4 Ingredients Dermatologists Would *Never* Put on Super-Dry, Irritated Skin

Photo: Getty Images/ Pekic
Most people with a dry, red, and irritated complexion assume they have sensitive skin. But according to David Orentreich, MD, a board-certified dermatologist who has acted as the guiding dermatologist for Clinique Laboratories since 1987, what they're likely dealing with is sensitized skin—which is a different beast entirely, and thus requires its own sort of TLC.

What is sensitized skin?

Like sensitive skin, sensitized skin is characterized by a weakened skin barrier that results in redness, flaking, itching, and overall irritation—and because they look so similar, it can be tough to tell them apart. The difference, though, is that while sensitive skin is a genetic condition (if you've ever dealt with eczema, rosacea, or specific allergies to ingredients, you likely fall into this category), sensitized skin comes as a side effect of overdoing it on harsh topicals. So if you've been going big on ingredients like retinol or exfoliating acids (and don't have a history with any of the above conditions), this probably applies to you.

Experts In This Article

"Sensitive skin is really more of a skin type—a chronic potential for skin to be irritated by a multitude of factors, while sensitized skin is typically categorized as a temporary disruption of the skin barrier," says Rachel Nazarian, MD, FAAD, a board-certified dermatologist at Schweiger Dermatology Group in New York City. "There is certainly some overlap, but it helps to recognize that anybody and everybody, no matter how strong your skin is, can experience sensitized skin at some point in their lifetime."

She explains that when your skin barrier is broken, it puts it into a sensitized state, which means that "your skin is unable to defend itself against many other surrounding influences that it would typically be able to withstand."

How to treat sensitized skin

If that's the case, Dr. Nazarian has a few tips for helping to get your skin barrier back in fighting shape. First, you'll want to simplify your routine to include only a fragrance-free gentle cleanser (such as the Dove Beauty Bar) and barrier-repair cream (like the Aquaphor Healing Ointment).

Then, Dr. Orentreich recommends patch testing your products to find out where the sensitization is coming from. When patch testing, look for patterns. If your skin is sensitized, it will return to normal when it's no longer exposed to the chemical.

Ingredients to avoid with sensitized skin

1. Fragrance 

Fragrance is one of the most common offenders for sensitized skin. According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), it is the biggest cause of cosmetic contact dermatitis and can cause reactions such as inflammation and redness.

"When your skin barrier is broken, and you are in a 'sensitized state,' your skin is unable to defend itself against many other surrounding influences that it would typically be able to withstand," says Dr. Nazarian. "So although your perfume, soaps… or friend's cologne would not normally irritate your skin, when it is 'sensitized,' it may actually make your condition worse." With that in mind, fragrance-free formulas are the most effective for keeping skin clear from a chemical reaction.

If you aren't willing to give up those fresh-smelling skincare products, pay attention to the ingredients list. If you see "fragrance," it's typically referring to synthetic fragrances which irritate the skin. Instead, look for products with essential oils, such as rosemary or lavender, which naturally add fragrance to the product and can be less harsh on the skin.

2. Retinol

While retinol is beloved for its ability to speed up cell turnover, stimulate collagen production, and improve the skin's elasticity, this vitamin A derivative can be too abrasive for sensitized skin. If used during a flare-up, it can further weaken the skin's barrier and make it more difficult for the skin to heal naturally, so be sure to lay off your retinoid until your skin has been restored.

3. Acids

If your skin is sensitized, Dr. Nazarian recommends avoiding exfoliating acids, such as glycolic acid, salicylic acid, mandelic acid, and lactic acid. Though these acids can be great for melting away dead skin cells, when the skin barrier is broken, they can be too harsh to allow it to heal properly.

Keep in mind that vitamin C is also technically an acid, so Dr. Nazarian recommends pressing pause on this particular a.m. antioxidant serum, too. To swap in something slightly gentler that will have similar effects on your skin, opt for a niacinamide-infused formula instead.

4. Chemical SPF

Applying daily sunscreen is a crucial part of protecting your skin from sun damage, but if you're using an SPF with chemical filters (such as avobenzone, oxybenzone, ecamsule, and octocrylene), it can potentially cause sensitization, says Dr. Orentreich. Because of this, derms recommend that their sensitized-skin patients trade for a mineral SPF that touts zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide as its protective ingredient because these formulas are less likely to cause irritation. That said, any sunscreen is better than no sunscreen at all, so if you've found one that works for your skin, just keep doing you.

Doubling down on hydrating ingredients can also help. Check out the video below to see which products a dermatologist recommends for restoring your skin barrier.

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