When Should I Worry About...

Sensitive Skin: Symptoms, Common Triggers & How It's Treated

Feb. 2, 2022 - Katie McCallum

Your skin covers your entire body. So when it's irritated, it can be hard to ignore. It's why the bath and body product aisle at the store is full of "sensitive skin" options.

But what is sensitive skin really, and how is it different from the dry skin you deal with during the winter? (Related: Why Are My Lips Always Dry? (& 5 At-Home Remedies to Soothe Chapped Lips)

Dr. Ming Jih, a dermatologist at Houston Methodist, is here to explain sensitive skin — the symptoms to be on the lookout for, the triggers to avoid and the point at which it requires treatment.

Dry skin vs. sensitive skin: Is there a difference?

According to Dr. Jih, your skin can be both sensitive and prone to dryness, but there's a difference between dry and sensitive skin.

"Dry skin, which is called xerosis, occurs when the top layer of your skin dries out due to lack of moisture," explains Dr. Jih. "This can be caused by genetic and environmental factors — very cold or very hot temperatures — as well as soaps that are so harsh that they strip your skin of moisture or even just frequent hand washing."

Dry skin symptoms include:

  • Skin tightness
  • Mild itching
  • Flaking, scaling and peeling
  • Cracks in the skin, which may bleed

"While certainly uncomfortable, dry skin is rarely ever a serious medical concern," says Dr. Jih. "It can, however, make your skin more sensitive. While rare, dry skin can also be a sign of an underlying condition, such as hypothyroidism, so it's important to talk to your doctor if you experience it frequently."

Sensitive skin, on the other hand, occurs in some people due to genetic differences in the normal protective skin barrier or skin irritation so severe it becomes inflamed.

"With skin inflammation, the immune system is essentially overreacting to an irritant or allergen that the skin is exposed to," says Dr. Jih. "Some people are naturally born with sensitive skin but anyone can experience sensitive skin if their skin is exposed to irritants or allergens that triggers inflammation."

What are the symptoms of sensitive skin?

Sensitive skin can look like the following:

  • Red, swollen and itchy skin
  • Skin redness that presents with or without swelling
  • Skin that stings or burns
  • Rashes or hives
  • Dry skin that may crack, blister or bleed
  • Patches of skin that feel dry, hard and leathery

"Depending on the underlying cause of sensitive skin, symptoms can present in various ways," says Dr. Jih.

Common causes of sensitive skin include:

  • Irritant contact dermatitis – the most common form of sensitive skin, it results in a nonspecific rash forming after exposure to an irritating chemical or any physical agent that damages the skin's protective outer layer

  • Allergic contact dermatitis – an allergic or immune reaction to an irritating chemical, allergen or other substance

  • Eczema, also called atopic dermatitis – a chronic condition, which can flare up perodically, in which skin becomes rough and inflamed

"As mentioned, having dry skin can also ultimately lead to experiencing symptoms of sensitive skin, since having less moisture reduces how protected the skin is from external irritants," explains Dr. Jih. "In addition, rosacea, a chronic inflammatory skin condition, and photodermatosis, a light-dependent skin reaction, can lead to sensitive skin."

What are common triggers of sensitive skin?

"Just as sensitive skin symptoms can vary based on the underlying causes of skin inflammation, so, too, can the most common triggers for each," says Dr. Jih.

Triggers of irritant contact dermatitis include:

  • Exposure to heat and hot water
  • Soaps, beauty products, hand sanitizers, solvents, laundry detergents or anything that can damage the outer layer of the skin

Triggers of allergic contact dermatitis:

  • Preservatives and fragrances in soaps, beauty products and laundry detergents
  • Certain plants, such as poison ivy, oak and sumac
  • Exposure to heat and hot water
  • Jewelry made from certain metals, such as nickel
  • Rubber, latex and adhesives

Triggers of eczema:

  • Certain foods, including dairy, eggs, nuts, soy and wheat
  • Preservatives and fragrances in soaps, beauty products and laundry detergents
  • Hot or cold weather, humidity and sweat

"It can often be hard for someone to determine what exactly is causing sensitive skin on their own at home, which is why consulting a dermatologist about your symptoms is so important," says Dr. Jih.

Dr. Jih adds that sensitive skin can occasionally be a sign of an underlying health condition — making it doubly important to be evaluated.

How is sensitive skin treated?

If you have sensitive skin, the first steps to better managing it is to prevent triggering it through everyday sensitive skin care tips:

  • Avoid taking very hot showers
  • Choose sensitive skin body wash, face wash and moisturizer, as well as sunscreen formulated for sensitive skin
  • Avoid perfumes
  • Avoid scented beauty products and laundry detergents
  • Apply moisturizer regularly to prevent dry skin


"Taking these steps is often all that's needed to help ease and avoid irritant contact dermatitis and mild allergic contact dermatitis," says Dr. Jih.

If you have moderate allergic contact dermatitis, over-the-counter medications — such as anti-itch creams and antihistamines — can help manage symptoms if they're triggered.

"Chronic skin allergies or more severe eczema may require treatment with topical corticosteroids or other medications," says Dr. Jih. "Your dermatologist can help you understand the best course of treatment for your specific form of sensitive skin."

Need care now?

Houston Methodist Virtual Urgent Care offers on-demand video visits from wherever you are, no appointment needed. Our board-certified providers are available 24/7 to address many common health issues.

Start a video visit >

Can sensitive skin ever become serious?

"While rare, it's possible for a person to experience a life-threatening allergic reaction to a chemical or product that irritates the skin," warns Dr. Jih. "This is called anaphylaxis and requires emergency medical attention."

Signs of a severe allergic reaction aren't limited to what you see on your skin and include:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Swelling of the tongue, throat or face
  • Rash covering most or all of the body, especially if the rash is painful
  • Blisters and signs of skin infection
  • Dizziness
  • Fainting

If you think you're having an allergic reaction and are experiencing symptoms of anaphylaxis, call 911 immediately.

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Categories: When Should I Worry About...