Don't Make This Common Skin Mistake...

Photographed by Julia Robbs.
Take an informal poll amongst your friends, coworkers, and even strangers on the subway, and you'll likely find that many consider their skin to be "sensitive." Of course, this probably doesn't surprise you: As we've pointed out before, this is an all-too-common issue — as many as 70% of people believe that they have sensitive skin. That leaves the vast majority of them tip-toeing around their complexions like a chronically pissed-off roommate. Not fun.

It makes sense: Even doctors and research scientists are confused about what, exactly, constitutes sensitive skin. A 2006 paper noted that “there is no internationally accepted consensus regarding the criteria which define sensitive skin” and called out 15 years of research for expressing widely differing views on what constitutes sensitive skin. The label of "sensitive skin" has been used to cover reactions caused by everything from environmental factors to topical products, “including breakouts, redness, scaling, etc., a panoply of adverse reactions which is virtually meaningless.”

Translation: “Sensitive skin” is an annoyingly large umbrella. In fact, think of it as an oversized golf umbrella that no one should use on a crowded city street. Yet, in self-describing their skin as "sensitive," more than half of the population is out there wielding one of those huge umbrellas.

Want even more proof that sensitive skin is a bit of a farce? Studies have shown that more women have sensitive skin than men; and in Europe, sensitive skin is most common in Italy and France. How is it possible that a clinical term can be so biased? Because the studies have all relied on self-assessment. But the truth is, those people aren’t always wrong. They just might be seeing a temporary condition as permanent.

The solution? While there's no black-and-white answer, we tapped the experts for three common issues that you may be facing which are leading you to believe your skin is sensitive, while it is, in fact, not.

Three foolproof ways to determine if your skin has been mislabelled all this time...
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Possibility #1: Your Skin Isn't Sensitive, It’s Reactive

Reactive skin is a bit like an average person who got stood up on a Tinder date — not necessarily sensitive, just responding to a messed-up situation.

To wit: Many of us used the wrong product once. In trying to fix things, we might have created a more prolonged issue that we've interpreted as sensitive skin. “The wrong product disrupts your skin barrier,” says NYC dermatologist Fran E. Cook-Bolden, MD. “Then, if you try something else and your barrier is already compromised, you will get further irritation.”

People with truly sensitive skin can’t tolerate many skin-care products and often have a low-level discomfort or irritation, regardless of the weather, says Cook-Bolden.

Instead of trying to overcorrect, you should avoid extremes. “Don’t use hot or cold water, you want to use a tepid temperature,” she says. “Stay away from harsh cleansers, anything with preservatives; you want the lotion with the least number of ingredients in it.”

And while there’s nothing wrong with buying a product that’s labelled “sensitive,” know that the buzzword alone doesn’t mean it’s the most sensitive thing on the shelf — Cook-Bolden notes: “Tons of things are labelled sensitive.” Yep, that’s what happens when folks are convinced they have sensitive skin: The market answers them.

“Even baby products might not be as sensitive as they seem, because they contain fragrances,” says Cook-Bolden. And just because something is “natural” doesn’t mean it’s not an irritant. If you’re having a bout of sensitivity, choose products that dermatologists love, like CeraVe Hydrating Cleanser, Neutrogena Ultra Gentle Daily Cleanser, and Vanicream products (if you can’t find them at the drugstore, try online or special order it through your pharmacy).

The Solution: If you’re a beauty junkie who has experienced flare-ups like this in the past, simplifying your routine and trying only one new product at time is a good rule of thumb. “Patients are susceptible to trying all of the new products on the market,” says Howard Sobel, a New York City dermatologist. “Often, they think that using 'more' is better, which in actuality can lead to sensitivities.”
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Possibility #2: Your Skin Isn't Sensitive, It's Just Changing

Get ready to adopt David Bowie's "Changes" as your skin-care anthem, because that could be what's happening to your complexion as you get older. “Skin changes,” says Cook-Bolden. “I tell my patients that you need to reevaluate what your skin type is at least seasonally." This doesn't mean that you need new products every season, Cook-Bolden says, but you may need to adjust how you use them.

The Solution: That heavy night cream you wear in the summer? In the winter, you may want to wear it during the day, too — especially if you use products with retinols or glycolic acid that make your skin sensitive to cold and wind, says Cook-Bolden.

Translation: As we get older, our skin can seem more sensitive because our lipid barrier changes, so it's key to change along with it in both type and frequency of hydrating and exfoliating — not just chalk it up to "sensitive skin" and resign to break the bank overhauling your entire routine.
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Possibility #3: Your Skin Isn't Sensitive, You've Just Been Using Gentle Products So Long That You (& Your Skin!) Are Just Scared

When you’re overwhelmed in the drugstore aisle, a better-safe-than-sorry mentality can come into play. It's like, "Well, why wouldn't I use the most sensitive formula possible?" The problem? You could be missing out on better skin if you're playing it safe.

If your face can tolerate a stronger product, you might get more out of using a product with more actives. “Sometimes, the sensitive-skin products might be less effective,” says Sobel. “For someone who has a normal or average skin type, they could, most likely, tolerate a higher percentage of additives.”

The Solution: That said, you don’t need to jump into the deep end ASAP. “I am very conservative, so I feel like slow and steady wins the race,” says Cook-Bolden. “If you feel your skin has been challenged, there’s nothing wrong with starting with sensitive product. Over time, though, I’d encourage you to graduate to the next level. You can often benefit from a higher-strength anti-aging product.”

Bigger Isn’t Always Better, Though: “There’s no proof in treating acne that 10% benzoyl peroxide works best; studies have shown that 2.5 works just as well as 5 and 10%.” So, go slow. Your skin may flourish.
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