It’s one thing when a mask or a toner burns, but a whole other when your moisturizer—the one product with a sole purpose of keeping your skin comfortable!—does. What starts as a little tingle turns into a sting, and within a few seconds that sting turns into a full on wildfire across your cheeks. Et tu, Brute? The problem, of course, is that when your moisturizer turns on you it’s hard not to feel hopeless about skincare in general. But before you throw out all your skincare, consider this: particularly if your skin is sensitized (more on that below), a healing, nourishing, skin barrier-friendly moisturizer is the first step to making sure other things don’t leave your skin red and raw. Not every moisturizer is made with the same ingredients, so not every moisturizer will hurt. It’s all about finding the right one.
Because sensitive skin is such a complicated topic, it’s good to come at it from a few angles. We’ve got three: one from a dermatologist, one from an aesthetician, and one from a regular person reporting from the front lines of sensitive skin. The advice, fortify your skin’s protective barrier and avoid potential irritants, is more or less the same. But, as those with sensitive skin probably know, it’s easier said than done. Here—they’ll explain.
Dr. Loretta Ciraldo, a Miami-based board certified dermatologist with over 40 years of experience
“Some studies estimate that up to 70-percent of women report having sensitive skin. In my clinical experience, the vast majority of these women don't truly have sensitive skin but instead have skin that has become sensitized to certain ingredients in skincare products. I reserve the diagnosis of sensitive skin for someone who has a long history of skin rashes like eczema, specific allergies to topically applied ingredients (diagnosed by a skin patch test), or rosacea confirmed by a biopsy. More than half of the people I see who come in saying they have sensitive skin end up being able to manage it without prescriptions.
If your skin starts to feel like it’s burning after using a product, go through its ingredients. The most common sensitive culprits are ethyl alcohol, t-butyl alcohol, alcohol, artificial fragrance, parfum, parabens, and acetone. The great news is that once these are eliminated from your routine, you can often bring your skin back to a more healthy, comfortable state.”
Dr. Loretta’s picks:
EltaMD Laser Balm Post-Procedure Healing Ointment: Based on simple petrolatum and tolerated by post-laser skin, which is extremely sensitized
Aquaphor Healing Ointment: Also mostly petrolatum, inexpensive, and formulated without sensitizing ingredients
Dermalogica UltraCalming Barrier Repair: Basically a healthy silicone mixture
Olay Calming Facial Moisturizer, Fragrance-Free: Front loaded with moisturizing and anti-irritant B vitamins
Dr. Loretta Anti-Aging Repair Moisturizer: Formulated with ingredients to protect skin from pollution, light, irritants and the drying effects of climate controlled environments
“Having sensitive skin is seen as a genetic trait that goes along with having thin skin. You might blush easily, and may have other allergies (seasonal, asthma, food intolerances, high histamine load, nervous system imbalance). This is really rooted in internal imbalances with the liver, digestive system, microbiome, and nervous system. On the other hand, sensitized skin usually occurs later, and chemicals (pollution, preservatives, products, essential oils) or lifestyle habits (over exfoliation, diet, stress, hormones) could have been the trigger. The physical manifestation of both is the same: inflammation.
Not all moisturizers are created equal. You definitely want to avoid harsh preservatives or fragrances, and instead choose products with ceramides, amino acids, and lipids to strengthen your skin’s barrier system. A little flushing, tingling, or stinging is totally fine, especially if you’re working with skin that’s stripped and dehydrated. Honestly, I would be surprised if that didn't happen! But if your skin is burning, go back and read the ingredient list again.”
Marie Veronique Barrier Restore Serum: Natural moisturizing factor (NMF), which is a complex of hydrating ingredients, helps maintain barrier integrity
Marie Veronique Barrier Lipid Complex: A serum with ceramides, cholesterol, and fatty acids for when a moisturizer won’t solve all your problems
CV Skinlabs Calming Moisture For Face, Neck, and Scalp: Provides moisture and should be safe for the extra sensitive
Ayla Guldkorn Cream: Another good, safe option without lots of actives
The Regular Person:
Amy Liu, founder of Tower 28 and haver of eczema
I've had sensitive skin pretty much my entire adult life. For me, it typically presents itself as dry skin or eczema. I try to be pretty careful about what I put on my skin since it's pretty reactive, and avoid anything irritating like certain essential oils and fragrance. I’m super sensitive to citrus based essential oils, tea tree, peppermint, and cinnamon specifically. I also notice some irritation from chemical sunscreens, so I like a moisturizer without SPF. The most important thing is keeping my skin’s pH balanced and my skin barrier intact.
Drunk Elephant Protini Polypeptide Cream: I love that DE upholds a similar no-no list to mine, including no fragrance and essential oils
Pai Chamomile and Rosehip Calming Day Cream: I use this one when my skin feels extra sensitive
And for lots more tried-and-true sensitive skin moisturizers, check out this thread on Into The Gloss: The Group.
Photo via ITG