Sensitive skin 101

“Three-quarters of my patients call their skin sensitive,” says Joshua Zeichner, MD, assistant professor of dermatology at The Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, “and treating skin too aggressively is one main reason why.” Even if you’re not intending to, you could be overwhelming your skin: The average woman uses 12 different products with 168 unique ingredients every day, according to research from the Environmental Working Group in Washington D.C. All that on top of the usual stressors—pollution, hormonal changes, anxiety—and it’s no wonder derms are seeing an increase in sensitive skin complaints such as breakouts, redness, rashes, and extreme dryness. Need relief? Check out these strategies for calming your complexion.


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Sensitive skin complaint #1: Red blotches

Think you’ve got them? When you see blood vessels, bumps, enlarged oil glands, and thick skin on the nose, cheeks, and chin, all signs point to rosacea, a condition that affects more than 16 million Americans. People with rosacea flush easily, thanks to facial blood vessels that become dilated, drawing blood closer to the surface, says Leslie Baumann, MD, a dermatologist in Miami and author of The Skin Type Solution.

What to do: Seek out soothing soap-free ingredients that also act as anti-inflammatories, such as licorice, algae, and colloidal oatmeal. Forgo rough facials, steer clear of spa treatments like chemical peels and microdermabrasion, and avoid acidic skin-care ingredients, including glycolic acid and, surprisingly, vitamin C. Tweaking your diet may help, too. While spicy foods can exacerbate redness, “eating foods rich in probiotics—such as yogurt with live cultures—can prevent skin sensitivity, redness, and itching by blocking the release of inflammation-causing chemicals,” says Whitney Bowe, MD, a dermatologist in New York City.


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Best products for red blotches

Soothe flare-ups with First Aid Beauty Ultra Repair Instant Oatmeal Mask ($22;

The green-tinted formula of L’Oréal Paris Magic Skin Beautifier BB Anti-Redness Cream ($7; neutralizes splotches and keeps skin looking even all day.

Applied after cleansing, PCA Skin Anti-Redness Serum ($58;, which contains red and brown algae and calming chamomile, reduces inflammation; its glycerin provides a shot of moisture.

The licorice-laced Eucerin Redness Relief Soothing Cleanser ($10; combats blotchiness without drying out your skin.


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Sensitive skin complaint #2: Allergic reactions

Think you’ve got them? Skin freak-outs that arrive at lightning speed are typically an immune response to something that doesn’t agree with your system, says Neal Schultz, MD, a dermatologist in New York City and creator of the skin-care line Beauty Rx. Constantly flaring up? That’s often caused by genetic abnormalities in your skin’s barrier function, according to research from the University of Vienna and the University of California, San Francisco. Translation: If Mom’s skin erupts when exposed to certain products, yours could, too.

What to do: Ease symptoms with a homemade milk compress: Soak a cloth in equal parts warm water and milk, then place on irritated areas. Aloe and over-the-counter cortisone cream are also helpful. Sidestep sugary foods, which have been linked to inflammation, and toss more zinc-rich items (beans, cashews) into your grocery cart.


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Best products for allergic reactions

Sensitive skin complaint #3: Super-dry skin

Think you’ve got it? If your face feels tight and has a sandpapery texture, it could be dry—or simply dehydrated. Dehydrated skin is exactly what it sounds like: a complexion lacking water, says Karen Kim, MD, a dermatologist in Chesnut Hill, Mass. It could be a result of your diet, the weather, or the products you’re using. (Too much alcohol in a product is a common culprit.) But dehydrated skin is a temporary condition, whereas dry skin is a type—the one you’re born with. Dry skin doesn’t produce enough oil, so it’s always in need of a dose of moisture. And when dryness peaks, skin cells can start to lift, causing irritation and itchiness.

What to do: If you wash your skin twice a day, consider doing so just at night, with a gentle soap-free cleanser. And keep your skin-care regimen simple, says Dr. Kim: “No toner, astringent, or products that contain alcohol.” Don’t attempt to scrub away any flakes; harsh exfoliants can worsen the problem. Instead, layer on a mega-hydrating cream that has ceramides, a peptide complex, and niacinamide. And be generous, advises Dr. Kim: “I tell my patients with dryness to apply emollients two or three times a day.” Overnight masks—used once a week—can also pack a potent hydration punch.

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Best products for super-dry skin

Garnier Skin Active Micellar Cleansing Water ($9; is an H20-free cleanser that absorbs dirt and oil without leaving skin parched.

Elizabeth Arden Ceramide Overnight Firming Mask ($88; delivers ceramides to hydrate your skin while you sleep.

CeraVe Skin Renewing Night Cream ($15; supports skin elasticity, thanks to its peptide complex.

Neutrogena Hydro Boost Gel-Cream Extra-Dry Skin ($15; contains the moisturizing heavyweight hyaluronic acid.

Sensitive skin complaint #4: Breakouts

Think you’ve got them? Even though you’re well beyond puberty, pimples pop up the way they did before the prom. What gives? Acne occurs for a number of reasons, including stress, lack of sleep, overactive oil glands, and exposure to comedogenic (pore-clogging) products—but sensitive skin types are particularly susceptible because they’re naturally prone to inflammation.

What to do: Take note of when you break out—are there situations or products that bring on blemishes? If you get pimples after wearing a specific makeup product, say, stop using it (obviously) and scrutinize the ingredient list for suspects that could be to blame. Stick with a mild cleanser, then spot-treat with salicylic acid—it not only helps unplug clogged pores but is also less irritating than benzoyl peroxide, which can be harsh on sensitive skin. Treatments with sulfur, which draws oil out of blocked pores and inhibits breakouts, can also be worked into your regimen. Don’t forget to moisturize, and be sure to follow with SPF. Finally, consider spacing out your trips to the sushi bar: “Eating a lot of iodine, found in shellfish and spinach, can lead to acne by clogging hair follicles,” says Dr. Schultz.


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Best products for breakouts

Elta MD UV Clear SPF 46 ($30; is made with 5% niacinamide to reduce acne.

Olay Foaming Face Wash for Sensitive Skin ($15 for 2; has 0.5% salicylic acid to fend off breakouts without stripping skin.

Mario Badescu Drying Mask ($18; uses sulfur to dry up breakouts and calamine to help prevent irritation.

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