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7 Signs You Have Sensitive Skin

Brandith Irwin, MD - Blogs
By Brandith Irwin, MDBoard-certified dermatologistJune 06, 2016
From the WebMD Archives

“Sensitive skin” isn’t actually a medical diagnosis – it’s a common sense one. If you’re wondering if your skin is sensitive, start by asking yourself:

  • Have you had more than 3 or more reactions to a skin care product like soaps, lotions, creams, shampoos, etc.?
  • Have you had any reactions to sunscreens?
  • Do you develop itching with skin or hair care products?
  • Are you very careful when trying new products because you’ve had bad experiences in the past?
  • Are you sensitive to fragrances?
  • Have you had reactions to prescription medications that are creams/lotions/gels etc.?
  • Do you have a history of allergies, asthma, eczema or hay fever? If yes, this alone does not qualify you, but, statistically, you do have a higher chance of skin allergies or irritation.

If you’ve answered “yes” to several of these questions, you probably do have sensitive skin.

Note that there’s a difference between skin that gets easily irritated, aka “sensitive skin,”and skin that’s truly allergic. A true allergic reaction occurs when your immune system gets activated against certain ingredients in the product causing redness, bumps, itching, burning and even hives.

With sensitive skin, the problem may not be the specific ingredient or product itself, but how much of it you’re using. For example, if you have fairly normal skin and use a harsh scrub on it daily, you will get very irritated (red, even eczema) but that doesn’t mean you’re allergic to the scrub.

This same concept applies to products – especially acidic ones. You may be fine with a Vitamin C serum that’s 10% but get irritated with one that is 20%. The same goes for certain glycolic products. But you’re not truly allergic to it – you’re just irritated by it. You may be able to use it just fine in a different formulation.

If you have sensitive skin, here are some steps you can take to reduce problems:

  • Choose, in general, products that say they are for sensitive skin.
  • Remember that short ingredient lists are good – the more chemicals, the higher the chance you may have a reaction.
  • In general, organic skincare products have fewer chemicals. Remember, though, that plant extracts may still cause skin allergies.
  • If a product makes your skin itch or burn, or seems to make your skin worse, stop using the product and call your doctor.
  • If you have a rash, keep the affected area completely out of the sun and covered. If it’s your face, wear a large, brimmed hat. See your doctor!
  • In general, it’s not a good idea put home or drugstore cream remedies like cortisones, lidocaine creams, Benadryl creams, or antibiotic ointments on a rash, unless you’ve seen your doctor. Drugstore creams have chemicals, too, and may make the rash worse.
  • If you know you tolerate them, drugstore antihistamine tablets like Zyrtec, Benadryl, Claritin, etc. may be helpful while you are waiting to be seen by your doctor.

If you do get a rash:

  • Call your dermatologist. They may be able to help you figure out which product or which ingredient is causing you trouble.
  • Your dermatologist may want to do a “patch test” to check for allergies. In patch testing, small patches containing the possible allergic substances are placed on the back and left in place for about 72 hours. These are then ‘read’ by the doctor, and if you show positive for any allergies, you will be given information on how to avoid them in the future.
  • Remember that anytime there is a rash, the skin can also become infected. Infections, especially bacterial infections like staph or MRSA, can be dangerous and need to be taken seriously. If you suspect an infection, see your doctor promptly so that they can do a culture and get you started on antibiotics if needed.
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About the Author
Brandith Irwin, MD

Brandith Irwin, MD, is a board certified dermatologist and founder of Madison Skin & Laser Center in Seattle, Washington. She is also Co-Founder of SkinTour.com a website focused on accurate consumer education on nonsurgical, aesthetic procedures and products. Through her books and website, Dr. Irwin is dedicated to educating people about skin care in the context of a global conversation about beauty, self-esteem and inclusiveness.

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