pretty extensive and what you need depends on a lot more than your skin type.
That’s where we come in. At Kura, we understand that everyone’s skin is unique. That’s why we use your skin profile to identify the best products and ingredients for your unique needs and budget. To get started with smooth and soothed skin, head to kuraskin.com. We’ll take care of the rest.