“In my clinical experience, the vast majority of these women don’t truly have sensitive skin, but they have skin that has become sensitized to certain ingredients in skin-care products,” says Loretta Ciraldo, MD, FAAD, a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Dr. Loretta Skincare. Sensitive skin means you’ve got a history with eczema, rosacea, or specific allergies to topical products, she says; sensitized skin, on the other hand, is a consequence of using harsh ingredients or topicals that cause irritation, itchiness, redness, or flakiness.
Dr. Ciraldo says that you can tell if you have sensitized skin versus sensitive skin because removing a problematic skin-care ingredient or ingredients will usually help solve whatever skin qualm you’re dealing with. “After a couple of months, you can typically go back to using products you had previously tolerated,” she says. However, if you truly have sensitive skin, irritation, redness, and other issues will persist long after you stop using a specific ingredient.
According to her, problematic ingredients can include sulfates, artificial fragrance, alcohol, or acetone (though she notes that sensitization can also occur from over-use of exfoliants and/or retinol). While you’re repairing your skin and bringing it back to baseline, Dr. Ciraldo says that you really only need to use two skin-care products in your routine: a hydrating cleanser, and a really gentle moisturizer. Keep scrolling for her recommended regimen that she says you should follow for a week or two, depending on how your skin feels.
How to treat sensitized skin
1. Cleanse with a gentle, hydrating cleanser: “Wash with something like Glossier Milky Jelly Cleanser ($18) for a liquid cleanser, or Dove Unscented Beauty Bar ($7) if you prefer a bar,” says Dr. Ciraldo. “Both of these are under $20 and free of the most common potentially sensitizing ingredients.”
2. Slather on a simple moisturizer: “After cleansing, apply a very thin layer of a moisturizer,” says Dr. Ciraldo, who recommends something with a short list of ingredients. Her pick? Dermalogica UltraCalming Barrier Repair ($47), which is “a healthy silicone mixture that’s infused with some beneficial essential oils and deeply penetrating, non-acidic vitamin C.” You could also go with Olay Calming Fragrance-Free Moisturizer ($15), which she loves for its moisturizing B-vitamins, or Aquaphor Healing Ointment ($7), which she says is well-tolerated since it’s “simple and petroleum-based.” After some diligent TLC with this two-part regimen, you’ll be back onto your trusty exfoliants in no time.
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