What Is Sensitive Skin?

Your skin is more prone to reactions

Table of Contents
View All

Sensitive skin is a common condition and means your skin is more prone to reactions such as redness and itching. Most people who have sensitive skin notice occasional or frequent itching, burning and stinging of patches of skin. Sensitive skin is very treatable and may require a visit to the dermatologist.

While uncommon, sensitive skin can sometimes be a sign of a more serious condition, such as kidney disease, so it is always a good idea to see your doctor and get it checked out. Together, you will be able to develop a plan that usually includes relieving the itching or pain, treating the cause of the sensitivity and making a plan to protect your skin from irritants in the future.

Dry skin on elbows
 Catherine Falls Commercial / Getty Images

Signs

Signs of sensitive skin come from the breakdown of your skin’s protective barrier. This can be caused by the environment, dehydration, or an underlying condition. Signs include: 

  • Rough, flaky patches
  • Wrinkled, rough texture
  • Redness
  • Swelling
  • Open sores or yellow crust over the skin
  • Peeling skin

Sensitive skin can cause both objective signs and subjective symptoms. Objective signs are physical changes that your doctor can observe, such as redness, swelling or sores. They are changes to your skin’s protective barrier and are easy to observe from an outsider’s perspective.

The subjective symptoms refer to the feelings that sensitive skin can cause, like itching, burning and pain. They are just as real, but only felt or observed by you. 

When No One Can See Your Symptoms

It can be frustrating to experience skin sensitivity with no outward signs. Others may not understand how uncomfortable your condition is, and your doctor may have a harder time determining the cause.

When seeing a doctor, it can be helpful to write down a list of the subjective symptoms you have been experiencing. This will give your dermatologist the full picture and help you receive the right diagnosis. It will also take the pressure off of you when you’re trying to remember every symptom while at your short appointment. 

Causes

If you’re wondering, "Why does my skin hurt?" one of these reasons may be the culprit. 

Contact Dermatitis

Contact dermatitis refers to the inflammation that can occur in your skin when it is exposed to an irritant. When the irritant, such as a strong fragrance in laundry detergent, comes in contact with your skin, it causes minor damage to the surface. In response, your body tries to protect itself from this perceived threat with an immune response.

This is similar to what you experience during an allergic reaction of the skin. Contact dermatitis is a common type of eczema.

Allergy

Dermatitis, or inflammation of the skin, can also be caused by an allergic response. When your skin has an allergic response, it means your immune system is in overdrive. When your skin touches an allergen, such as pollen when pulling weeds, your body tries to protect itself by releasing T-cells. This process can lead to redness and itching.

Rosacea

Rosacea is a skin condition that causes redness and swelling in the face and neck. It can start as flushing of the cheeks and sometimes spread to the ears. Doctors do not have an answer for what causes rosacea, but they know that people who are fair-skinned and have a family history are more at risk. 

Acne 

If you survived your teen years without a bout of acne, then you’re one of the lucky ones. Acne is a skin condition that causes pimples on the skin. It is the most common reason for seeing a dermatologist. There are plenty of myths for what causes it, but acne is triggered when your skin pores are clogged. 

Dry Skin

It turns out the dry winter air may be enough to cause your skin sensitivity. According to the American Academy of Dermatology Association, excessively dry skin can put you at risk for developing another skin condition due to the irritation and itching.

Other Causes

Less common causes of sensitivity can range from age to weather and everything in between. With age, your skin loses moisture and can become dry and cracked, putting you at risk for sensitive skin.

Certain medications, especially ones that treat hypertension, can cause dehydration and thus dry, irritated skin. Hormonal changes, such as those during the menstrual cycle, can also affect the skin. If you have ever received cancer treatment, you might have noticed patches of dry, itchy skin as a side effect.  

As if you didn’t need one more reason to stay away from cigarettes—smoking speeds up skin aging and can lead to premature wrinkles and irritation. Pollution and some cosmetic products can also contribute. 

Women Are More at Risk

Global studies have found that about 50% to 61% of women and 30% to 44% of men have experienced sensitive skin. One theory for why women are more prone to skin sensitivity is differences in skin thickness. Women may also be more at risk for dehydration and dry skin due to hormonal changes. These theories still require further research. 

Serious Conditions

Most cases of sensitive skin can be easily treated, but it’s important to remember that skin irritation can sometimes be a sign of something more serious. Diseases that affect your skin or blood can sometimes manifest as sensitive skin. If you have any concerns about a new patch of sensitive skin, reach out to your doctor right away.

The following conditions may cause sensitive skin:

  • Skin cancer
  • Hodkin lymphoma
  • Kidney disease 
  • Liver disease
  • Shingles
  • Multiple sclerosis 
  • HIV and other autoimmune conditions 

Diagnosis

Your primary care doctor or dermatologist will most likely be able to diagnose your sensitive skin by looking at it. The appointment may even be able to take place virtually on a video chat. Your doctor will also be asking plenty of questions to better understand the causes of your sensitive skin. 

Questions Your Doctor May Ask

You can prepare for answering these questions:

  • Where on your body do you experience skin sensitivity? 
  • Do any of your close relatives have sensitive skin?
  • How long have you noticed skin sensitivity?
  • Does anything make it better?
  • What makes it worse?
  • What types of cosmetic products and laundry detergents do you use at home?
  • Is your skin affected by changes in the weather?

Treatment

There are a wide variety of options for treating sensitive skin, both at home or at the dermatologist’s office. Treatment for sensitive skin usually has three components. The first goal is relief, to get the itching or burning under control. After that, focus on treating the cause of your sensitive skin. This may be best done with your dermatologist. Finally, work on preventing sensitive skin in the future. 

At-Home Treatments

When treating your sensitive skin at home, the first step is usually finding a good moisturizer to provide some temporary relief. A quality, unscented moisturizer can soothe dry skin and hopefully help prevent scratching.

Thick creams are usually better and last longer than lotion. Apply your moisturizer throughout the day and always as soon as you dry off from the shower or washing your hands.

Some of the oldest treatments could also be the best. Your grandmother may have touted oatmeal baths as the secret to soothing sensitive skin, and the research agrees with her.

A 2016 study found that lotions that contain colloidal oatmeal provide clinical improvements in skin dryness and irritation. Using oatmeal lotion can also protect your skin’s barrier, making it less likely to react to environmental irritants such as perfumes or dyes in clothing. 

In addition to trying some at-home remedies, it may be helpful to sit down and come up with a plan for protecting your skin every day. Think through the parts of your day that may cause irritation.

Maybe you’re a nurse and need to wash your hands frequently. Keeping a good hand cream in your pocket at work might help you remember to moisturize throughout your shift. If you work outside, make a plan for how you will cover your skin from the hot sun or cold, dry temperatures.

Make sure to limit hot baths or showers to five minutes, as the hot water could further irritate sensitive skin. When you towel off, gently pat your skin dry, as opposed to rubbing it.

Apply sunscreen any time you’ll be spending time outdoors, even in the winter. If you are ever bothered by certain fabrics rubbing on your skin, opt for loose-fitting clothes. 

When to See a Doctor

When your at-home treatments are not providing relief, it’s time to talk with your doctor. A dermatologist can also help you determine if there is an underlying cause, such as kidney disease, for your sensitive skin. Your doctor will know what questions to ask and what tests to run to move forward. 

If over-the-counter creams have not helped, your doctor may start with a topical steroid for a short period of time. These usually come in the form of a cream or ointment and can be used sparingly.

If you use makeup, your dermatologist may recommend stopping all cosmetics for two weeks, and then adding each product back in one at a time. This will give you a clearer idea if any of your regular products are contributing to your skin sensitivity. 

Taking a probiotic and using a probiotic cream may help restore your skin’s protective barrier, helping it to heal and guard against possible irritants. 

Complications

The American Academy of Dermatology Association recommends seeking treatment for your sensitive skin so that it does not become worse. If you have been experiencing dry or irritated skin, you know how hard it is to not rub or scratch it.

Long-term scratching can make the itchiness permanent and lead to skin infections. Long-term irritation and bleeding can come from scratching your irritated skin. If your sensitive skin bothers you at all, it’s always helpful to ask your doctor for recommendations. 

Word From Verywell

If you have experienced skin sensitivity, you know how frustrating it can be. Fortunately, there are solutions for most of the causes. It’s helpful to remember that a quality moisturizer and a visit with your dermatologist are usually all it takes to find relief. Keep in mind any activities or environmental factors that seem to make your skin feel worse and develop a protection plan. 

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Duarte I, Silveira JEPS, Hafner MDFS, Toyota R, Pedroso DMM. Sensitive skin: Review of an ascending concept. Anais Brasileiros de Dermatologia. 2017;92(4):521-525. doi:10.1590/abd1806-4841.201756111

  2. Fan L, He C, Jiang L, Bi Y, Dong Y, Jia Y. Brief analysis of causes of sensitive skin and advances in evaluation of anti-allergic activity of cosmetic products. International Journal of Cosmetic Science. 2015;38(2):120-127. doi:10.1111/ics.12283

  3. American Academy of Dermatology. Rosacea: Who gets and causes.

  4. American Academy of Dermatology. Acne: Who gets and causes.

  5. American Academy of Dermatology. Dry skin: Who gets and causes.

  6. American Academy of Dermatology. 10 reasons your skin itches uncontrollably and how to get relief.

  7. Ilnytska O, Kaur S, Chon S, Reynertson KA. Colloidal oatmeal (Avena sativa) improves skin barrier through multi-therapy activity. Journal of Drugs in Dermatology: JDD. 2016;15(6):684-690. 

  8. Farage MA. The prevalence of sensitive skin. Frontiers in Medicine. 2019;6. doi:10.3389/fmed.2019.00098