What Does Sensitive Skin Mean, Really?

Similarly to dry skin and dehydrated skin, sensitive and sensitized skin are two terms that tend to get mixed up. We’ve all likely experienced some form of skin sensitivity at one time or another, whether it be inflammation, itchiness, stinging, or flakiness, but distinguishing whether you have a sensitive skin type or are temporarily sensitized is step one to remedying that discomfort. Scientist, formulator, and skin health expert Cheryl Woodman explains their differences—plus the types of skincare to shop for if you have sensitive skin. 

Sensitive Vs. Sensitized 

Sensitive Skin
Sensitive skin’s technical definition is “the occurrence of unpleasant sensations (stinging, burning, pain, pruritus, and tingling sensations) in response to stimuli that normally should not provoke such sensation.” Not unlike dryness or oiliness, sensitive skin is a skin type that is determined by genetics. Woodman explains that there are two major causes for having sensitive skin: a genetically reduced barrier function and/or a hyperactive immune function. 

“Naturally, skin prevents environmentally-triggered sensitivity by forming a healthy defense system created by fatty acids, ceramides, and cholesterol—plus a balanced pH level.” When skin barrier health is compromised, she adds, “environmental allergens, bacteria, and pollution particles can penetrate skin fast, causing sensitivity.” Certain genes can also contribute to a hyper-reactive immune function, which means the body’s natural defenses go into “attack mode” for substances that are actually harmless. If you struggle with allergies you know this phenomenon well; it can also cause skin to be inherently prone to inflammation.

Sensitized Skin
Sensitized skin, on the other hand, is a “temporary skin state caused by a specific skincare ingredient or product breaking a threshold level for irritation or allergenicity”, according to Woodman. Any skin type can become sensitized due to a variety of factors, but some common culprits include pollution, excess UV ray exposure, harsh weather, hormones, stress, over-exfoliation and, of course, a reaction to an ingredient your skin doesn’t agree with. 

How Do I Know If I Have Sensitive or Sensitized Skin?

Despite their differences, both forms of sensitivity tend to show up on skin in similar ways. If you have sensitive or sensitized skin, you may notice:
  • Inflammation
  • Frequent flushing and blushing 
  • Stinging, burning, or tingling
  • Itchiness, flakiness, or peeling
  • Discoloration (red, purple, or gray) 
  • Dryness
  • Pimple-like bumps 

The best way to determine whether you have sensitive skin or sensitized skin is to consider whether skin’s irritation is ongoing or temporary. Sensitive skin types have experienced symptoms their entire life and may also have inflammatory conditions such as eczema, psoriasis, or rosacea. While anyone can have sensitive skin, those with a fair complexion often fall under this category since the lack of pigment in their skin makes them more susceptible to a weakened barrier

If you sometimes notice sensitivity or feel as if your skin has become more sensitive in recent years, it’s likely just temporarily sensitized. Have you added a new product to your routine? Are you exfoliating too often? Did you recently move to a more polluted environment or a different climate? Unlike a sensitive skin type, with a little TLC sensitized skin can be restored.

Ingredients to Use (And Avoid) If You Have Sensitive Skin

We mentioned that there’s no true “treatment” for sensitive skin, but you can still opt for ingredients that may alleviate symptoms (or avoid ones that could exacerbate them). Here are some to consider adding to your routine.  Particularly if you’re sensitive, always introduce new products one at a time and consider performing a patch test on a small area of skin before diving in.

Barrier-Strengthening Ingredients
Like we mentioned earlier, a weakened moisture barrier is often the cause of a sensitive skin type. Incorporating barrier-strengthening ingredients (such as antioxidants) into your routine will protect skin from damage while humectants can restore any moisture loss. Woodman specifically recommends colloidal oatmeal, which contains soothing, anti-inflammatory agents like lipids, beta-glucan, and fatty acids. This form of oat milk is what makes our Gentle Cycle Milky Cleanser optimal for sensitive skin types (dry and acne-prone, too). 

pH-Balanced Formulas
Speaking of barrier function, sensitive skin types should also pay attention to their products’ pH, especially when it comes to cleansers and toners. Because skin tends to run fairly acidic, products that are too basic, like soap, can throw skin’s pH out of whack and cause increased sensitivity. Swipe on Baby Cheeks after cleansing to rebalance skin’s pH. Its bamboo extract is a humectant too, which will hydrate and leave skin velvety-soft.

Gentle Exfoliants
Sensitive skin types often shy away from scrubs because they feel irritating, but exfoliation is the key to removing dead skin buildup from pores—along with evening out texture and tone. If you’re super sensitive, try swapping to a gentler physical exfoliator like Day Maker. It uses uniform microcrystalline (a more gentle, biodegradable alternative to microbeads) to buff away dead skin cells without the rough or gritty texture.

Or you could opt for chemical exfoliation, which uses ingredients like AHAs to dissolve the bonds between dead skin cells and the surface of skin. Lactic acid is a particularly great AHA for those with sensitive skin types or inflammatory conditions as it’s both gentle and humectant. Both lactic acid and allantoin (another recommendation from Woodman) can be found in The Shortcut Overnight Facial, a gentle treatment designed for all skin types. Note: Doctor’s Visit Resurfacing Mask, on the other hand, is a type of chemical exfoliation that is not recommended for those with sensitive skin.

Besides incorporating these ingredients, scale back on the following if you’re skin skews sensitive or is currently sensitized:

Highly Active Ingredients
As effective as they are, active ingredients such as retinol and vitamin C can sometimes be troublesome for sensitive skin types. There are, however, alternatives if these ingredients don’t work for you. Niacinamide, for example, can be used to treat hyperpigmentation and brighten under eye circles. If you’re looking for an alternative to retinol, try bakuchiol or arophira to get similar results without the irritation. Both of these alternates can be found in our Gentle Retinol Serum, which is specifically designed for sensitive skin and first-time retinol users.

Woodman notes that fragrance is an ingredient to  keep an eye out for if you’re struggling with sensitivity. The FDA does not require brands to disclose what ingredients are found in an artificial fragrance or perfume, meaning there could be numerous allergens and irritants covertly stored in a product’s formula. Your best bet is to avoid artificial fragrance altogether by shopping unscented products. All Versed formulas are made without synthetic fragrance and perfumes. The following products are also free from essential oils, if you’re avoiding those:

  • Baby Cheeks
  • Find Clarity
  • Found the Light
  • Guards Up
  • Gentle Cycle
  • Just Breathe
  • Photos, Please
  • Press Restart
  • Silk Slip
  • Skin Soak
  • Stroke of Brilliance
  • Weekend Glow

Mixing and Matching Ingredients
Certain ingredients play well together while others do not. Even if you understand what ingredients can be layered together, there is always some potential for irritation if you start playing chemist, particularly if you’re sensitive. For example, generally retinol and vitamin C make a great combo however, this pairing can irritate some complexions depending on the retinol and vitamin C used. Instead of mixing and matching, look for products that already formulate these ingredients together.

Shop products for sensitive skin below.