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The truth about sensitive skin


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Photo: Stocksy/Simone Becchetti
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If asked to describe your skin type in one word, “sensitive” might come to mind. (Research shows 50 percent of women categorize their complexion in this way.) But there’s a good chance you don’t have truly sensitive skin since, according to one complexion guru, it’s one of the most misunderstood conditions in the complex world of dermatology.

That’s because redness and reactivity aren’t generally traits that you’re born with, explains Sarah Brown, founder of clean skin-care brand Pai. Rather, she says, it’s environmental factors (not to mention some beauty products themselves—more on that later) that often create and perpetuate issues like these—issues that wouldn’t exist otherwise.

There’s a good chance you don’t have truly sensitive skin since it’s one of the most misunderstood conditions in the complex world of dermatology.

What about products designed for sensitive skin? Well, they’re also a big part of the problem, Brown notes. “More and more companies are marketing themselves to people with ‘sensitive’ skin, when the products aren’t really formulated with that in mind,” she says. “This is dangerous because these products are sensitizing your skin—and if your skin is already sensitized, it’ll keep reinforcing it in an unhealthy cycle.”

In other words, you may be one of the many women unwittingly sabotaging her skin. But don’t stress—this problem is totally fixable.

Keep reading for the low-down on what sensitive skin really is, plus expert tips on how to effectively care for your face, no matter its type.

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Photo: Stocksy/Simone Becchetti
Photo: Stocksy/Simone Becchetti

Sensitive vs. sensitized skin

Brown says there are two kinds of touchy skin—sensitive and sensitized—and 9 out of 10 people who think they’ve got the former are actually dealing with the latter. “Sensitive skin is an inherited or long-term, protracted condition, such as rosacea or eczema,” she explains. “Sensitized skin has undergone a sort of trauma—it’s skin that’s been damaged from a number of things.”

This type of skin tends to be very hot, red, and easily inflamed, according to Brown. The most common sparks that ignite these reactions include medication, sun damage, and—this is a big one—harsh ingredients in beauty products. “Sometimes the issue is that people are not associating their condition with the product they’re using, so they’ll use it for years as the aggravation gets worse,” Brown explains.

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Photo: Stocksy/Daxiao Productions
Photo: Stocksy/Daxiao Productions

Go on a beauty detox

Whichever category your skin may fall under, the first step to healing is understanding. “If you’re reacting to harsh ingredients, remove them and your skin will repair itself, usually within six weeks,” says Brown. A beauty detox or skin diary are two ways of determining whether certain products—or foods!— are friend or foe.

For those with truly sensitive skin, this process is a little more complicated. “If you have a skin condition like eczema, you’re not going to necessarily get rid of it, but you can manage it down to a barely-there state,” says Brown. This also involves minimizing as many triggers as possible, such as spicy foods, sun exposure, caffeine, and certain ingredients in your products. (More on that in a minute.)

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Photo: Stocksy/Michela Ravasio
Photo: Stocksy/Michela Ravasio

Create a routine (but also: be patient)

As far as your routine goes, the gentler, the better—and that’s true for all skin types. “Using kind products with natural, botanical ingredients is a good start,” says Brown. “But increasing fatty acids in your diet can also really help improve your skin from within.” (Another win for avocados.)

To make your beauty regimen as soothing as possible, Brown says the most important things to avoid are preservatives, fragrance (an umbrella term for any number of toxic chemicals), and oil-stripping detergents (like the ubiquitous SLS from the Dirty Dozen cosmetic chemicals list), all of which are common irritants. “Avoid wipes like the plague,” she advises.

Also key? Patience. “[The state of your complexion] is tied to your emotional well-being,” says Brown. “Try not to get stressed, because the more stressed you get, it’ll have an affect on your skin.”

Finally, stick to the philosophy that less is more. “One of the reasons we generally have sensitized skin is because we’re using way more products than our grandmothers did,” says Brown. “The thing is, our skin is a very intelligent organ. You want to use a good regimen that supports your skin rather than suppressing it.” So be smart, not sensitive.

Let’s talk about skin-shaming—yes, it’s a thing, and this editor is so over it. And if you’re looking for some confidence, try this seven-day self-love reset