Is Your Skin Actually Reactive?

sensPhotographed by Winnie Au.
In the world of skin care, no words are thrown around more than sensitive and reactive. But, between the myriad of products claiming to be ideal for sensitive skin and every person who has ever felt the slightest tickle claiming their skin is reactive, it can be hard to tell exactly where you fall on the spectrum. "Sensitive skin is not all or nothing," says Dr. Craig Kraffert, board-certified dermatologist and president of Amarte. "There are varying degrees of sensitivity. And, at the end of the day, everyone's skin becomes sensitive at a certain threshold."
The main thing about sensitivity is it's not caused by an allergic reaction — it's actually a completely different phenomenon. "There is some overlap in some ways, but a classic allergic reaction looks like poison ivy," he says. "It comes on very suddenly and is blistery, red, and itchy." Kraffert also claims it's near-impossible to mix up an allergic reaction with a sensitivity. "If you've had a reaction like this, you'd know it," he says. Luckily, ingredients that are common allergens in skin care (like formaldehyde) are being phased out of products more and more.
So, how about sensitivity? "When people talk about having sensitive skin, they have a low threshold for developing irritant reactions," he said. Instead of the full-on poison-ivy-like breakout, guys and gals with sensitive skin will experience a slow breakout that will build over time. "You'll see inflammation, and there will be a slight breakdown and swelling of the epidermis," Kraffert says.
Some people are more sensitive to certain skin-care items because they have poor barrier function. But, says the derm, "Most products, unless they're trying to rejuvenate the skin — like a peel or a heavy-duty anti-aging product — aren't going to trigger a reaction." Common ingredients that cause sensitivity are benzoyl peroxide, glycolic acid, and retinols, but reactions can also be set off by harsh scrubs. That said, it's not always the ingredients themselves that cause a reaction. "If you're washing your skin with hot water, that alone can set off a reaction," Kraffert says.
The biggest misconception people run into regarding sensitivities is when they confuse acne-prone skin with reactive skin. "A lot of people will say, 'My skin is sensitive — I break out easily,' but these are two completely different things," Kraffert says. "Sensitive means 'easily irritated or inflamed.' Acne isn't a sensitive-skin thing." So, if a product breaks you out, that isn't an irritant reaction — it just means you're acne-prone.
Ultimately, everyone's skin can become sensitive at some point, so it's important to patch-test any new products — especially if they're known irritants. "Your skin's barrier function is kind of like a brick wall," Kraffert explains. "Everyone can break down that wall if they push it too far." Testing your limits and getting in touch with your skin is the first step toward recognizing which lotions and potions may be good for you. So, instead of burning cash on bottles that will set you off, you can return to the important task of getting your face balanced and calm. And, isn't that really what we're all after?

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