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Sensitive skin – Treat irritated skin

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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.

Skin can become sensitive for many reasons, and any time in life, from babyhood to old age. It occurs when skin’s protective barrier function is compromised, causing skin to become susceptible to external irritants, such like bacteria, chemical substances, allergens or others. Symptoms can appear on the face, body and scalp, and include redness, scaling and swelling. These can be itchy and disturbing in everyday life and can result in intense physical discomfort. While some people are predisposed to these ‘outbreaks’ of the condition, others are surprised by these sudden ‘skin moods’. Sensitive skin often reacts unpredictably and can appear anywhere on the body.

Understanding the importance of skin’s natural defences, and the factors that weaken them, can help to decode this ‘skin talk’. The unpredictability of sensitive skin means that in many cases, effective solutions are about prevention rather than cure. The aim therefore, is to control and minimise its causes and stimuli.

Signs & Symptoms

What is sensitive skin and how to recognise it

The horny layer (stratum corneum) forms the uppermost layer of the epidermis and protects the body against external substances.
Healthy skin has a protective barrier which retains moisture and shields underlying layers from irritants.

Skin has a natural protective barrier, which keeps bacteria and harmful substances from entering the body, while limiting water loss and preventing dehydration. This process keeps skin healthy and moisturised, maintaining its elasticity and firmness.

However, external factors like climate and internal ones like stress can undermine this process, weakening skin’s natural defences and making it feel rough and dry. External stimuli can then exacerbate the situation, causing skin to become inflamed.


To recognise sensitive skin, look for:

  • Visible signs like erythema (redness or a rash), scaling, swelling or roughness
  • Sensory signs like itching, tightness, burning or stinging

It can occur on the face, lips, hands, body and scalp. And can be triggered by physical change too, either temporary, such as pregnancy, or ongoing, such as ageing. It shares some similarities with dry skin, but is not always related to that condition nor will its symptoms necessarily be alleviated by dry skin care solutions.
Many of the symptoms of hypersensitivity are non-visible, but some sufferers can experience redness.

To recognise hypersensitive skin:

Sensitive skin is closely related to hypersensitive skin and the symptoms and triggers are similar. However, with hypersensitive skin, the skin's nerves are even more sensitive and reactions can therefore be more frequent or severe.

If you are unsure about what skin condition you have, consult your doctor or dermatologist.

Causes & Triggers

Causes of sensitive skin - how skin’s natural defences become weakened

How skin protects itself

The uppermost layer of the epidermis is the horny layer (stratum corneum), which forms skin's barrier against the outside world. It prevents invasion by microorganisms and substances like chemicals and allergens. It also minimises transepidermal water loss (TEWL), protecting the body from dehydration.

A stable horny layer and intact hydrolipid film work together to limit the penetration of harmful substances and excess water loss.

Internal causes of sensitive skin

Because baby skin is thinner it is more sensitive than adult skin.
Stress can cause a hormonal imbalance which can reduce the effectiveness of the skin's barrier function.

  • Baby skin is thinner and its barrier function more limited than that of adults, making their skin far more sensitive to chemical, physical and microbial influences.
  • Conversely, as skin ages, substances that are integral to the structure and functioning of the hydrolipid film and protective acid mantle become scarce, leading to a pH imbalance and increased water loss. This can make ageing skin more sensitive to highly alkaline products like soap.
  • Hormonal imbalance, brought on by stress or through specific life events such as pregnancy, the menstrual cycle, puberty or the menopause. This can reduce the effectiveness of the skin’s barrier function.
  • Some people are more likely to experience irritated, sensitive skin. These include people with dry or damaged skin, Atopic Dermatitis, acne and hypersensitive skin diseases such as Rosacea, all of which may react to irritants such as perfumes and colorants.
  • Undiagnosed or untreated intolerances and allergies to foods such as gluten, dairy, additives and eggs can result in skin inflammation and rashes.
  • Dehydration, from excess sweating or lack of water, can also dry out skin, and place it under stress.

External causes of sensitive skin

Certain medications can make skin more sensitive although this is usually temporary.
Some soaps and skin care products damage the skin's surface and unbalance its pH levels.

  • Seasonal and climate changes, and fluctuations in temperature can all increase skin sensitivity. In cold weather, skin glands reduce their secretion of substances necessary for the maintenance of the protective acid mantle, causing skin to dry out. Central heating and Air Condition can also have this effect. In hot weather, skin glands produce more sweat, which evaporates, leaving skin feeling dry.
  • An increased use of soaps and detergents with conventional surfactants can cause significant damage to skin’s surface, removing skin-protecting lipids and causing an imbalance in skin’s natural pH levels.
  • Some medical treatments such as radiotherapy and certain drugs can temporarily result in sensitive skin. It should clear up once the treatment ends.

Read more about factors that influence skin.

Contributing Factors

How actions and events can worsen the condition

Excessive washing can dry skin out and make it more sensitive.

An increase in attention to personal hygiene has meant that people are more likely to shower or bathe frequently in very hot water and rub themselves dry. This can result in a loss of natural moisturising factors and surface lipids. Cleansers with conventional surfactants will clean skin, but will also dry it out.


What you can do about sensitive skin?


Gently pat skin dry after showering to prevent further damage to the skin barrier.
Look out for active ingredients.

  • Choosing a daily cleanser
    Many cleansers are so effective they clean away not only the dirt on our skin but also the hydrolipid film that protects it. For sensitive and dry skin it’s important to choose a body cleanser that strengthens the barrier function and protects against moisture loss. Try Eucerin’s Complete Repair Cleanser which gently cleanses and supports skin’s pH balance to repair dry skin. 
  • Choosing a daily care product
    When choosing a skin care product for sensitive skin, it isn’t simply enough to ensure it is free of irritants. The product needs to actively work below the surface of the skin, stimulating skin’s own regenerative processes and natural defences.
    It will also ideally restore skin’s natural pH balance through the inclusion of an ingredient like pH5 Citrate Buffer.

The hands are vulnerable to dryness as they tend to be exposed and frequently washed.

  • Looking after your hands, face and lips
    The hands and face are often the most exposed to the elements and to frequent washing. This can make them particularly vulnerable to dryness and even cracking. Care products can be used as frequently as necessary to both protect and soften stressed skin. Eucerin Complete Repair range locks in moisture for long-lasting hydration, providing immediate relief of your very dry skin symptoms. Try Eucerin Complete Repair Hand Creme 5% Urea and Eucerin Intensive Lip Balm for extremely dry, cracked or chapped lips.


Skin tip: Relieving sensitive skin

In some cases, sensitive skin can become uncomfortable and even painful. Try Eucerin Original Cream or Eucerin Original Lotion to help relieve and protect very dry, sensitive 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.

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