Sensitive and intolerant skin: what is it, what causes and how treat it

Sensitive skin is skin that has a strong reaction to external stimuli that do not generally create problems for normal skin types, such as the heat, cold, cosmetics, UV rays, or contact with fabrics.
This is not the same as 
sensitised or allergic skin; rather, its vulnerability to aggression is generally caused by alterations to the barrier function of the epidermis which make it more exposed to potentially irritating agents. The skin then becomes sensitive because its protective barrier has been compromised.

Causes of skin sensitivity

Sensitive skin is an increasingly common condition in industrialised countries around the world, particularly affecting the facial skin of women. It may be the result of a person’s constitution or a temporary condition caused by dermatological problems (seborrhoeic dermatitis, acne rosacea, etc.), or may even be caused by cosmetic dermatology treatments such as laser therapy, peels and pulsed light treatments.

It manifests as sensations of burning, itching or tingling, irritation or the feeling of skin “tightness”.  Frequently it may involve dryness and skin peeling, which are not always signs of sensitive skin per sé, but can be associated with it.

When these sensations are particularly intense, it may be a case of hypersensitive skin. 

Sensitive skin can be a source of discomfort, but it can be managed by following a few important rules:

How can you tell if you have sensitive skin?

People with sensitive or intolerant skin generally describe feelings of:

  • tingling or prickling
  • itching
  • burning
  • skin tightness.

What are the causes of sensitive skin?

The causes have not yet been identified definitively, but the latest dermatological studies suggest the following predisposing factors:

  1. the protective barrier is compromised because the stratum corneum (the outermost layer of the epidermis) has become thinner and less compact, making it more vulnerable to penetration by external substances and aggression from environmental factors;
  2. alterations in certain skin receptors (vanilloid receptors) cause sensations to seem more “acute”.

Moreover, damage to the protective barrier accelerates transepidermal water loss, i.e. a reduction in the water content of the epidermis, thus causing dehydration, dryness and skin peeling.

What are the triggers?

Research into the problem of sensitive skin began in the 1980s, and dermatologists have identified two categories of triggering factors, which are often correlated and coexisting.

  • Physical/environmental factors (such as heat, cold, wind, sunshine and pollution);
  • Chemical factors (the use of medications, cleansers, soaps and cosmetics).

To these we can add certain physiological conditions, such as the menstrual cycle and hormonal fluctuations, for example, and psychological factors such as stress and anxiety.

Read also:
Hypersensitive skin
Allergic contact dermatitis and Irritant contact dermatitis
Atopic Dermatitis

How can you treat sensitive skin?

Sensitive skin can benefit greatly from a daily routine which respects the delicacy of the skin and restores its well-being.

In particular, it needs to be cared for with products formulated without potentially irritating and/or sensitising ingredients and with an emphasis on hydration, protection and restoration.

To find out how best to cleanse and hydrate sensitive skin, read our article: Cleansing and hydrating sensitive skin.