Is there really anything more uncomfortable than dealing with dry, itchy, or irritated skin? Even the short-lived annoyance of a bug bite can really drive you to the brink of insanity.

But when your skin is constantly under threat of breaking out or diving into a rash, you live your life in fear, trying to avoid anything that may trigger another reaction or attack.

What Causes Sensitive Skin?

Anyone can have a reaction to a product or specific ingredient from time to time, but people with persistent issues are classified as having sensitive skin. It refers to a range of conditions from ailments like rosacea and eczema to severe allergies. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, it affects millions of people.

The skin barrier typically does a good job of not letting molecules and irritants pass through, but sensitive skin tends to be more permeable than normal skin. This is a problem because natural moisture escapes faster than it should (transepidermal water loss, or TEWL), and harsh ingredients in your products and cosmetics can penetrate into your skin more readily.

How Do You Know Your Skin is Sensitive?

There are a series of annoying issues that may arise if you have sensitive skin. If you notice any of these signs, you may want to dig deeper (but don't scratch!). There are ways to help alleviate some of your discomfort if you know what you're dealing with.

You may have sensitive skin if:

  • Your Skin Is Itchy. Your skin often feels itchy and too tight, like it doesn't fit. This can be especially true after cleansing with products that are too harsh or using hot water. You especially tend to scratch more when it's cold and dry.
  • You're Prone To Breakouts. Your skin may breakout in episodes that look like acne, yet acne products designed to combat the problem only make your condition worse.
  • You Suffer From Redness. People with sensitive skin usually deal with some amount of redness in the form of a rash, bumps, blushing, flushing, or red dilated blood vessels (telangiectasias). It will usually go away when you remove the irritant, or with minor treatment, but sometimes it can persist.
  • You Have Rashes - Often. You may get dry, flaky, red, bumpy rashes that develop quickly with certain triggers.
  • Your Skin Is Reactive. Certain things that you encounter on a daily basis may cause your skin to go into reactive overdrive. Some common triggers you may run into include: soaps, fragrances, skincare products, detergents, perfumes, or household products. Other natural forces may also send your skin into a tizzy, like exposure to cold, wind, or sun.
  • Your Skin Is Dry. It's tough to say which came first: the dryness or the sensitivity. People with sensitivity are often dry, and dry skin doesn't protect your touchy nerve endings very well, making them sensitive.
  • The Sun Is NOT Your Friend. Sensitive skin makes you more susceptible to the sun's harmful effects, especially if you're already irritated and peeling.
  • You Feel Stinging and Burning. This may be especially true when you apply products that are too strong for your skin.
  • Your Skin Flakes and Peels. This is particularly true if your skin is dry. It often looks like dandruff.

How Can You Care For Sensitive Skin?

Dermatologists agree that one contributing factor for patients claiming to have sensitive skin is that they are treating their skin too aggressively. You could be overwhelming your skin and not even know it, since the average woman uses 12 different products with 168 unique ingredients every day, according to the Environmental Working Group in Washington D.C. Couple that with everything else your skin is forced to deal with, like pollution, hormonal changes, emotional stress, and poor habits. No wonder your skin wants to develop strange symptoms and break out!

You can't always completely avoid waking the beast, but you can follow these steps to make sure that you keep your skin as happy as possible.

  1. Be careful with your routine, especially if you have dry skin. Opt for a gentle, soap-free cleanser and keep your routine simple. Steer clear of toners, astringents, and any other products that contain alcohol. Avoid harsh exfoliants, which can worsen the problem. Choose your products carefully. Read your ingredients list, and utilize a good quality lineup designed to be gentle on your skin. Seek those that contain anti-allergenic, anti-inflammatory, and anti-irritation ingredients. Avoid the big no-no's; use products that are 100% free from parabens, phthalates, sulfates, artificial dyes, and any known cancer-causing ingredients. Opt for a soap-free cleanser, keeping your routine simple.
  2. Pay attention to what you eat. Spicy foods can exacerbate redness, but "eating foods rich in probiotics -such as yogurt with live cultures - can prevent skin sensitivity, redness, and itching by blocking the release of inflammation-causing chemicals," says Whitney Bowe, MD, a dermatologist in New York City. Healthy eating habits flush out toxins, so be sure to drink lots of water and fresh juices to stay hydrated. Sugary foods have been linked to inflammation, so they are to be avoided if you are prone to allergic reactions.
  3. Listen to your skin. Take note when it reacts so you can figure out what could have triggered it. Know what products or cleaning agents you should avoid in the future. A good bet is to avoid fragrances and perfumes. Learn what cleaning products are sensitive skin friendly.
  4. Support your skin. Topical probiotic products help to strengthen the skin's natural defense mechanisms, making it more resistant to damage from environmental stressors by forming a protective shield on the skin's surface. The good bacteria helps to strengthen the skin's immune system, speeding up repair.
  5. Watch your habits. Smoking, stress, lack of sleep, and alcohol consumption can cause sensitive skin to flare up.
  6. Try topical products for instant relief of symptoms. Topical antihistamines help to relieve itching and reduce inflammation for allergies, and hydrocortisone cream can do the same for contact dermatitis. A cool oatmeal bath can soothe burning skin.

You only have the skin you are in, so you should feel comfortable in it! With a little adjustment in your routine, you'll be taking care of your sensitive skin so you can get on with enjoying your life!