Woman applying cream on her shoulder

Sensitive Body Skin What Causes It and How To Protect It

This website serves the purpose of providing general information and does not in any way replace medical or specialist advice. Consult a healthcare practitioner if symptoms worsen or persist.

Body skin can become sensitive for many reasons, ranging from environmental factors like fluctuation in temperature to internal triggers such as hormonal change. While some people are predisposed to outbreaks of the condition, it is a highly unpredictable one that can appear at any time in an individual’s life. It can also appear anywhere on the body and it is important to understand that “sensitive skin” isn’t abnormal or even a disease.

While there is no real cure for sensitive skin, it can be managed and minimised through understanding. It is possible to effectively address the condition by understanding it’s ‘language’ together with the causes of sensitive skin and the stimuli that can make it worse.

SIGNS & SYMPTOMS

The resulting symptoms include:

  • scaling
  • reddening
  • swelling and 
  • roughness

accompanied by invisible sensations such as:

  • itchiness
  • prickling
  • burning and a
  • feeling of tightness
Woman wearing a bra, touching her right arm.
Healthy skin has a natural barrier function which limits water loss and protects underlying layers from irritants.

Healthy skin has a natural barrier function which limits water loss and protects underlying layers from irritants.

If symptoms are not dealt with, they can lead to skin becoming chapped and cracked anywhere on the body.

Some areas are more prone to these effects. These include the backs of the hands, where a shortage of the secretions needed, for example.

The scalp is often prone to sensitivity, with around 60% of women and 40% of men experiencing symptoms including redness, tightness and itching. There is growing evidence that microinflammations are involved in scalp sensitivity.

Skin in the intimate area differs from other parts of the body and has numerous barriers in place to protect it. If these are affected, by over-cleansing for example, skin can become susceptible to itchiness, discomfort and even infection.

Changes due to skin stretching – through pregnancy, weight gain or growth spurts – can result in stretch marks, which can also be highly sensitive and easily irritated. These are most likely to appear on the breasts, abdomen and upper thighs.

Two female hands touching each other.
The backs of the hands are have an impaired barrier function so are prone to sensitivity.
Woman checking her scalp.
According to estimations, around 60% of women experience sensitivity on the scalp.

Other skin conditions share similar symptoms, however their causes – and solutions – are different.

Sun allergies can lead to skin becoming red and itchy. However, these symptoms are also likely to be accompanied by blisters, pustules and raised rashes. Areas most affected tend to be the underside of the arms, palms and the chest. These allergies, including Polymorphous Light Eruptions (PLE), are relatively common and are triggered by UV radiation. Sunscreen can be a factor too. Read more about PLE and other sun allergies.

Dehydrated skin is essentially healthy skin that is lacking in moisture, due to a depletion of Aquaporins or protein-based channels, which control the transfer of water into and out of the cells. Creating new Aquaporins has been shown in-vitro through the active ingredient Gluco-glycerol.

Dry skin can range in symptoms, from roughness to scaling and redness. It is generally accompanied by intense itchiness. As with sensitive skin, dry skin can appear anywhere on the body, but is particularly common on hands, feet, knees and elbows. It is caused by a deficit of moisture-binding substances or ‘natural moisturising factors’ (NMFs), especially urea.

Dehydrated and dry skin can also become sensitive, as can other skin conditions and diseases.

Woman touching her chest with her hand.
The chest is prone to sun allergies and can become red and itchy.
Woman applying cream on her right leg.
Creating new Aquaporins has been shown in-vitro through the active ingredient Gluco-glycerol.

If you are unsure about what type of skin condition you have, consult your doctor or dermatologist for a formal diagnosis.

Causes & Triggers

What causes body skin to become sensitive?

Natural protective systems

Skin has a number of natural systems in place to protect it and keep it healthy. On its surface is a hydrolipid film composed of water, fatty acids and lipids. This has a pH of approximately 5, which is slightly acidic, protecting skin from microbial invasion and alkaline challenges, from soap for example. It neutralises the alkaline substances by using what are called buffer substances, which ensure that the acidic balance is restored and stabilised.

The hydrolipid film lies on top of the uppermost layer of the epidermis, known as the horny layer or stratum corneum. This is made up of lipids and cells, which together form a permeable barrier. It also has an average pH of 5 which supports:

  • normal skin scaling, or desquamation
  • barrier formation
  • optimal functioning of skin enzymes.

All of these systems depend on enzyme activity, which accelerates biochemical reactions, keeping skin moist and smooth, and protecting it against irritants. In sensitive skin, however, this activity is inhibited, which leads to excess water loss and the penetration of irritants through the skin.

SKIN BARRIER

Protection against harmful substances
Hydrolipid film
Protection against moisture loss

Graphic illustration of skin and its horny layer.
The horny layer (stratum corneum) forms the uppermost layer of the epidermis and protects the body against external substances.

Internal causes of sensitive body skin

  • While sensitive skin can occur at any age, it is particularly prevalent in babyhood and older age. At both stages in life, skin is thinner and the barrier function less effective, which can lead to a pH imbalance and increased water loss. Baby skin is especially likely to become sensitive in skin folds, and around the intimate area. Read more about skin in different ages.
  • Hormonal changes due to the menstrual cycle, pregnancy, puberty and the menopause can all affect skin’s resistance to irritants. In pregnancy, for example, it is common for stretch marks to form, becoming reddened and sore.
  • Different skin conditions can be accompanied by sensitivity to irritants, including atopic eczema and dry skin.
  • Similarly people who suffer from type I allergies are likely to also experience skin sensitivity, due to the penetration of pollen through the skin.

Pregnant woman holding her belly.
Hormonal changes can affect the skin‘s resistance to irritants.
Woman scratching her left leg.
Excessive showering or bathing can further dry sensitive skin's vulnerable barrier function.

External causes of sensitive body skin

  • Exposure to low humidity and cold air encourages the body to conserve heat by constricting blood vessels in the skin, depleting it of much-needed moisture. Skin can easily become dry and scaly.
  • High temperatures and humidity cause the body to sweat more, which evaporates, drying the skin out.
  • Free radicals created by UV radiation, ozone and environmental pollutants have all been shown to weaken skin’s natural defences, causing it to dry out and become irritated. Find out more about factors that influence skin.
  • Medical treatments such as radiotheraphy and antibiotics can make skin sensitive, with the latter damaging beneficial bacteria like Lactobacilli.
  • Conventional soaps and surfactants remove not only lipophilic dirt particles, but also important skin-protecting lipids, leading to an imbalance in pH levels and irritated skin.

Woman wearing winter clothes.
Cold weather can damage the skin's hydrolipid film and therefore trigger sensitivity.
Female hand holding a tablet in front of mouth.
Certain medications can make skin more sensitive although this is usually temporary.
Solutions

Relieving and reducing sensitive body skin

Preventing recurrences

The unpredictability of sensitive skin means that in many cases solutions are about prevention rather than cure.

Helping skin defend itself

In sensitive skin, enzyme activity is often inhibited, leading to an impaired barrier function. Research has shown that a number of naturally-derived ingredients can help stimulate enzymes to start protecting the body again. Among these are:

  • Glycerin, which absorbs and binds water, helping to moisturise skin.
  • pH5 Citrate Buffer restores skin’s natural pH levels. As a result the skin’s enzyme activities can return to normal and a healthy balance is restored.

Protecting skin from the sun’s rays can help reduce sensitivity. It is best to avoid the sun completely between 11am and 3pm, and wear protective clothing. This is particularly the case with children aged under 3. Choose a sunscreen that is free of irritants, such as perfumes, and apply it generously 30 minutes before going outside, then reapply every two hours.

Adjust daily cleansing routines by limiting time spent in the shower or bath and use warm rather than hot water. Avoid body scrubs and pat, rather than rub, skin dry.

Choose clothes made with natural fabrics, rather than synthetics. This is especially relevant for preventing bacterial infections in the intimate area.

Covering up can also help keep hands protected from noxious substances – consider using gloves when encountering surfactants, detergents and other irritants.

Research suggests that a varied diet, rich in antioxidant foods, can help keep skin healthy. This could include yellow and orange fruits and vegetables, green leafy vegetables, fish – especially salmon, and nuts. Read more about factors that influence skin.

Mother is applying sun cream on her son´s arm.
Always use a sun screen formulated for sensitive skin.
Woman wrapped in towel.
Gently pat skin dry after showering to prevent further damage to the skin barrier.

Choosing skin care products

When choosing cleansers, moisturisers and other skin care products for sensitive skin, it is important to avoid those that include irritants such as colorants. More than that however, for a product to be genuinely effective, it needs to work not just on skin’s surface, but also below. With sensitive skin, products that are proven to have long-lasting effects are also a consideration. 

Try Eucerin’s Original Lotion and Cream for sensitive, dry and very dry skin. 

Woman applying cream on her right leg.
Look out for active ingredients such as Dexpanthenol and Glycerin, both of which work beneath the surface of the skin.

This website serves the purpose of providing general information and does not in any way replace medical or specialist advice. Consult a healthcare practitioner if symptoms worsen or persist.