Let's set the scene: After seeing your favorite skincare brand's new exfoliating serum go viral on Instagram, you're influenced to try it. So you head to Sephora, pick up a bottle, and immediately slather it on your face when you get home. The only problem? Instead of smooth, glowy skin like the bottle promises, your face is red, blotchy, and maybe even itchy.
With skincare brands trying to outdo one another by launching products with the highest levels of active ingredients possible, the above scenario is becoming all too common. A 2019 study found that 60 to 70% of women reported having sensitive skin, characterized by the symptoms we listed above.
"I think more people claim to have sensitive skin because they may be overdoing it with skincare products or how they are using products," says Dr. Sheila Farhang, a board-certified dermatologist and the founder of Avant Dermatology in Tucson, AZ. "Stripping our natural oils by over exfoliating, using hot water to wash, rubbing with a towel instead of patting can all cause skin to feel more sensitive."
Many skincare enthusiasts chalk up bad reactions to having sensitive skin, but the reality is that skin might just be sensitized. While sensitive skin and sensitized skin look and feel similar, they're not one and the same. So, how can you tell the difference? We tapped Dr. Farhang, along with Dr. Marisa Garshick, board-certified dermatologist in New York City, help us break it down.
What's the Difference Between Sensitive Skin and Sensitized Skin?
Think of sensitized skin as a temporary situation, while sensitive skin is a skin type that will dictate the ingredients and products used in your routine, like combination or oily skin, for example.
"Sensitive skin refers to a skin type that is easily irritated or reactive, which may lead to redness, flaking, dryness, itching or burning or skin that breaks out," says Dr. Garshick. "Sensitized skin refers to skin that is temporarily reactive as a result of coming into contact with something externally."
Dr. Farhang says sensitized skin can be accompanied by other allergy symptoms. "It may be accompanied by allergy symptoms such as swollen eyes, tears, runny nose, etc.," she says. "It is important to know what the skin is easily triggered by either by keeping a diary or getting a contact allergy patch test with a dermatologist or allergist. Antihistamines may also help with symptoms."
How Can You Tell If You Have Sensitive Skin or Sensitized Skin?
Determining whether you have sensitive or sensitized skin can be tough because as Dr. Farhang says, sensitive skin can be sensitized skin.
Sensitive skin can be easily inflamed,. "Irritation can be triggered by harsh skincare ingredients such as retinoids, lactic acid, etc., as well as chemicals such as preservatives and fragrance," she explains. "Symptoms could be redness, burning and scaling."
Whereas sensitized skin is typically a reaction to specific chemicals like preservatives or dyes, and may cause itching, redness, and scaling.
A board-certified dermatologist can make the final verdict on whether your skin is sensitive and may suggest an allergy test to rule out any specific allergens as triggers.
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How Can You Treat Sensitive Skin and Sensitized Skin?
Both dermatologists stress the importance of using gentle products that also support the skin barrier. Dr. Farhang calls out CeraVe's Hydrating Cleanser and La Roche-Posay Toleriane Double Repair Face Moisturizer as examples of a solid cleanser and moisturizer.
For sensitized skin, avoid any specific triggers. And if you do experience a reaction, Dr. Garshick recommends applying a protective ointment, like Vaseline, on any dry, flaky, or red areas. "If the skin is sensitized, it is best to simplify your skincare routine and avoid harsh active ingredients," she adds. "In some cases it may be necessary to see a dermatologist as sometimes prescription medications may be needed to help reduce inflammation that may be a result of sensitive skin."
It's also helpful to slowly introduce any new products into your routine.
"It is best to perform a patch test to the product to test it out to determine if any reaction occurs prior to applying it all over," Dr. Garshick adds.