As it turns out, the labels are meant to appeal to a growing number of people who identify as having sensitive skin. “In the 1980s, only 30% of people believed they had sensitive skin; now that number has grown to 70%,” remarks Dr. Jessica Wu, a Los Angeles dermatologist. We can thank the built-up awareness of sensitivity through labeling, and the fact that skin-care technology has gotten so advanced that most products contain active ingredients, which can cause sensitivity.
But, here's the catch: Sensitive skin is a description, not a diagnosis, so there isn’t a real test for it. Trust us, though, you’ll know if you have reactions. “Sensitivity isn’t an isolated condition, but as a symptom usually caused by an underlying condition like eczema, rosacea, and irritated skin from things like allergies or medications,” explains Dr. Ilyse Lefkowicz, a New York City dermatologist. For example, if you have eczema, your sensitive reaction would be dry, flaky red patches. Rosacea? You’re pretty familiar with redness and flushing. People with acne are often sensitive to the medications they’re on, and they can suffer from burning and dryness.
Truth is, almost everyone will suffer from skin sensitivity at some point in their lives, but knowing the reason for the reaction is more than half the battle. “I always suggest patients with sensitive skin to simplify their skin care routine,” comments Dr. Lefkowicz. “Strip it down to the basics by using gentle cleansers and moisturizers without lots of detergents and fragrances. Then, slowly introduce other agents one at a time.”
If your skin seems to freak out over everything, remember: It's easier to prevent irritation than to treat it. Before using a new product, try patch testing it on your arm before slathering it all over your face to see how your skin reacts. To lessen any irritation, Dr. Wu recommends letting your face dry completely for 20 minutes after washing before applying your skin care. If taking these steps doesn't help, then it may be time to put your face — and the rest of your skin — in a dermatologist's expert hands.
Photographed by Erin Yamagata