Eczema and Dermatitis

Have You Misdiagnosed Your Sensitive Skin?

+ Rebecca

Redness. Irritation. Rashes. Flakiness. All signs of sensitive skin, right?


Turns out there’s another possibility-skin reactions.

What’s the difference, and how can you tell which is bugging you?

The Difference Between Sensitive Skin and a Chemical Reaction

Sensitive skin is a skin type that is easily affected by a number of things, including diet, climate, stress, and skin care products. If you have sensitive skin, you’ve likely had it for awhile, perhaps even since you were a kid, though sensitive skin can develop in later years, as well.

A chemical reaction is a specific event-a reaction in the skin to something you put on it. Think of poison ivy. When you’re exposed to it, the skin reacts. A chemical reaction can create the same result. You put on a new product, and a few hours later your skin is red, irritated, and itchy.

These two conditions have a lot of similarities, which is why it can be difficult to tell the difference between them. Symptoms of both may include:

  • Redness, rashes
  • Irritation and itching
  • Dryness and flaking
  • Breakouts
  • Tightness
  • Puffiness

Which might be affecting you?

When Sensitive Skin is Actually Reactive Skin

In today’s world, we’re obsessed with looking young. We have more products than ever at our disposal to help us in that goal, but the problem is, sometimes we go overboard.

Think back to just a few decades ago. Used to be all we needed was a cleanser and a night cream. Now we have morning and evening cleansers, moisturizers, anti-aging serums, eye creams, anti-wrinkle creams, refreshing sprays, lightening creams, lifting lotions, and more.

If you didn’t use to have sensitive skin, but now you think that you do, it could be that some of your products are to blame, and that you’re actually reacting to some of the ingredients in them.

“Women are very committed to caring for their skin,” New York City dermatologist Ellen Marmur, M.D., told Prevention magazine, “but they’re often diagnosing themselves with new issues and use so many new products to solve them that they develop irritation.”

Some of the culprits: cleansing too harshly, exfoliating too often, or layering anti-aging products. How can you tell if this is your problem, and not general sensitivity?

Look for these symptoms:

  • Burned patches on the skin
  • Hives
  • Bouts of irritation
  • Rashes
  • Swelling
  • Blistering
  • Symptoms occur where you apply products (other areas of the skin are fine)

If you think you may be suffering from a reaction-or you’d like to perform a test to find out-take a week and try these tips:

  • Avoid all synthetic skin care products. Use only very gentle, mild, natural products with real oils, butters, and extracts in them. Choose products with as few ingredients as possible.
  • Abstain from all anti-aging products. Cut back to only cleansing, toning, and moisturizing.
  • Avoid all makeup products for at least a weekend. If you can go longer, do it!

Don’t be surprised if your skin acts up for a few days. Any change requires a period of adaptation. Give it time, and see if your “sensitive skin” issues resolve. If so, they may have appeared because of certain products you were using.

Once your skin normalizes, add your other products back in one at a time, and look for reactions. Change out those that cause irritation or other symptoms.

How to Tell if It’s Really Sensitive Skin

If you go through the experiment above and your skin, after a week, still tends to react with redness, flare-ups of irritation and flakiness, scaly rough patches, or other symptoms, it could be that you truly have sensitive skin (or a skin condition like rosacea, eczema, or other).

First, double-check the products you’re still using. Your moisturizer, for instance, could contain synthetic fragrance in it-a primary cause of skin reactions. Make sure you’re using only the most natural products possible. Then check for essential oils in those products. Some people are sensitive to some of these, and it could be that you are allergic to one or more. (A visit to your allergy doctor can help you determine this.)

It’s wise to take another week to test your skin. If you still find that stress, harsh weather, and more cause problems in your skin, it’s likely that you have sensitive skin. For more on how to deal with it, see our series of posts on sensitive skin. For now, here are a few tips:

  • Always protect from the sun-zinc oxide and clothing are the best options.
  • Use only products that don’t include synthetic fragrances.
  • Be choosy about your products-use only natural and organic brands that shun potentially irritating ingredients like sulfates, parabens, phthalates, alcohols, ureas, and the like.
  • Watch out for your makeup products-they may contain ingredients that irritate your skin. Look for natural brands.
  • Consume more omega-3 fatty acids-they have been found in studies to help decrease inflammation and redness. Choose fatty fish, nuts, flaxseed, and fish oil supplements.
  • Use a humidifier, particularly in your bedroom overnight.

Do you have sensitive or reactive skin? Please share your story.

Jessica Girdwain, “What Type of Sensitive Skin Are You?” Prevention, November 3, 2011,

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