If You Think You Have Sensitive Skin, You Probably Don’t

“True sensitive skin is a genetic predisposition and can be thought of as a built-in case,” she says. It’s found in individuals with very fair skin, usually of Northern European ancestry. This kind of skin is more delicate in make-up, with lower amounts of pigment and blood vessels that are closer to the surface of the skin, making it prone to redness, she explains.

Sensitive skin has a less effective protective outer layer on the skin’s surface—which is known as the epidermis—so irritants like allergens and microbes can more easily penetrate skin and reach more deeply, causing reactionary inflammation. Skin itches, scales, blisters, flushes, and breaks out under conditions that wouldn’t bother regular skin types.

Caring for truly sensitive skin means playing it safe. Hammerman recommends skipping products containing alcohol, beta hydroxy acids, and retinoids. Lanolin, used in many moisturizers to soften skin, can cause allergic reactions, as can common preservatives that extend a product’s shelf life, like parabens and quaternium-15.

“It’s best to always use fragrance-free products [if you have sensitive skin],” says Hammerman. Also, avoid formaldehyde that can be found in nail polish and perfumes that will irritate skin. (A good way to know if you’re sensitive to ingredients in a product is to test it on your forearm by applying and leaving it on for 24 hours—if there’s no redness, itching, or blistering in that time frame, it’s safe.)

Non-aggravating cleansers can be especially difficult for truly sensitive skin types to find. Hammerman recommends Dove Sensitive Skin Beauty Bar ($7 for six, walmart.com) and Dove Sensitive Skin Body Wash ($6, walmart.com). “They’re gentle, mild cleansers that won’t strip skin of its natural mositurizers and work actively to replenish the skin barrier that has become thin,” she says.

Meanwhile, sensitized skin occurs due to environmental effects and is “a growing phenomenon,” says Hammerman. It happens due to a number of factors, including over-exfoliation, cosmetic treatments like chemical peels and laser devices, exposure to stress, chemicals, smoking, alcohol, and pollution.

Fortunately, sensitized skin is a lot easier to calm than clinically sensitive skin. If you notice that certain products, ingredients, or procedures are the cause, you have to allow the skin barrier to build back up. So switch to gentle cleansing with anti-inflammatory products formulated for sensitive skin and hydrate plentifully. “As is the treatment guide for sensitive skin, the ‘less is more’ principle applies here, too,” says Hammerman.